Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on March 21, 2022. Revised 11am.
Great leaders inspire those they lead to overcome difficult challenges. They have the trust and confidence of their followers. As an inspiring leader, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky follows in the footsteps of Winston Churchill, prime minister of Great Britain during World War II, and Joshua Chamberlain, a colonel in the Union army during the Civil War.
Churchill delivered his awe-inspiring “we shall fight on the beaches” speech to Parliament on June 4, 1940 to rally his citizens during World War II in the face of relentless aerial bombardment by the German Luftwaffe.
As a great orator, Churchill inspired his nation’s citizens and boosted their morale as they fought for their national survival. In the film “The Darkest Hour,” after a dramatic reenactment of his inspiring speech, one can hear the comment, “He mobilized the English language, and sent it into battle.”
Colonel Chamberlain knew how to tap into Union soldiers’ sense of purpose. In a dramatic reenactment, Chamberlain convinced a group of prisoners of war to join his regiment by telling them, “We’re an army out to set other men free. Gentlemen, I think if we lose this fight, we lose the war.” All but six of 120 POWs chose to join him, significantly increasing the strength of his regiment and possibly making the difference in the July 2, 1863 defense of Little Round Top.
Out of ammunition and suffering heavy losses, rather than withdraw his troops, Chamberlain ordered a bayonet attack and went on the offensive. The Confederates, being mentally unprepared to face bayonets, were overwhelmed and either retreated, surrendered or were killed. Through a valiant effort, Chamberlain and his regiment held Little Round Top.
President Zelensky has become the face of Ukrainian resistance against the brutal Russian invasion of his country and attacks on civilians. He is on the most wanted list of the Russian army.
In a Mar. 14 New York Times article, senior writer David Leonhardt calls Zelensky an “unlikely hero.” A former comic entertainer, nothing in his background prepared him for his current role. Through his words on social media and his visible war zone presence, Zelensky is boosting morale and rallying his fellow citizens to resist the invasion.
When a reported offer to evacuate him was made by the U.S. government, Zelensky is widely quoted as responding, “The fight is here. I need anti-tank ammo, not a ride.” Even though his response has not been confirmed, it will become legendary when the history of this war is written.
Zelensky’s inspirational leadership has garnered aid and support from across the international community. Ex-military personnel as well as those individuals without combat experience are traveling to Ukraine to help fight the Russians. His impassioned and elegant speech to the U.S. Congress on Mar. 16 asking for more assistance demonstrated his inspiring communication skills.
Quoting a social media post, “He could fill a plane with money and escape Ukraine, but he didn’t. He could hide in a bunker, but he didn’t. He could hand the country over to the Russians, but he didn’t.” Zelensky chose to stay and lead his country against the Russian invaders.
David Remnick, in a Mar. 5 article for The New Yorker wrote, “Zelensky has galvanized his people through the clarity of his language. Churchill, in his essay, ‘The Scaffolding of Rhetoric,’ wrote, ‘Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory. He who enjoys it wields a power more durable than that of a great king.’”
Business leaders will never face the life and death challenges of Zelensky, Churchill, or Chamberlain. However, the personal traits needed to inspire your organization are the same: superb communication skills, inner fortitude and a laser focus on the challenge. With these traits, you can rally your organization to accomplish goals that were thought to be unachievable.
Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read nationally syndicated columnist on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.