Ukraine’s Leadership Victory

07 Sep 2022

Ukraine’s Leadership Victory

Six months ago, Russia began its horrific attempt to subjugate Ukraine. Its failure to meet its initial military objectives and Ukraine's brilliant resistance are now the focus of intense discussions. How did a country a quarter the size of Russia manage to hold off an invader with far more advanced military capabilities? Surely the slow trickle of Western aid and anti-tank weaponry made a difference on the battlefield, yet no one truly expected Ukraine to stand up to the Russian bear the way it did.

In my book Creative Execution, I considered five key principles that successful leaders such as Alexander the Great and Admiral Nelson relied on to secure victories "against the odds". After six months of conflict, I can confidently state that these principles have consistently been violated by the Russians, and espoused by the Ukrainian side. Let's lay those out here:

1) Clear and simple strategy: the first principle of Creative Execution is to articulate a clear, direct and unique strategy that everyone can buy into. Russia's initial thrust along three axes of advance were in direct violation of this maxim. Eventually Ukraine's forces were able to repulse the Russian advance on Kiev (which sits roughly 380 kilometers from the Russian border), and roll back the invasion force in the North. There was no explicit Russian strategy and to this day Russia's war goals - and indeed its casus belli - remain great unknowns. Ukraine, on the other hand, quickly adopted a very simple countervailing strategy, meaning that it focused its much smaller forces on selective Russian targets, using what is known as asymmetric warfare - by relying on Turkish-supplied drones and NATO anti-tank and counter-battery equipment.

2) Candid dialogue: the United States stunned the diplomatic community in December 2021 and January 2022 when it started to release evidence of Russian pre-positioning of military forces, clearly poised for a full-scale invasion. This example of candid dialogue clearly exposed the Russian plan to the world - for which Russia had no credible comeback other than claiming that the West was acting "hysterical". The amazing video of Vladimir Putin admonishing his intelligence director Sergei Naryshkin to “speak plainly” multiple times during a meeting that preceded the invasion stands as a wild contrast to the principle of candid dialogue - it is clear watching the video that Naryshkin, while he finally admits his approval of Putin's decision to recognize the independence of the two separatist-controlled regions of Ukraine, is completely uneasy and unwilling to speak candidly.

3) Clear roles and accountabilities: once again Russia ignored this principle and did not appoint a supreme battlefield commander until the conflict was well into its third month and the disunity of Russian forces had become embarrassingly obvious to all. Without a supreme commander in charge of its "special military operation", Russia was unable to coordinate its large forces and integrate its ground, air and sea forces. By contrast, the US operates its armed forces under a Joint Doctrine approach that calls for the planning and execution of military operations through an integrated command. This lesson has certainly been applied by Ukraine's forces, designating clear roles for its special forces and other combat forces.

4) Bold action: by far the single largest feat of arms has not been conducted by Russian forces but by Ukraine when its forces attacked and sank the Moskva, flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. This bold act was reputedly enabled by US intelligence in providing the vessel's exact location, but the ability to conceive and execute an attack that sank a highly valued and well- defended missile cruiser is simply stunning. Russian forces, in stark contrast, have adopted a blunt style of warfare reminiscent of the Red Army's conquest of Germany in 1944/45, when its forces used overwhelming firepower to wipe out Germany's cities and countryside. More recently, the Wall Street Journal reported on the destruction of several Russian bridgheads by Ukrainian forces, again demonstrating the lack of innovative thinking by Russian forces and the flexibility of Ukraine's forces.

5) Visible leadership: President Zelensky's open messaging to world leaders about the true nature of the war and Ukraine's needs to defend itself has created a new standard for global leadership. He addressed no less than 10 parliaments (including a joint session of the United States Congress) during a March 2022 public relations blitzkrieg. His speech to the UK House of Commons included a well-crafted simile of Winston Churchill's June 1940 famous speech: "We shall fight in the woods, in the fields, on the beaches, in the cities and villages, in the streets, we shall fight in the hills," Zelensky said. Wearing his trademark green fatigues, Zelensky has perhaps become the most visible leader in recent European history - creating a ghastly contrast against Vladimir Putin's long white table and reluctance to speak honestly about the war and its toll.

Lessons for Leaders and Organizations

Leaders around the world can draw important lessons from Ukraine's surprising resistance - and Russia's dismal performance - by thinking about these critical few success factors:

  • Do we have a simple, well communicated and understood strategy?
  • Does our culture promote candid dialogue?
  • Are people clear about their roles and accountabilities?
  • Are we empowering leaders to make decisions, innovate and unleash bold action?
  • And, most critically, are our leaders sufficiently visible and present in the eye of the storm?