June 15, 2023

TPL Insights #175 – How Mindset Enabled Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhnyi to Transform Ukraine’s Backward Ukrainian Military into One of the Most Effective Fighting Forces of the Last 100 Years

By Rob Andrews

By Rob Andrews with paraphrased content from Liudmyla Dolonovska’s article in Chief Executive in June 2023

Said Liudmyla Dolonovska, the chief of staff at American University in Kyiv: “We went through the hardest year in modern Ukrainian history together. Here’s what General Zaluzhnyi taught me about great leadership.”

“It is difficult to understand how a relatively small Ukraine resisted for more than one year the entire Russian war machine, massive and ruthless. Before the Russian invasion, the Ukrainian military, which was a Soviet-based system, was one of the most backward, ill-equipped militaries in the world.

So, how have the Ukrainian Armed Forces beat back the Russian troops and taken back the strategic initiative? I can’t tell you all aspects of this issue, as the answer is incredibly complex, and because the war is still going on, and a large part of the information is sensitive. But I would like to share with you some insights into the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, whose leadership is one of the answers.

I had the honor to serve with Gen. Zaluzhnyi since his appointment in the position in July 2021. I was his advisor on Strategic Communication and de facto press-secretary until the end of February. We went together through the hardest year in modern Ukrainian history. The year when we did not know if our country, our families, and ourselves would survive.

During the early period of the invasion, I had the privilege to spend considerable time one-on-one with the general every day before he spoke to the president to give an update on the situation on the frontline. I was able to understand him not only as a military leader, but also as a father, a son, and a husband. I would like to share with you my knowledge of Gen. Zaluzhny’s personality, which helped the country survive. Three key elements will be useful to anyone running an organization, particularly in times of peril and stress.”

Love Your People

“There’s a striking difference between Ukrainian and Russian militaries—it is an attitude to human life. In the modern Ukrainian army, unlike in the Russian and former Soviet armies, human life has the greatest value.

I was present at the first meeting of the newly appointed Commander-in-Chief with all his commanders. He started that meeting with the following words: ‘I don’t demand from you anything extraordinary. The only thing I demand from you is that you treat your subordinates as humans first. You must see in front of you a person and individual, and respect him or her.’

I’ve written dozens of statements with the Commander-in-Chief. In each one, whether it was about a military operation, planning process, commemoration of fallen soldiers, or celebration of the key holidays, we mentioned the value of every person. He asked me always to tell human stories – of ordinary servicemen and women of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. In contrast to Russian troops, their faces are faces of freedom, dignity, and bravery. These stories were never done by our team in an artificial manner – we talked about the motivation, dreams, loves, friendships, and brotherhood of our soldiers.

On the first anniversary of the invasion, we released a video that emphasized that we can only stand up to this massive aggression because we have people among us who are ready to sacrifice their lives for Ukraine. The general’s words appeal to the heroic and tragic events in Donetsk airport in 2015, and to Azovstal in Mariupol in 2022.

He always spoke of the people who served. He knows all his subordinate commanders by first name. He personally knows many of his soldiers, and often knows their children’s names. The result of this human touch in leadership is that every serviceperson knows that he or she is valuable – while planning or implementing strategies our military commanders consider every course of action to accomplish the mission while reducing the casualties, and soldiers trust us.”

Be Excellent

“This often gets overlooked in discussions about leaders: You must not only love what you do, but you must be excellent at doing it. Gen. Zaluzhnyi is really a military professional. He frequently reiterates that he loves what he does. He dreamt as a child to be in uniform, to serve Ukraine, and he is happy that he made his dream come true. He served at every level of command – from platoon commander to Commander-in-Chief. His life is that of the consummate military professional. He is a student of military history. He studies his enemy’s doctrines.

He once told me – military art is a real art. It includes strategy but is not limited by strategy. The main talent of the military leader is to anticipate and predict his enemy’s actions. That is the key. You must know your adversary, to break his plan and impose your initiative.

His strategy during the first, decisive days of the full-scale invasion – to allow the Russians to come deep into our territory, to make the lines of logistics longer, to let them concentrate their forces on key terrain we knew of in advance, and to attack them there with massive fire – saved Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities. The cornerstone of his military strategy was to inflict on the Russians heavy enough losses that they would withdraw, preventing further aggression.”

Set The Tone to Win

“Apart from professional skills, I would like to emphasize that in situations in which we found ourselves, it was very important to keep a sense of humor. Every soldier knows it. Soldiers always laugh, even during the darkest times. This lesson Gen. Zaluzhny learned from his years in the lower positions within the Ukrainian army. Therefore, even in very stressful and dangerous situations, he would break the tension with humor. For example, on the early morning of February 26th he grabbed my phone and took a selfie which made me smile. It helped.

Gen. Zaluzhnyi is quite patient and very rarely raises his voice. But I remember one situation before the invasion. At that time, a war gaming exercise predicted Ukraine will lose to the invading Russian forces. He shouted to the commanders that if they didn’t improve, Ukraine will be destroyed and cease to exist. All those who attended left the meeting with ashen faces. They realized then that the country was preparing for a big battle.

Everyone has stress, fear, and concerns. A leader needs to be an inspiration. It’s like you being a parent: you don’t express your doubts and fears to your child – you project confidence. And confidence builds.”

We see in General Zaluzhnyi many of the same attributes we see in the most effective corporate, academic, and nonprofit leaders across the globe. One that jumps off the page is his mindset. While Ukraine has certainly received massive support from the U.S, Germany, the U.K., France, Italy, Poland, Spain, the Netherlands, Canada and more, very few people believed Ukraine could effectively defend itself against the Russian war machine, much less drive them back. But Zaluzhnyi never had a doubt, even before he saw a clear path to victory.

Like all exceptional leaders we’ve studied, Zaluzhnyi not only values his people, but he also relates well to frontline soldiers, local leaders, and townsfolk. In an article in El PAIS published on June 4th, 2023, Cristian Segura reported that Vladislav Fadeeve, the mayor of Vatutine, said Zaluzhnyi was his idol. Another resident of Vatutine, Alexandra Tridub, said she thought every region in Ukraine will have a town named after Zaluzhnyi. They both spoke of him as an exceptional person on a human level, above and beyond his role as a military officer.

Zaluzhnyi’s purpose-driven leadership style, his commitment to operational excellence, humility, sense of humor, and will to win, make him a leader worth following, and one we believe we’ll be studying for decades to come.  Stay tuned for more content around Total Performance Leadership, and the nine principles that enable organizations at the top of their sectors to dominate.

Warmest Regards,

Rob