Who Cares Wins: Crucial Leadership Insights from the Ukrainian War (And Why You Need Relational Intelligence To Lead Transformation)
These two leaders of countries at war—who share variants of the same Slavic first name Volod or Vlad—embody very different styles of leadership. One is trying to become "ruler of the world", the other "ruler of peace"—two meanings of their first name. Using this lens, I explore why every leader must prioritize the development of their rational intelligence to lead and land genuine transformation.
Why All Leaders Can & Must Learn From Ukraine
We all have an inner Putin and Zhelenskyy.
This may be uncomfortable to hear; but we all have the capacity to seek power, domination, and control or choose to inspire with care, community, and collaboration. Nature evolved us this way for a reason, as you will read below.
Which ‘mode’ dominates us in our meetings, decisions, planning, and managing determines our own fulfillment, our colleague’s happiness, and our world’s flourishing.
Which ‘mode’ dominates our organizations—whether political, military, corporate, or non-profit—will determine, directly, the future of our species; the expansion or reduction of a vast number of social and ecological injustices; and the state of the world that our children will inherit from us.
As a way of helping us make sense of what is happening in Ukraine—and to make sure we don’t waste this crisis—I am going to explore the leadership styles, relational intelligence, and mindsets of these two war leaders. Then I will land this analysis with a leadership invitation for us all.
Fascinatingly, Putin and Zhelenskyy share variants of the same Ancient Slavic first name, Volod, Vlod, or Vlad. Yet they embody starkly different forms of leadership; and ways to approach complex problems. One seems to be trying to become “Ruler of the World”, the other is trying to be a “Ruler of Peace”—ironically two distinct meanings of their shared first name.
Putin and Zhelenskyy are like isotopes of the same element: a “strong” Slavic leader. But the form their strength takes is remarkably different and the fact that we can all become mini-Putins or mini-Zhelenskyys is a great lesson for all leaders. Using this lens, I will go on to share some of the key reasons why leaders that want to deliver lasting, positive change (AKA transformation) must prioritize the development of their relational—as much as their rational—intelligence.
I learned about the crucial importance of relational intelligence—which takes years of committed practice and self-transformation to develop—the very, very (very!) hard way. I successfully got elite degrees, built exponential start-ups, consulted to Prime Ministers, hosted global TV shows before realizing that none of this A-Game was enough to be an effective, purposeful, and transformational boss, parent, and life partner. Frustration and failures ensued, on all sides.
To become a halfway-decent leadership developer, coach, collaborator, and Dad I have had to break out of my comfort zone of being smart and speedy to pay daily attention to also being tender, inclusive, and reciprocal. This has been a series of intense and consequential developmental “upgrades” that have brought me to ever-more empowering and transformative levels of capability in the world.
While the analysis below—and the leadership insights within this piece—may not save the many lives that should be saved today in Kyiv and Kharkiv, it might make a difference to our world in the long run. Rather than watch in shock, get angry, or numb the pain, we can all metabolize the suffering of so many to expand our potential as leaders to be able to reduce suffering in our own systems.
This is the least we can do. I believe the people of Ukraine, the people of Russia, and all those impacted by the domination of abstraction and extraction deserve us to stop, feel, reflect, and think deeply about how we can recalibrate the places and spaces within our domain of influence to value compassion and care as much as achievement and excellence.
You can also act now and divert some of your funds to on-the-ground Ukrainian initiatives, some of which have been vetted by colleagues here.
Empowering Zelenskyy vs. Powerful Putin
Putin and Zelenskyy ably demonstrate extremes of how differences in our ‘relational intelligence’ show up in our capabilities as leaders. They are a live example of how the adverse experiences we all have in life can be metabolized into different forms of leadership and distinct ‘value propositions’. Everyone gets a choice of how to use their formative experiences to shape their character. Leaders, of all people, must lead themselves to developmental upgrades that expand their consciousness and so can turn changes in the outside world into concrete value within their organization.
Whereas Putin has seemingly metabolized his difficult life experiences into “big man” qualities of male power, steely strength, physical prowess, and an enormous desire for control—it is now a crime in Russia to promote Kremlin-unauthorised views on the war, punishable by 15 years in jail—Zelenskyy seems to have metabolized his difficult life experiences into a variant of transformational leadership.
Putin has suppressed his human capacity for connection in order to be strong and feared. He has cut himself off from being at one with the people in order to “win” at any cost. He has disconnected from the rich web of reciprocal and interdependent relationships that make life so amazing, and leadership so full of learning and development, in order to be fiercely independent and conventionally powerful.
