Photo credit: Kutay Tanir via Getty Images

What Ukrainian non-commissioned officers can teach us about leadership

Article published by Philadelphia Business Journal on August 18, 2022.

The war in Ukraine is now in its sixth month. Ukraine’s success in thwarting the advancement of the Russian army is due in no small part to the decision-making skills and responsibilities of Ukrainian non-commissioned officers (NCOs) on the battlefield. The empowerment of the Ukrainian NCOs is a lesson for all business leaders. 

Chief Master Sgt. Kostiantyn Stanislavchuk of the Ukrainian Air Force addressed the Senior Enlisted Leaders International Summit on Aug.1. He said, “I believe the sergeant corps plays an important role in [our] success. After all, the actions of small army units are managed by our junior commanders.

“The sergeants of the armed forces, without waiting for instructions …, took the initiative to conduct independent, small operations and act independently and resourcefully. In this way, the defense forces are comparatively different from the enemy, where generals are forced to personally raise their subordinates to attack.”

One can only imagine the impact of waiting for a high-ranking Russian officer to approve an operation. Warfare is in real time. Decisions must also be in real time.

The Ukrainian military is mirroring the practices of those of Western nations. In a November 2019 interview, U.S. Army Command Sgt. Maj. John Wayne Troxell said, “NCOs are the doers. They provide inspiration, purpose, motivation, direction and discipline to the troops they lead, and they are also responsible for the individual training of those in their charge.”

Photo credit: Kutay Tanir via Getty Images

Effective leaders know to push down decision-making to the lowest possible level in their organization, as the Ukrainian and Western militaries are doing. You want to hire people who will take the initiative. Having decisions made by individuals throughout the organization and having those decision-makers own the result is much more effective than top-down command and control. 

How do you operationalize the leadership style that pushes down decision-making to the lowest possible level? This is an organizational value that is part of the tone at the top that you espouse. Every employee needs to know the mission and vision of the organization, so their actions can be consistent with them.

In addition to making decisions within their authority, employees need to have the critical judgment to know when to make decisions that are beyond their authority and take action when it is in the best interests of the company to do so. 

I have written extensively about the power of continuous improvement within corporations and how it builds competitive advantage. Just as NCOs are trained to assess the situation and take action on the battlefield, employees need to be trained in the tools of data analysis and problem-solving techniques so they can take action to continuously improve the part of the business they work in. My experience is that continuous improvement initiatives that are only initiated by senior management are not sustainable over the long run. 

Steve Jobs, the former chairman and CEO of Apple, once said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” Lee Iacocca, former automobile industry executive, once said, “I hire people brighter than me and then I get out of their way.” All leaders should have the same philosophy as Jobs, Iacocca and the Ukrainian and Western militaries.


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. He can be reached at

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