As I write this article, war rages in Ukraine, with over 10,000 dead. Google searches for the word “recession” are at the highest level of 2022 and consistent with 2008 and 2009 search levels when the United States was officially in a recession. Industries are being upended at warp speed, and change is wreaking havoc on many traditionally stable companies. Twitter and Elon Musk are embroiled in “bet-the-company” litigation. The list goes on.
August 12, 2022
Three leaders of our time—Volodymyr Zelensky, Marry Barra, and Elon Musk—have risen through the ashes of war and the dust clouds of industry disruption to transform a nation and guide companies into the future. This article provides a few observations about the leadership skills of these individuals across war, crises, and adversity.
Volodymyr Zelensky: Leadership By Example
“The president can’t change the country on his own. But what can he do? He can give an example.”
— Volodymyr Zelensky
Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, is often referred to as a servant or a values-based leader. He is known to keep his people calm in times of crisis, instill hope, and shift the focus from him to his country. Forbes explains Zelensky in the early days of the Russian invasion on Ukraine:
“After the war began, Zelensky did not flee into exile, but instead went out onto the streets of his besieged capital to reassure his people. The comedian-turned-politician communicated his confidence through selfie-style videos. Simply being present sent a powerful message. Avoiding the me-first route of protecting his personal safety was just one facet of Zelensky’s servant leadership.”
Michael Useem of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business unpacks ‘Zalensky’s leadership by pointing out two main strengths: his on-point messaging and his unwavering dedication to the cause. Zalensky has mastered the ability to communicate strength and stability to the people of Ukraine and to the rest of the world.
Zalensky is a wizard at executing on point messaging. He has an innate understanding of how to communicate his message in a way that resonates with his audience. Whether he’s speaking to a large group or one-on-one, he always knows exactly what to say to get his point across clearly and effectively. He also has a knack for delivering his message in a way that is both memorable and impactful. His speeches are often filled with humor and personal anecdotes, which make them more enjoyable to listen to and easier to remember. But don’t let his lighthearted delivery fool you – Zalensky is deadly serious about his work and he always makes sure that his audience understands the gravity of the situation at hand. Perhaps most importantly, though, Zalensky knows how to stay on message no matter what. In today’s political climate, it’s easy for politicians to get sidetracked by tangential issues or controversies. But Zalensky always manages to keep his eye on the prize and deliver a focused, coherent message that sticks with voters long after they’ve left the polling booth.
Unwavering dedication to the principles of democracy. In his victory speech after being elected president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky made a commitment to uphold the principles of democracy. He said that he would protect human rights and freedoms, promote the rule of law, and ensure equality before the law. Zelensky has shown unwavering dedication to these principles since taking office. He has worked to combat corruption and strengthen the rule of law. For example, he created an independent anticorruption court and established new rules for asset declarations by public officials. He has also taken steps to increase transparency in government decision-making. In addition, Zelensky has promoted freedom of expression and media pluralism. His administration has included representatives from across the political spectrum, including members of the opposition party Batkivshchyna. Zelensky has also been a strong defender of human rights. He signed a decree banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity and launched an initiative to end violence against women. His administration is working to improve access to education and health care for all Ukrainians regardless of their economic status.
Useem goes on to compare these strengths to the strengths needed of a statesman and a CEO. Useem says, “He’s as artful as they come in helping people focus not on him but on Ukraine, the disaster that is going through, and the solutions that many countries ought to be following in coming to Ukraine’s aid.”
Harry Kraemer, a clinical professor of leadership at Kellogg, describes values-based leadership in four components: self-reflection, balance, self-confidence, and humility. Zelensky’s self-reflection manifests through his thoughtfulness and awareness of his role as a leader. His balance is evidenced by his perspective of knowing he is handling a crisis while also realizing he must keep the crisis in perspective so that Ukrainian citizens maintain hope. He has deftly balanced his gratitude for NATO and US support while simultaneously demanding more help. His self-confidence is clear through his communication with his adversary and his allies. His humility is evidenced through his acknowledgement that he cannot prevail alone—he must have broad support of from the global community.
Core to his success as a leader is his communication skills, Harry Kraemer summarized it eloquently:
“There are three key steps to effective communication during a crisis: you tell people what you know, you tell people what you don’t know, and you constantly update people on what you didn’t know as you learn more. That shows a great combination of strength and vulnerability. Zelensky is doing this. He is continuously laying out what the facts are and what’s happening. He’s also making us all very well aware of what we don’t know: we don’t know how long the Ukrainian armed forces can last. But rather than going into a bunker, he is continuously giving updates so that people know where they stand and what they need to do to go forward.”
Mary Barra: Unwavering Resilience
“Education will open doors. Talent will open worlds. But it is hard work that will enable you to accomplish more than you ever imagined.”
— Mary Barra
General Motors CEO Mary Barra may not have dealt with missiles and hostile military, but she has faced plenty of crises fighting for survival in world’s most competitive industries: the automobile industry. Criticized as lacking innovation due to its size, GM has been in the crucible of conflict for decades.