On the other hand, Zelenskyy pays as much attention to being with his people as much as he does strategic moves and soundbites. His ‘soft skills’ are triumphing—in the court of global public opinion and, for now, on the battlefield—over the cold, hard rational logic of guns and steel. His relational intelligence has triggered an outpouring of righteous indignation, supplies and donations, and ever-toughening sanctions across the planet. This has changed the landscape of Europe, the trajectory of both nations, and the response by democracies to autocrats for good.
They may lose the physical war, but the Ukrainian people have been empowered to win the narrative. They have burnished their right to exist, their national integrity, their cultural cohesion, and their alignment with European values forever. Zelenskyy and his countryfolk have catalyzed a global, and potentially transformative, moment of world-historical importance. Along with local leaders, Zelenskyy has empowered his citizens to resist.
Volodymyr seems to me a wonderfully flawed (as we all are) yet wonderfully-inspiring role model for leadership that is as relational/caring as it is rational/powerful: fierce yet vulnerable; courageous yet warm-hearted; humble yet strong; strategic but also empathic. Here he is in a T-Shirt, sharing a powerful narrative with world leaders, moving his translator to tears.
Putin’s leadership, on the other hand, is an example of the kind that has dominated our world for so long—charismatic yet capricious, high in achievement yet arrogant and aloof—and which still seems to be popular in many organizations across the world. It is a form of leadership that have value if part of a versatile spectrum of responses to stressors—and that we have a choice over whether to enact it, in rare circumstances—but that is no longer fit-for-purpose in our VUCA world where participation, purpose, and empowerment are more important than ever.
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Zelenskyy: Leading From Vulnerability & Collective Hope
Zelenskyy is doing a brilliant job (for now, we will see how things unfold as he becomes more stressed) of leading a nation—whose people are under immense pressure, and subject to constant violence—to come together, deepen their relationships with each other, and build a live connection with the rest of the world. Great feelings of relational togetherness can be seen here as two thousand locals march through the now occupied city of Kherson in direct defiance of military overlords. It has led to incredible resistance by Ukrainian soldiers and citizens, which has surprised Russians and Westerners alike. The US Secretary of State, Blinken, said this week: The Ukrainians “can absolutely win against Russia”. People were not saying that 2 weeks ago.Zhelenskyy is a former comic/actor/performer rather than party apparatchik or wonk. He openly shares his weaknesses and foibles on TV. He leads from a place where he shares the vulnerabilities of his citizens—and then uses this connection to make a stand in courage, inspiring them to do the same. His is a politics of shared vulnerability, common purpose, and collective hope.
War has transformed a former comic actor once mocked for his hamminess into an iconic leader for the times whose powerfully emotive short videos posted from beneath his bombed capital seem made for sharing: a real-life Scheherazade, telling captivating tales to the world in the hope of keeping his countrymen alive for one more night. Gaby Hinsliff
I wonder if part of the reason Zelenskyy has done such a profound job at animating his people (especially the younger citizens who see themselves as quintessentially European)—as well as focusing global consciousness on the plight of the Ukrainian people—is that he gained some mastery in relational intelligence as a comedian. To stand up in front of a crowd and win their empathy and support, as I know from spending 20 years as a professional keynote speaker, is the prerequisite of making an impact.
It is also fascinating to note that Zelenskky worked for many years in deep co-creative collaboration with his improvisation troupe—and his wife, his college-sweetheart—was a peer, writer, and producer on the show. As Alison and I know, co-creating with your lover/spouse is about as fertile a learning experience as possible for collaborative intelligence. All of these experiences teach us that, to be connected and collaborative, we cannot always be ‘right’ or in control. We have to give up vertical power to gain horizontal empowerment.
I also imagine Zelenskyy has had his ego humbled regularly in the process of being a comic actor. Perhaps being the voice of Ukrainian Paddington (weirdly, a film my cousin produced) and winning the first Ukrainian season of Dancing with Stars (even more weirdly, a show I helped the BBC to innovate) reinforced and channeled his childlike—but rarely childish—playfulness, expressiveness, and humanity.
Maybe, and here I really speculate, he has seen the tragedies of his family in WWII (many of his Jewish relatives were murdered in the Holocaust) as an invitation for his own transformation through vulnerability, self-awareness, and the conscious healing of emotional wounds. I know coming to terms with my own Holocaust trauma has been an incredible initiation rite for my growth as a leader. It called me to transform many of my protective patterns—to be smart, to make it ‘big’, to be respected, etc.—in order to be purposeful, ethical, and awake.
Putin: Leading From Invulnerability & Collective Fear
Putin, on the other hand, has become a leader who is isolated, coercive, charismatic (but not empathic), and dominative (including in his relationship with his first wife). He has taken his experiences and metabolized them into an avatar of strength and invulnerability. He still uses the same strengths—designed to ensure he survived what appears to have been a brutal childhood and early years—to ‘win’ in his later life. We all develop such ‘protective patterns’, as we call them, to deal with the threats to life. However, it is incumbent on all leaders to then identify which are no longer serving us and our system—and instead diminish ourselves and others—and transform them. This is the essence of conscious leadership, module 1 of our 6 module leadership curriculum.
