Photo Credit: Boris Baldinger/World Economic Forum
Soon after Russia invaded Ukraine at the end of February, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy became, at home and abroad, a symbol of heroic resistance to Vladimir Putin. Through bold addresses from Kyiv and emotional, heartbreaking appeals to other foreign leaders, Zelenskyy gave a human face to the impact of Russian aggression—and burnished his own brand.
Zelenskyy’s remarkable rise did not go unnoticed by a legion of business leaders and social media influencers in the United States, who found in Zelenskyy a perfect example of #leadership. “This is a man who wants his people to know he is willing to make any sacrifice to defend his ‘company’ (the country of Ukraine),” read one typical post on the networking platform LinkedIn. Likewise, an Axios article urged readers to “be like Zelensky” with tips to “seize the moment” and “take risks.”
Business leaders have often drawn inspiration from military strategy. “Age-old principles of war can help keep your organization focused and motivated, improving its chances of achieving objectives,” a report from management consulting firm McKinsey noted in 2020. Even in mass culture, Americans have a tendency to compare almost anything to war—from professional football to “The Bachelor.” Our language itself is cluttered with war metaphors.
An idealized notion of war can make for a sturdy rhetorical device. There are heroes, villains, and boundless opportunities for courage and bravery. But real war, the kind being fought in Ukraine, is not some bloodless undertaking or fodder for a leadership seminar.
The choices required of a leader like Zelenskyy are unfathomable and reflect the uniquely pernicious way war cleaves our sense of morality from the customary frameworks we apply in peacetime. When you’re fighting for your survival, anything goes. And the more we start to think of war as a metaphor or noble abstract, the less we will understand its painful reality.
As On War author Carl von Clausewitz wrote, “To someone who has never experienced danger, the idea is attractive rather than alarming.” That same principle applies to social media, where the version of war that is easiest to consume tends to be the one that fits a simple, heroic narrative.
Many of us cheered the most powerful stories of Ukrainian resistance, such as the 13 soldiers telling a Russian warship to “f*** off” before fighting to their deaths and a fighter pilot known as the “ghost of Kyiv,” but these turned out to be tall tales. Even Ukraine’s most visible display of propaganda—those videos of Russian prisoners of war condemning their role in the invasion—are ethically dubious at best and probably violate the Geneva Conventions.
This wartime messaging, if not factually true, still reflects a certain kind of collective pride that must be powerful for Ukrainians. It certainly is for Americans. Already plenty of U.S. veterans have gone to Ukraine to fight. “It’s a conflict that has a clear good and bad side, and maybe that stands apart from other recent conflicts,” former Army officer David Ribardo told the New York Times. “A lot of us are watching what is happening and just want to grab a rifle and go over there.”
Zelenskyy’s superpower wasn’t to “take risks” or “seize the moment,” as the social media posts and listicles claim. Instead, the Russia-Ukraine conflict provides a case study on the appeal of a powerful narrative and how to execute it to a country’s advantage. Think of Zelenskyy comparing his nation’s plight to the Holocaust in a speech to the Israeli Knesset or addressing European Union on February 24 and saying, “This might be the last time you see me alive.”
You’re not going to learn the playbook for effective propaganda in a business seminar or leadership retreat. When your country is in an existential fight for its survival, narratives matter more than charisma.