Why Volodymyr Zelenskyy would be a brilliant startup leader

While his country is in crisis, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is emerging as a man for the moment, a charismatic leader, defining ‘leadership presence’ with his on-point messaging and his unwavering presence. Since the Russian invasion began, Zelenskyy has communicated strength and stability to his own people and the rest of the world.

The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride. With those ten words, Zelenskyy served notice from the earliest days of the war that he was staying put. They came in response to an offer from the United States to evacuate him to safety after the invasion by Russia. His refusal to leave told us that he intended to stay and fight with his people.

The President is here, Zelenskyy said in a self-filmed video, on a darkened street in Kyiv the day after it was first bombed, disproving the Russian rumours that he had fled and left his people to fight alone.  Zelenskyy is standing his ground, doing his best to make sure his country remains free, and rallying other nations to help.

Looking through the bleak prism of war, Zelenskyy is connected to his people. His videos showing him walking on the streets. You watch him, and you see he’s genuine. He’s not blustering or sabre-rattling, he’s looking into the camera, looking right at the audience, saying, We’re going to fight. We’re not backing down. We’re not going anywhere. That’s incredible courage, but it’s rife with vulnerability, and that’s what makes his message so effective. How can you watch that and not believe in him?

From his look – an unshaven face and plain, dark green army T-shirts and zip-up sweaters – to his direct and impassioned tone, Zelenskyy is leaning into emotion. He doesn’t tiptoe around the fear and grief that he and his people are experiencing. He uses his platform to validate his constituents’ feelings and appeal to people’s pathos when asking for aid.  Juxtapose this to Putin, who only shows orchestrated displays of strength and a complete lack of empathy and emotional intelligence.

Now imagine we took Zelenskyy from the war in Ukraine and dropped him into a tech startup. How do the leadership traits he’s showing translate into an effective startup leader?

Startups need a founder who is a driving force with vision, passion and fearsome relentlessness that will haul the venture through the meanderings of a market in the fog of uncertainty.  Leadership is critical to startup success, a leader with the capacity to define a clear and compelling vision and galvanise others to achieve the vision. It is also the capacity to inspire others to achieve what they would not have achieved.

After the hurrah of the idea, comes the sheer graft. Here are the ten leadership traits I’ve seen in Zelenskyy that would translate to making him a great startup leader.

1. Paranoid Confidence I can see a healthy balance of paranoia and confidence in Zelenskyy, he’s vigilant but realistic, never lacking the gumption to show an outward swagger that his vision for Ukraine’s recovery will happen. Every start-up leader is different, there is no one single characteristic as the defining trait for everyone, but effective entrepreneurs are confident in their product and are not timid to talk about them to woo investors, potential talent to join them or being bold with prospective customers.

If you don’t believe in yourself and your ideas no one else will.

2. Salesmanship Zelenskyy is selling hope to his people, selling them his version of the future state which moves from survival to recovery to prosperity, whilst not soft soaping the hardship and endeavour to get there. Many people shy away from selling, but you won’t succeed as a startup founder if you can’t sell your vision, yourself, and your product.

The late Steve Jobs was great at selling, Elon Musk is another great salesman Remember, nothing happens with your startup until you have paying customers. 

3. Decisiveness Let’s be clear, there are times you need to make decisions quickly when you don’t have all the information stacked up.  War is the ultimate in agile decision-making scenario where being decisive and clear is vital. Being decisive and not given to needless vacillation is one strong characteristic of an effective startup leader. Needless to say, decisive business leaders inspire the employees and command a high degree of respect because they often know what to do – Zelenskyy shows this too.

Frequently entrepreneurs must make tough decisions in the moment, backing themselves.

4. An appetite for focus, stick-to-it-ness and execution Zelenskyy has been masterful at this.  As a leader it’s easy to get off track with your attention your time, and your energy with so much going on. You want to do everything, but focus is what really matters. You need to put time and energy into activities that are the most effective.

Starting a new company isn’t easy, and successful entrepreneurs have a key trait: you see a willingness to work through the hard times, they stick with it. They work through the different bits of a knot, rather than trying to rush through and cut it apart – or find excuses to let it go – and focus on execution, getting across the line. Vision without execution is hallucination.

 5. Consistency What you see is what you get with Zelenskyy, consistently present and positive. Predictability does not imply weakness by a long shot, rather it is a strength that signals confidence, determination, and credibility. The same for startup leaders, consistency with employees, customers, investors that they get what they see every time. No stalling or doubting, the leader walks her talk, she’s one who shows the way, knows the way, and goes the way. Also, for me, consistency is a demonstration of your own commitment.

