Jill Geisler on crisis management: Lead like Zelenskyy

May 11, 2022 6:41 pm

Jill Geisler

There’s leadership. And then there’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy-level leadership.

In the face of a horrific Russian assault on the people of his country, unspeakable tragedy and personal danger, Zelenskyy has been strong, steadfast and inspirational. His words, deeds, style and strategies are already being heralded by leadership scholars as lessons for us all.

Here’s how Harvard historian Nancy Koehn, author of Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times, describes the Ukrainian president’s impact:

“Zelensky helps us see that courageous leadership is alive and well on the global stage. His work on behalf of his country is raising the bar, not only for other national leaders, but for many ordinary people, who see with new clarity and focus what right — and, by contrast, wrong — look like from those in power.”

Zelenskyy communicates with emotional intelligence. He understands the power of words, carefully tailored to the individuals and groups he is with. When he addressed the U.S. Congress, he spoke of the similarities between the two countries, invoked tragedies in American history and the values of freedom and liberty that sustain both the United States and Ukraine.

During an interview, Jake Tapper of CNN talked with Zelenskyy about the searing images of parents grieving over the bodies of their children. Zelenskyy spoke bluntly and empathetically of their pain: “We can all work on how to rebuild apartments and houses and compensate them. How do you compensate for the loss of a child? I don’t think anyone in the world has an answer for that.”

When Tapper told Zelenskyy he is seen as an inspirational leader and asked who inspires him, he replied “Only the people. I believe our people are genuine and unique. And I just can’t afford to be worse than them.”

Zelenskyy also understands the power of symbolism. His refusal to leave the country, his public walk in the streets in spite of personal danger and even his ever-present olive drab T-shirts convey a message of courage and shoulder-to-shoulder affinity with his troops and citizens.


When leaders do things well, it may look effortless. But we know that leading in crises of any kind demands exceptional skill and care. And when leaders lack Zelenskyy’s wisdom, they fail not just themselves but their organizations.

When the deadly Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill ravaged the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, the CEO of BP appeared at a news conference in a crisp starched shirt and said, “There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do. You know, I’d like my life back.” His tone-deaf message and the company’s inadequate initial response to the devastating human and environmental loss is taught as a textbook example of flawed crisis management.

Blessedly, the crises most leaders face do not involve atrocities of war or the massive degradation of nature and livelihoods. But every leader should be prepared to respond to critical situations of any scale.


Tragedies, natural disasters, crime, investigation of wrongdoing and, yes, pandemics can happen on a leader’s watch. Here’s what you need to know ― and do ― should you find yourself facing such a situation.

Begin with the core values of integrity and humanity. Tell the truth. Take responsibility if you or your organization is in the wrong. In an ongoing life-and-death situation such as a fire or hostage-taking, be as transparent as possible without causing panic or additional pain. As situations unfold, let people know that their well-being is paramount to you.

Communicate with clarity and frequency. Combine realism with optimism. Don’t minimize damage or suffering. Honor it. Then share your vision for recovery or resolution and what it will take to get there. Provide an ongoing flow of information. In times of crisis, information is currency. Anticipate questions and concerns. Empower your managers with answers, and be sure they are available and do outreach rather than waiting for people to come to them.

Be decisive and inclusive. Crisis leadership often requires a commanding style, with quick decision-making and strategic pivoting in the face of unfolding developments. That doesn’t mean your decisions should be made in isolation. Surround yourself with trusted people who are unafraid to challenge you. If people fear speaking truth to power, the powerful are more likely to make bad judgments.

Embody confidence and humility. When your confidence comes from competence, not ego, people are comforted by your strength. At the same time, those same people want to know that you are with them, not above them. You simply have a different job to do  ― and that is to guide them from where they are into a better future.

Understand the power of symbolism. This isn’t about gimmicks. Showing up at the hospital or a funeral should be a genuine act of care. Canceling your vacation to help with storm cleanup in your community should be a commitment, not a quick photo op. At the same time, these actions send a message about what matters to you as a leader. People notice your presence ― or your absence.

Don’t be cheap. In crisis or after, you may need to spend unbudgeted dollars for health, safety, lodging, food, staffing support, supplies, trauma counseling or rebuilding. How you invested in your team when it was needed most will become the story of your leadership.


For better or worse, each leader leaves a legacy, never more so than in the face of crisis. Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s assailant, Vladimir Putin, is also being studied by historians and military experts. They cite his failure to anticipate the massive resistance from the people of Ukraine, his poor military strategy and his triggering of a powerful international coalition of support for the besieged country. A Washington Post story about Putin’s leadership failures summed up the view of many experts this way:

“…a picture of a hubristic and isolated leader, beset by biases and skewed information, pressing forward with a calamitous decision without consulting his full cohort of advisers.”

If a crisis befalls your team or organization, the whole world may not be watching, but your people will be. In your own way, lead like the man from Ukraine.


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