Childhood adversity and trauma shape us all. We must always start from compassion when seeing any bully or autocrat enact patterns that evolved, like all ours did, to ensure survival. But we must also hold leaders accountable for their patterns and support them to transform them. Putin’s use of cold, harsh, aggressive tactics that he learned to survive his childhood in the post-war USSR, his time in the KGB, and his time at the side of Yeltsin has damaged his country, himself, and scores of others, whether in Chechnya or Crimea. Trauma begets acts of aggression, coercion, and domination that traumatize others. If you want to get a good overview of Putin’s development from street thug to Imperial control freak, this series is a good start.
Rather than envision exciting possibilities of what Russia can be in a networked world—that balances local heritage with global connectivity—Putin has got stuck in the huge efforts it takes to gran, and hold onto, power. He is attempting to get his needs met in outdated ways that do not serve him or others. To bring his oligarchs and citizens with him he has cemented his hold on power with a series of campaigns against X or U: gay people, Ukrainian sovereignty, liberal democracy. He has whipped up the fear of his people that they too are under perpetual threat and that the solution is to be strong and aggressive.
Putin, like all populists/autocrats, has sold his own citizens, and many in the West, the seductive promise of vanquishing perceived enemies. This kind of leadership leverages the relational pain of dislocation and alienation to promise a ‘solution’—some form of return to a perceived halcyon past—rather than the tough job of evolving and adapting as a society to the world as it is. Rather than attempt to transform the pain of the people by engaging them in co-creating a more just and flourishing society, they trigger it, and exploit it, for their own power and control.
Populists all over repeat the same tactics. It is easy to be against an enemy. It is far harder to paint a pathway of possibility to a new and hard-to-glimpse future. It is even harder to support a nation let go of old, familiar, structures and cultures and embrace the newness that is emerging instead—and prevent them locking onto one of a number of fantasies we all have that we can escape change. But this capacity is an essential part of being a transformational leader. We have to be able to take people through the dissolution of the old—without having 100% clarity on what the outcome will be—and ensure fear does not triumph over pragmatic hope.
Vladimir has since become the shining light of patriarchal power to those in Russia—and abroad, like in the Republican Party of Trump—who see ‘big man’ strength as the best way out of the chaos and fear of rapid change. This desire for Strong Men to lead us away from necessary adaptation to a fast-changing world is one of 3 powerful anti-transformation tropes we can all fall into when faced with the need to transform ourselves and our systems (the others are the ‘Escape Fantasy’ and ‘Make X Great Again’). See my recent book on mastering transformational leadership for details on this and the other two.
These tropes are very common in business, where ‘big man’ CEOs are brought in when a company struggles with rapid change to make X great Again (with a return to the former glory of a yesteryear that has passed). They may defend the existing business model; but very few such leaders can usher in the business models of the future, as these require deep customer insight, embracing and grappling with an uncertain future, breakthrough creativity, and collaborative trust.
We All Have A Vladimir and Volodymyr Within
Nature had evolved us to have two quite distinct modes of engaging with, seeing, and solving problems in the world. They act as antagonistic pairs: when one is active, the other is ‘off’. We call one Control & Protect Mode (which acts like a mini Putin when upset, angry, and reactive): and the other we call Create & Connect Mode (which can be a caring and inspiring mini-Zhelenskyy when we are calm and connected). Both are associated with very different brain networks, the Executive Control Network (Vlad) and the Default Mode Network (Volod).
When we are triggered into the stress response, we become rigidly stuck in Control & Protect Mode, enacting patterns of thought and action that once served to keep us safe—but now tend to diminish ourselves and others. We approach all complex issues as if they were Technical Problems, best solved with old habits that helped us deal with life and work.
But, in these moments, we also lose access to relational empathy, insight into customers and colleagues, and the creativity and versatility we need for fully resolving what—if we took the space and time to reflect and analyze—are likely to be Transformational Challenges, not Technical Problems.
This makes perfect evolutionary sense: we don’t want to have an empathic connection with a threatening animal, person, or comet. Better to definitely survive alone than perhaps thrive in relationships.
Yet, without Create & Connect Mode, we lose the capacity to see Transformational Challenges for what they are: invitations to upgrade our relational, sensemaking, and decision-making apparatus—and transform ourselves and organizations in the process. This means that when we locked into intellectualizing, abstracting, achieving, theorizing, or being snipey… biologically we cannot be empathic, agile, caring.