6. Self-leadership: know thyself The corollary is that to lead great endeavours, leaders must be good at leading themselves first before leading others. Zelenskyy has this quality; he clearly knows himself and the role he needs to play. He demonstrates self-confidence, willing to be direct with his adversary and when talking to the senior folks in Europe and US when seeking assistance.

I think he has a strong, balanced perspective of knowing he’s dealing with a crisis whilst at the same time knows he needs to keep this in perspective so that his citizens don’t lose hope. The fact that he has stayed in Kyiv while the bombs are falling all around him demonstrates that balance.  He’s also resilient, developing a thick skin for adversity, with the ability to sustain his energy level under pressure, to cope with the challenge.

Most successful entrepreneurs I know are those who have mastered the art of coping with adversity whilst challenging the status quo. They look in the mirror each day, and simply tell themselves: we go again.

7. An ability to wear many hats Wearing many hats comes with the terrain that Zelenskyy faces – diplomat, optimist, strategist, humanitarian. He faces different constituencies and challenges – like a startup founder especially at the teething stage. I am not talking multitasking here, I mean you must function in multiple roles – marketing, sales, operations, and product.

To be effective, startup leaders are hands-on. They know their business inside out, day in day out making stuff happen and working both on and in the business to get it off the ground. They don’t shirk or duck, or say ‘I don’t have experience for this’, they roll their sleeves up, learn and make it happen.

8. A great storyteller I’ve watched Zelenskyy be a compelling storyteller to the people of Ukraine, with the narrative of their culture and their nationality. He inspires with the language he uses, creating a sense of expectation: we can do this, we are a special people.

Likewise for entrepreneurial leaders, starting with their ‘why’, and then as to how their new product will change the world, how they will capture new markets, how they want investors to seize the opportunity.

9. Simple language makes you relatable Zelenskyy is very good at describing what’s happening and what as a nation they need to do to be successful in the future. There are three key steps to effective communication during a crisis: you tell people what you know, what you don’t know, and you constantly update people as you learn more. That shows a great combination of strength and vulnerability.

Zelenskyy is continuously laying out what the facts are and what’s happening, but rather than going into a bunker, he continuously gives updates so that people know where they stand and what they need to do to go forward. Zelensky’s speeches are also simple, plain-spoken, commanding, and emotional. He is very relatable at a personal level.

For startups, the leader must create the conditions for ‘followership’, to inspire the team to follow her.  ‘Follow the leader’ is a phrase we hear as children in the school playground; as adults in a startup during times of challenge, if it is the right person, we might once again follow.

10. Know your emotions Zelenskyy is an authentic, humble, heart-on-the-sleeve leader, his emotions make him trustworthy, creating genuine engagement at a human level. Positive emotions are infectious, but so are negative ones. The point is to be aware of one’s own emotional state. Whilst he’s obviously angry and frustrated, he’s managing to keep his emotions in check by his highly developed emotional intelligence, keeping himself in hand and controlling his underlying emotions into driving his energy in a positive display of leadership

It’s the same for startup leaders. You know what’s best with a  startup? It’s that they are rarely ‘now or never’ enterprises, rather they are more ‘now or later, once we restructure, rethink and reimagine ourselves better to try to conquer the world yet again’ – so keeping your emotions in hand is essential to avoid them impairing your judgement.

Zelenskyy’s leadership master stroke was to ignore the objective assessment of the situation, that Russia will simply crush Ukraine due to scale. It’s the initial impulse, the David v Goliath scenario, Russia will simply roll Ukraine over. But like a startup leader, he didn’t see himself as small and never positioned himself that way. On the contrary, Zelenskyy created his own sense of himself and then broadcast his unflinching strength far and wide.

He never tried to persuade us to give him a chance. He never sounded defensive. He simply ignored assumptions that he would fail and shows us day after day that we’d underestimated him. He saw himself as a leader who could hold his own against Vladimir Putin, and perhaps even beat him. Now we do, too.

Startup leaders must find ways to engage people and rouse their commitment to what may seem like highly optimistic goals. Effective startup leadership is not about results per se, rather the focus is on leaders who excel at inspiring people, in capturing hearts, minds, and souls and getting stuff done, always moving forward. This ability is not everything in a startup, but as with Zelenskyy, great results may be impossible without it.

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