GM’s history is a long and storied one, dating back to the early days of the automobile. The company has been through ups and downs over the years, but has always managed to come out on top. GM was founded in 1908 by William C. Durant, who had previously founded the Chevrolet Motor Company. He merged Chevrolet with several other companies to form GM, which quickly became the largest automaker in the world. Durant was forced out of GM in 1910 due to financial problems, but he returned just a few years later and took the company public in 1918. The 1920s were a time of great prosperity for GM, as it continued to grow at an astounding rate. However, things took a turn for the worse during the Great Depression, and GM was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1931. It emerged from bankruptcy two years later under new leadership and began to focus on producing more affordable cars for the average consumer. This paid off handsomely during World War II, when GM became one of the biggest suppliers of military vehicles for Allied forces. After the war ended, GM entered into a period of decline that lasted until 1984 when it was rescued by major shareholder Kirk Kerkorian. Kerkorian installed new management at GM and led a massive restructuring effort that turned things around for the struggling automaker. In recent years, GM has faced new challenges as competition from foreign automakers has increased dramatically. Nevertheless, it remains one of the largest and most successful automakers in existence today thanks to its rich history dating back over 100 years ago.
When Mary Barra was initially appointed CEO of GM, in 2014, the industry was recovering from difficult times. Shortly after, she was faced with the “ignition switch crisis.” The ignition switch crisis involved charges relating to GM’s faulty ignition switches, one of the deadliest vehicle defects and largest recalls ever. GM paid a $900 million fine and became subject to federal monitoring to improve safety.
Barra, who rose through GM’s ranks to become CEO, was uniquely positioned to apply her knowledge of GM to help the company reposition itself. Facing intense media scrutiny, many doubted the GM’s ability to recover, and specifically, Barra’s ability to navigate the company to success. Relying on a relentless work ethic, dogged perseverance, and willingness to innovate a new culture at one of the largest companies in the world, Barra took risks to transform GM.
IEDP Developing Leaders’ Bob Rosen summarizes Barra’s resilience in this time:
“Starting what was likely the roller coaster ride of a lifetime, Barra embraced the multitude of challenges the CEO role presented, marshalled her team and resources, and successfully avoided whatever glass cliff may have been on the horizon. In the process, she deployed what I like to call ‘leadership jiu-jitsu’ by tapping her deep knowledge of GM to both activate and direct the positive energy of her people. Ultimately, she helped lead the company out of the public relations crisis and established herself as the respected head of the global automaker.”
Elon Musk: Choosing the Extraordinary in the Face of Repeated Adversity
“I think it is possible for ordinary people to choose to be extraordinary.”
Musk was born to a Canadian mother and South African father and raised in Pretoria, South Africa. He briefly attended the University of Pretoria before moving to Canada aged 17 to attend Queen’s University. He transferred to the University of Pennsylvania two years later majoring in economics with a minor in physics. He moved to California in 1995 to attend Stanford University but decided instead to pursue a business career, co-founding web software company Zip2 with his brother Kimbal. The start-up was acquired by Compaq for $307 million in 1999. Musk co-founded online bank X.com that same year which merged with Confinity in 2000 to form the company PayPal and was subsequently bought by eBay in 2002 for $1.5 billion. Musk also co-founded Tesla, SpaceX, and Neurolink and has since established numerous ground-breaking projects. His car company Tesla has diversified the automotive industry by introducing semi-autonomous vehicles and electric cars. Musk has also made large strides in the space industry and has proven the cost efficiency of privatization ventures in space exploration.
Kira Goldring from The Perspective breaks down Musk’s experience with adversity as a child. Musk overcame intense bullying and emotional abuse in his childhood yet used such experiences as fuel. He learned to code and later sold his first video game when he was 12 years old. Musk also lost his CEO position at two of his own companies, survived malaria, and oversaw three failed launches after creating SpaceX (which left the company almost bankrupt).
Many people are comfortable being ordinary. Not Elon Musk. Many people, faced with the physical, emotional, professional, and reputational adversities that Mr. Musk faced, would have given up. Instead, Mr. Musk chose to be extraordinary. He has created over 35,000 jobs worldwide, put his own money on the line to ensure his employees remain employed and contributed immensely to technological ingenuity.
Volodymyr Zelensky’s “leadership by example,” Mary Barra’s “unwavering resilience,” and Elon Musk’s “choice of extraordinary in the face of repeated adversity” are all examples of strong leadership in turbulent times. None of these leaders have the full or perfect complement of leadership—indeed, no one does. Their core strengths, however, have benefitted millions of people across conflict, business crises and other significant challenges.
President, CEO and Co-Founder, 1K Africa
Co-Founder & Chairman, Family Legacy Capital Credit Management, LLC (FLC Credit) & Family Legacy Capital Management, LLC (FLC)
DISCLAIMER: The opinions and views expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view(s) of any affiliated institution or organization including without limitation 1K Africa, Family Legacy Capital Credit Management, LLC, Family Legacy Capital Management, LLC, and any investment fund, entity or vehicle managed by or affiliated or associated with any of them.