Who is a leader?
Michael Josephson said, “Great leaders are teachers not tyrants”. To lead is to inspire, to support, to empathise. There are many different characteristics that make a leader, but they are generally the brave people who show others the way with integrity. In society, leaders take on many different forms. Parents can be leaders, a CEO is a leader, and presidents are definitely leaders – or at least they are meant to be.
The invasion of Ukraine has caused a lot of people to admire the leadership qualities of Volodymyr Zelensky, President of Ukraine. In contrast, most of the world has stated and is in a state of disbelief at how Vladimir Putin, President of Russia, could be so power hungry and cruel. Presidents should represent the populous of their state, but many might say that Putin hardly represents the majority of the Russian people. The world sees him more as a dictator driven by ego than a leader. We should think critically about Putin’s ‘leadership’ style and how it affects those who are (mis)guided by him. Contrarily, Zelensky is seen as a leader that embodies servant leadership. He is perceieved as a commander who works for the people of his country, not the other way around. As Morgan Scott Peck once said: “Any great leader … will see himself or herself as a servant of that group and will act accordingly”1. This is the imagery Zelensky has been evoking in this crisis.
As this situation has highlighted the rivalling approaches to leadership of the two presidents, it would do all leaders some good to assess their leadership styles.
An autocratic leadership style is where one leader dominates; they control everything with little or no influence from others. In certain projects this could be seen as a useful type of governance. For CEOs, it might mean they decisions made more quickly because they do not have to consult others2. For the most part, however, this is a very destructive and dangerous method for obvious reasons.
In this crisis, Putin demonstrates the traits of an autocratic leader. We know he has become increasingly isolated in recent times, and he was already unwilling to hear criticism of his actions, going to great lengths, as many reports shows, to have those who opposed him imprisoned or even murdered3. This ego-driven leadership style is more motivated by the completion of tasks rather than the welfare of individuals, a terrible approach to leadership and even more so a presidency. Autocracy breeds dire circumstances for all. A recent study showed that autocratic leaders were less emotionally stable and less agreeable than non-autocratic leaders4. If we use this situation as an example, the Ukrainians are suffering the most, their homes destroyed, people dying, but the Russian people are also suffering. Inflation has climbed to above 15.6% because of the economic sanctions the West is putting on Russia in reaction to the war crimes their leader is ordering5. Anyone who protests the war is to be imprisoned, restricting the opinions and voice of the Russian people. If you apply this in a business context, a CEO would be destroying their own company by utilising this leadership style. Are you an autocratic leader?
Servant leadership is, in many ways, the antithesis of autocratic leadership. This leadership style is focused on serving those you are leading, being amongst them and valuing their opinions, adhering to their needs. This is at present does not seem applicable to Putin, but it is more the type of leadership Zelensky exemplifies.
Within business, servant leaders share their power instead of preserving it, and help to develop the talents of employees. Zelensky is refusing to abandon his country, his people, despite being offered refuge in the United States. He brushed off the idea of leaving, stating: “I need ammunition, not a ride”6. By taking up arms to fight against the invasion himself even though he knows he may very well die, he is inspiring both the globe and the people he serves. The Ukrainian President is showing them he would not expect them to do anything he would not do himself. He is unlike Putin, who sends sons off to fight in these senseless battles, or shies away from the conflict himself and has his family hidden in mansions in other countries.
Fortunately, not every leader will be put in the position Zelensky has, however he is still an individual who sets an example leaders should follow. Leaders should stand with their people, and leaders of businesses can do this in numerous ways. For example, were a worker to come to a leader about misconduct in the workplace, it is important that the leader stands up for what is right and alongside that individual even if it means losing revenue from a customer or an employee who is a fee earner. Servant leadership is about courage. It focuses on the needs of others. Even the fact that Zelensky’s party is called ‘Servant of the People’ speaks volume about his leadership style.
The ‘strong man’ attitude vs. emotional intelligence
Many leaders believe they must rule with an iron fist in order for their organisation, or themselves, to prosper – rule without empathy and be purely strategic. Whilst intelligence is crucial, so is emotional intelligence.
Autocratic leaders often displays a keen disregard for the welfare of others. Taking away people’s autonomy, refusing to budge on positions, this is part of autocratic leaders portrayal as a ‘strong man’/strong leader. A not to be questioned leadership, a leader who does not care if they harm or mislead people to get his own way. Leaders with this mindset are poisonous towards everyone they encounter and will eventually destroy an organisation.
Servant leaders on the other hand, has an abundance of emotional intelligence. They use established channels to make impassioned appeals to their cause inspiring others to act. They are transparent, and emotional intelligence is a strength in these leader. Always keeping those you serve informed at every step with updates, addressing specific needs and concerns as they arise. Zelensky’s good communication skills and conscientious nature earn him respect from other leaders, which is often the case with servant leaders.
An emotionally intelligent leadership style enables leaders to connect with their people and garner the support of others. In business, it is always going to be a lot better to be approachable and personable towards employees and potential clients than to be brutal and cold.
Through the examples of Putin and Zelensky, it is clear to see that a servant leadership makes for a better leadership style than autocratic leadership, and emotional intelligence will always trump a ‘strong man’ attitude. It is much more valuable for a leader to be able to connect with their people than to dismiss and outright harm them.