As the world unites against Putin’s assault on freedom, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky has become an international icon. People are extolling Zelensky’s noble efforts to counter disinformation campaigns on social media. They’re applauding his heroic decision to decline an evacuation offer: “The fight is here; I need anti-tank ammo, not a ride.”
As Ukrainians rally around Zelensky, the internet is ablaze with opinions about what makes him such an effective leader in his own country. The popular story starts with the inner virtues of a great man: Zelensky is being profiled for his charisma and courage and compared to George Washington. Then it turns to the crucible, highlighting how crisis fractures weak leaders and forges strong leaders: Zelensky is being called a lion who found his roar.
It’s clear that Zelensky has taken great risks to rise to the occasion in a time of dire need. But if you only focus on the character inside him and the crisis in front of him, you’ll miss a vital lesson from his leadership.
Long before the Russian invasion, Ukrainians already knew Zelensky as a man of charisma and courage. After starring in a popular show as a teacher who railed against corruption and wound up getting elected president, he was charming enough to parlay his fame into a stunningly successful presidential campaign and brave enough to call out corruption. Yet by December 2021, his approval rating had plummeted below 30%. Now it’s above 90%, and some of that spike is obviously due to the fact that he’s become a symbol of hope during an existential threat. But a leader only serves as a symbol for a nation that identifies with him.
Psychologists find that we’re drawn to leaders who represent our group. The people we elevate into positions of authority aren’t typical members of our group—they’re prototypical members of our group. They’re the people we see as exemplifying the ideals of the group and acting in the best interests of the group. Think of Jacinda Ardern personifying Kiwi strength and inclusivity when she condemned the mosque shootings as acts of terrorism and arrived in Christchurch wearing a hijab. Remember Mahatma Gandhi literally embodying Indian principles of peace and asceticism when he protested against British colonialism. A leader is someone who takes a stand to protect what’s core and distinctive to the group.
In the past few days, we’ve seen what the prototypical Ukrainian looks like. It’s Vitaly Skakun Volodymyrovych, the engineer who gave his life to blow up a bridge and stop Russian tanks from advancing. It’s the man who used his bare hands to carry a landmine—while smoking a cigarette. It’s the woman holding this sign:
The prototypical Ukrainian is a fighter. They fought for their freedom from the Soviet Union three decades ago and they’re fighting for it again now. Before this crisis, there were ongoing doubts about whether Zelensky was truly fighting for the Ukrainian people. Now those questions have been answered: their president is battling for their freedom. What his army lacks in traditional firepower, he’s making up with his videos and posts. Zelensky’s pen may not be mightier than Putin’s sword, but his digital ink is spreading faster than blood has been shed.
Charisma attracts attention. Courage earns admiration. But commitment to a group is what inspires loyalty. We follow the leaders who fight for us—and we make sacrifices for the leaders who serve us.
Zelensky is more than a lion who found his roar. He’s a lion protecting his pride.