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What We Can Learn From Volodymyr Zelensky About Leading in a Crisis

Pay attention to these three unique aspects of the Ukrainian president's approach.

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As the events in Ukraine continue to unfold, the world is watching as Volodymyr Zelensky, the actor-turned-Ukrainian president, inspires his country and the world with his steady leadership in the face of extreme stress.

Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Current and aspiring business leaders should take note of Zelensky's actions. Here's how they can apply his approach to managing crises of their own:

Are you firm on your values?

Values are unmoving guideposts that help leaders make difficult decisions. They should be clearly articulated, easy to understand and designed to support everyone in your organization.

But there's nothing like a crisis to test your principles.

Zelensky, in the face of extreme personal and political pressure, has never wavered from the position that Ukrainians are worthy of their independence from Russia. With this message, he's galvanized support behind an ideal. There's no confusion about what Zelensky stands for.

Related: Emerging Stronger: Leadership Lessons from a Crisis

It's a good thing Zelensky already deeply believed this before Russia invaded. After all, you can't develop principles in the middle of a crisis.

Values should already be well-established at a time when leaders have the space to seriously contemplate their vision and culture. Then once a crisis inevitably arrives, following principles is not a choice; they're so deeply ingrained in an organization that leaders and employees alike follow them with confidence.

Share your vulnerability

When Zelensky declined the United States' offer to evacuate him from Ukraine, he made it clear that he would not distance himself from the people he was elected to lead. With that choice, he signaled that he would share in the risks other Ukrainians were experiencing.

Think about the Ukrainian president recording himself on a street in downtown Kyiv or him sharing his location in a video message to his people. Or consider that in the weeks following Russia's invasion, we've become used to seeing him not in suits, but plain t-shirts. He is continually reinforcing his vulnerability.

When leaders show their humanity and admit that they, too, experience the same emotions and stresses that we all do every day, it builds trust. Everyone feels that the leader is making decisions with their employees' best interests at heart because the leader knows how those employees feel.

In turn, employees are much more likely to remain committed to an organization when their leaders demonstrate a level of openness that conveys humility. They feel that the leader knows what they are going through on the day-to-day and that their leader will have their back if times get tough.

Transparency breaks down silos

Zelensky has been sharing information openly—the good and the bad—since the beginning of the conflict. And he does it not with orchestrated setups, but in short, off-the-cuff moments that portray authenticity. Contrast this with images of leaders who insist on delivering scripted content because they are more concerned about their image than sharing a relevant and sincere message to listeners eager for the truth. Such leaders miss opportunities to speak to the hearts and minds of their followers.

Related: 3 Keys to Leading a Business Through a Crisis

When information is widely available, and the worst isn't being hidden, misinformation is kept to a minimum. Consider leaders who oppose sharing information with certain functions of an organization because of fear over how they will react to it. Such businesses are destined for mediocrity or failure because their employees view the organizations as poorly led and secretive with important information.

When information is shared openly, no one is left wondering whether they should share something and no one is left wondering why certain decisions were made. Fluid communication fosters an inclusive environment within the organization. That makes for better collaboration and better results.

Building resilience

There's an inherent awkwardness in taking lessons from political turmoil and applying them to business. Moments like this make many business decisions seem insignificant in comparison. But leaders in business hold real power and influence, and while the balance of leaders may not experience the trauma and tribulation that Zelensky has endured, they must embrace the gravity of their actions and the reality that they can either cripple or empower the people they lead.

Our expectation of leadership is changing. Traditional forms of leadership are breaking down, and in their place new, more empathetic, and more principled leaders are stepping into the void. These leaders will need role models to guide them, and Volodymyr Zelensky is an excellent place to start.

From leaders like him, we learn the most about resilient leadership and what it takes to withstand the next crisis.

Stan Hannah, PhD, is a partner and leader of the talent and organizational development practice at Plante Moran.

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