OPINION: What health care leaders can learn from Volodymyr Zelensky
Nick Paterson, MD, and Jhase Sniderman, MD
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky modeled crisis leadership in the early stages of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In this article, we reflect on Zelensky’s attributes of relatability, clear communication, and servant leadership as characteristics that health care leaders can also use to lead organizations through crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic response.
KEYWORDS: health care leadership, crisis, communication, servant leadership, Zelensky
Paterson N, Sniderman J. What health care leaders can learn from Volodymyr Zelensky. Can J Physician Leadersh 2022;8(3):91-93
The rise of any conflict inevitably brings with it new characters, both heroes and villains. The crisis that ensues can forge or fracture new leaders. Still reeling from the most recent COVID-19 wave, the world has shifted its gaze to the Russian military invasion of Ukraine. In the early days of the war, one new character has emerged as an inspirational leader: Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky.
With millions of others, we have been transfixed by Zelensky’s fortitude and resolve. His words and actions have helped to rally his fellow Ukrainians and much of the world. Given ample opportunity to be extracted from the country to a safer location, he firmly planted himself at the centre of the crisis in Kyiv to lead his troops from the frontline.
Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, many military comparisons have been applied to the response. Terms such as “battle,” “frontlines,” and “troops” have been used both literally and figuratively. Although the toll of war-time conflict and hospital pandemic leadership can hardly be compared, elements of the success of Zelensky’s leadership can be extended across a broad range of health care crisis situations. Here, we reflect on some of the ways health care leaders can adapt and implement qualities that have made President Zelensky successful throughout the early stages of this conflict.
In unpredictable and high-stakes situations, a leader’s authenticity and relatability are paramount. The leaders we admire in these situations are honest and forthcoming, quick to admit their vulnerabilities and fears of what lies ahead.1
Wharton School professor and author, Adam Grant,2 described the importance of relatability, explaining that what makes leaders great is not just their internal characteristics, but also their ability to understand and reflect the values and identity of those they lead. He goes on to note 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.”
President Zelensky is often pictured in plain green military clothes, mingling with soldiers and civilians in streets throughout the nation’s capital, inspiring his people from among them. This cannot be overstated: as leaders, we should never forget the importance of jumping into the trenches from time to time and using that opportunity to genuinely connect with our front-line staff.
As we reflect on the challenges of communicating essential information to our colleagues, a focus on clear and concise language is imperative. Leadership development researcher Ruth Gotian has analyzed Zelensky’s crisis response and explains that his speeches resonate because they are “simple, plain-spoken, commanding and emotional.”1
Although Zelensky’s on-point messaging is critical, Wharton’s Michael Useem3 also notes that he sets the stage by standing in the street to show the landscape of war behind him rather than taking a formal pose behind a lectern during press conferences. In doing so, he helps people focus not on him but on the messages he is trying to deliver.
Similarly, Dr. Craig Smith, the chair of surgery at NYU Presbyterian, was made famous during the crippling first COVID-19 wave in New York City when internal memos he was sending to front-line staff were published.4 These correspondences were short, clear, brutally honest, and yet full of resolve. In his words, they were a balance of “freighting facts and sunny-day optimism.”5
When the fog of the pandemic lifts, we will still be left to pick through the rubble of the health care challenges that lie ahead: elective surgery backlogs, long-term care overhauls, pressured emergency departments, and so on. A focus on clear and poignant communication will help us and our organizations frame the important issues and unite in the messaging.
Paul Tesluk,6 dean of the School of Management at the University of Buffalo, has written about President Zelensky’s masterclass of servant leadership. This is based on the idea that leaders are most capable of galvanizing people to accomplish herculean challenges when they focus least on satisfying their own personal needs and most on the fulfillment of their followers’ needs. These leaders achieve commitment to a set of collective goals by displaying attributes of humility and commitment.
He goes on to explain how “his frequent videos and social media posts continuously emphasize the importance of the cause, express confidence in his fellow Ukrainians. …. That commitment, confidence and demonstrated willingness to keep himself in harm’s way has done more than earn him the admiration of Ukrainian citizens — it has inspired their loyalty and willingness to make sacrifices of their own.”
Although servant leadership is a natural fit in medicine, its true power is unlocked with a top-down approach. This helps foster a culture of norms and expectations for behaviour among followers. In turn, servant leaders can articulate a path forward by advocating shared moral values, integrity, and stewardship that helps serve not only their followers but a broader society. Health care leaders have the opportunity to establish the foundation and culture of their organization, ensuring that not only patients, but also employees, are held in the highest regard.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced a spotlight on leadership in health care. The continued crisis in health care may not build character, but it does expose it. Although formal avenues, from continued education to physician leadership development programs, exist to hone these skills, we would do well to remember that much can be learned and modeled from successes in the world around us.
President Zelensky’s authenticity, clear communication, and servant leadership have been inspiring and can serve as examples of attributes that are useful for health care leaders, especially in times of crisis.
1.Gotian R. Why people follow certain leaders: lessons from Ukraine’s President Zelensky. Forbes 2022;8 March. Available: https://tinyurl.com/2p9y2d4p
2.Stillman J. The no. 1 leadership lesson from Ukraine’s incredibly courageous president, according to Adam Grant. Inc.com 2022. Available: https://tinyurl.com/mupndppe
3.Useem M. What can leaders learn from Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy? Wharton Bus J 2022;22 March. Available: https://tinyurl.com/muhr5ks4
4.Smith C. COVID-19 updates from Dr. Smith. New York: Columbia Surgery; 2020. Available: https://tinyurl.com/5298tbxf
5.Smith C. COVID-19 update from Dr. Smith: 3/22/2020. New York: Columbia Surgery; 2022. Available: https://tinyurl.com/2p8k3zbx
6.Tesluk P. Zelensky inspires the world through servant leadership. UBNow 2022;8 March. Available: https://tinyurl.com/37r67x8x
Nick Paterson, MD, FRCSC, is a urologist and renal transplant fellow at The Ottawa Hospital. His interests are in organizational leadership and health care efficiencies. He is completing his master’s through the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation, Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto.
Jhase Sniderman, MD, FRCSC, is an orthopedic surgeon and trauma fellow at the University of Toronto. His interests are in health policy and physician leadership. He is completing his master’s through the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation, Dalla Lana School of Public Health, University of Toronto. with a concentration in health systems, leadership and innovation.
Sponsorship and funding: The authors have no conflicts of interest to declare.
Author attestation: Both authors contributed equally to the research, generation of content, and final paper syntax. They similarly approved the article’s final form.
This article has been peer reviewed.