Harsh warfare, harsh competition, and harsh words as leaders are sourced in the same protective and controlling genius we evolved to win at life. They appear useful in dealing with the disorder and disruption so characteristic of VUCA; but they actually just lock us into patterns of thought and action that are maladaptive and brittle.
We can all metabolize challenges into more purpose, care, and creativity or more protection, aggression, and control. Both capabilities are needed to survive, and thrive in, relentless change. However, most of us don’t have as much choice as is needed in what mode we utilize; and we all find ourselves enacting Putinesque reactions to perceived threats and slights. Relationally-intelligent leadership still needs to lay down boundaries, but it is down out of care for those we lead. We still need to set consequences for missed targets, but we agree goals and consequences in partnership with those who must deliver.
Relational Intelligence In 21st Century Transformational Leadership
Relational intelligence unlocks our three most distinctive leadership capacities: to care deeply for one another and our systems with ‘purpose’; to create imaginative breakthroughs with big and bold ideas; and to cultivate collaborations that can execute those ideas. Only with wisdom (Create & Connect Mode) and warriorship (Control & Protect Mode) integrated within us as truly transformation leaders can we transform society with world-changing innovations.
If we don’t have relational intelligence, we end up creating more products and projects that end up hurting the world more. Bold strategies and innovations must be grounded in, and sourced from, relational intelligence: vulnerable, tender, warm, humble, open-hearted connections… and, above all, a deep and abiding care for life and humankind. This is what we see business purpose as: caring made concrete.
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All genuine transformation must be rooted in purpose, care, and connection (customer empathy etc.). This is because they unlock the insights and imagination we need to adapt ourselves, our organizations, and our societies to intense evolutionary pressures. Relational intelligence builds the trust and reciprocity we need to work together, in harmony not competition, to transform our collective challenges.
Unhealed wounds and unresolved distortions in our relationships make us poor at leading and landing transformation. We will struggle at finding and expressing business purpose; exploring new possibilities from emerging technologies that everyday people value in their actual lived experiences; building long-term psychological safety and trust for high-performing teams; persuading (rather than coercing) a diverse group of stakeholders to buy into, and help deliver, a bold vision; unfold an empowering narrative that shapes the future and provides people a locale for their efforts; have the courage and resolve we need to lead breakthrough innovation and systemic change projects that encounter inevitable resistance; and have the fortitude to help all those that think they are going to lose with a new idea/system release their fears and find something in it for them.
Leading breakthroughs ‘out there’, in our organizations and systems, starts with leading breakthroughs in our own patterns, habits, and distorted beliefs. We cannot transform the world out there without transforming our own patterns, that usually arise to help us deal with hurtful relationships. The only way we can make a lasting difference is by repairing our own relationships first. This means accepting and working with our own fears, tears, and grief; mastering the giving and receiving of apologies and forgiveness; being able to be raw and vulnerable yet still take decisive action; building and repairing trust. This is why our changemaker and leadership development curriculum starts with inner work and self-transformation.
I believe that if Putin had been supported—by leadership development, transformational coaching or therapy, or a wise elder/mentor—to spend time working on the grief he felt about the fall of the USSR, the sadness and hurt he carries around him from his childhood on the tough streets of St.Petersburg, the rage he felt about the loss of his/Russian/KGB prestige, the helplessness he feels in his relationships (which may be a reason he married a gymnast half his age)… then his cravings for more control and territory may have been transformed. Then it is unlikely friends would be sitting in air raid shelters now in Kyiv.
If all leaders did such transformational work on their own consciousness and relational fields, it is unlikely that global warming would be accelerating so rapidly; or inequality progressing at such a terrifying pace. Forget cash or content: in the world we are moving into, connection, care, compassion, vulnerable courage, and collaboration are both king and queen.
There is a companion piece to this article that goes on a deep dive into relational intelligence as the prerequisite for the next stage of societal development—and how what we call ’embodied wisdom’ is crucial to the transformation of our shared crises:
No rational plan survives contact with relational hearts. The incredible image of Ukrainian citizens clustered together in the cold, with no weapons, to stop Russian tanks advancing shows what relational intelligence can do in the face of the remorseless logic of rational, abstracted, and mechanized power.
We all have an inner Putin that can switch on the relational charm when we need to manipulate people to obey our directives. This is not the path of the Zhelennskyy-like transformational leader, who harnesses relational intelligence to move an organization towards first discovering, and then delivering, a compelling and authentic purpose—where everyone wins.
If we take seriously the need to consciously and proactively develop our relational intelligence—which is a very different muscle from building the rational intelligence we have been working on since school—we can be a Ruler Of Peace (Vlodomyr), and avoid the daily temptations to be our own version of a Ruler of the World (Vladimir).