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‘It’s Churchillian’: Lessons From Ukraine’s Military Commander-in-Chief

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A West Point-trained special advisor to General Valeriy Zaluzhny shares surprising lessons from inside one of the most miraculous military performances in history. "A sense of humor can really go a long way."
Thayer Leadership’s Dan Rice, right, serves as an unpaid special advisor to General Valeriy Zaluzhny, Commander-in-Chief of Ukraine’s armed forces.

By almost any measure, one of the most effective national leaders of the last few decades is Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky, who has won praise around the world for the way he’s rallied his nation to beat off a savage invasion by superior Russian forces.

Less well known: The man actually wielding the club, General Valeriy Zaluzhny, Commander-in-Chief of the country’s armed forces. But when it comes to understanding why and how the smaller Ukraine force has been able to take on the Russian army and win more often than not, understanding Zaluzhny is essential, with crucial lessons for anyone in leadership today.

Why crucial? Because the fight for Ukraine isn’t just a battle of wills and weapons. It’s also a showdown between two very different leadership models—and leader development models—both of which are at play daily in companies and C-suites competing in the global marketplace.

And, to my mind, there’s no one better situated right now to help understand these dynamics than Dan Rice, president of Thayer Leadership, a leader-development shop based out of the historic Thayer Hotel on the grounds of West Point. He has come to know Zaluzhny, his team and their methods while working in Ukraine as a special advisor to the general and his staff. (Full disclosure: Rice and Thayer are good friends of Chief Executive Group—we collaborate on numerous projects, including our annual Patriots In Business award. Rice has had to register his activities rallying support in the U.S. for the Ukrainians with the U.S. Department of Justice).

“I’m going back in a couple of weeks,” Rice told me during the last week of June. “I don’t get paid for this, I don’t get reimbursed, I’m just doing this to try to help. But I do think that corporations will be inspired by this. This is one of the greatest military successes of David beating Goliath in military history, at least with the battle of Kyiv. The war isn’t won yet, but the battle of Kyiv alone was one of the greatest military successes since the Battle of Agincourt when the British longbow changed warfare.”

Rice has spent his entire career leading or studying leadership. He’s a 1988 graduate of The U.S. Military Academy, as well a graduate of the Army’s Airborne and Ranger Schools, serving two tours in the Middle East, where he received the Purple Heart and was cited by his brigade commander for “courage on the field of battle”. The author of West Point Leadership: Profiles of Courage, Rice also has three masters degrees, in business (Kellogg), marketing (Medill) and learning (UPenn) and recently completed his doctoral classes in leadership at UPenn.

So how did Zaluzhny turn a plodding, Soviet-style army into the most lethal fighting force in all of Europe? And what can the rest of us learn from how he led that process—and how he leads troops today? I asked Rice. Here’s some of what he had to say, edited for length and clarity:

Urkraine’s General Valeriy Zaluzhny is less known than his boss, president Zelensky. You’ve spent time with him, tell us about him—how does he operate as a commander?

He’s not as well known in the international community, but he’s very well known in Ukraine. I really believe he’s a great leader. He is very Western in his thinking. He studied the U.S. military versus Ukraine’s military for a master’s thesis. And he found that the Ukrainian military did many things well, competencies, academia, and training, but one thing, the glaringly obvious missing link, was leader development. So he set in motion starting in 2014 to really change the way the Ukraine military develops leaders.

First, he wanted to model the behavior, so he’s really a servant-style leader and really cares about his people and treats everybody as equals, has respect for his team and they in turn have respect for him. He developed a series of commanders under him who mirror his leadership style.

Working together with U.S. Special Operations Special Forces and with U.S. National Guard and with NATO’s Special Operations teams they helped train the army to be much more agile and much more Western, really developing the junior leaders, the sergeants, and the lieutenants and the captains to be much more innovative, problem-solving, very different than the old Soviet armies. The army that fought the Russians in 2014 is very different than the army that faced the Russians in 2022.

That reminds me of great anecdote you’ve told me, about a friend who was working in, I believe it was East Berlin, during the Cold War. Can you tell us that story and how it fits with what’s playing out in Ukraine right now?

That was my friend, Colonel Sean Hannah. When he was speaking with a Soviet counterpart back in the Cold War, he asked them what they feared the most about the U.S. military. The response was interesting and shocking. They feared our sergeants and our enlisted soldiers that joined the military, very often right out of high school, who will develop into non-commissioned officers after a couple of successful years.

We give them the authority, the empowerment, and really, the biggest thing that boils down to—and this translates into business too—is trust between senior leadership and the employees. You build the trust and you push down decision making power and train them to take prudent risks, not gambles, but prudent risks.

That’s really what our decision-making process is all about in the U.S. military. We try to push down empowerment. That’s really one thing that corporations can learn a lot from the military, developing those frontline leaders who can make the most difference in any organization. Ukraine’s military is really implementing that.

Can you talk about the training that Zaluzhny brought in for his non-commissioned officers versus the Russian forces, and how that is playing out in Ukraine?

It was being played out from 2014 till now. They knew the Russians took 10% of their country in the Donbas out east and then Crimea in the south, and they knew the Russians were coming back for the rest of Ukraine. They anticipated the Russians would invade at some point, which obviously they did in 2022.

They also knew that one of the strengths of the Russian army is that they have very strong electronic warfare. The Ukrainians knew that as soon as the war would kick-off that electronic warfare would blind their commanders in the field, take away their eyes and ears so they wouldn’t be able to communicate well. General Zaluzhny wanted to push down the authority to his commanders to know what his leader’s intent was. And his leader’s intent was to fall back, ambushing Russian columns on the highways, hit them with Javelins from long distance—those are anti-tank weapons—and then hit with artillery, fall back, leapfrog, do it again. This whole strategy was to delay and chew up the Russian army.

In order to achieve this whole strategy, they needed commanders, brigade commanders, battalion commanders, sergeants to all understand how to operate independently to achieve the overall mission. It all boiled down to a great strategy, a superior weapon, precision-guided munitions, and soldiers that were capable of making decisions and solving problems.

The Russian army, on the other hand, is still command and control. They don’t trust their subordinates, so the subordinates don’t make decisions and the commanders have to come down and make the decisions for them. That’s why more and more Russian generals are getting killed, because the columns would stall and the generals would have to go to the front to try to get people to move, and then they would be killed by Ukrainian forces.

At least 14 Russian generals have been killed in Ukraine, a massive number, and they’re running out of qualified commanders. But they also don’t have non-commissioned officers and junior officers capable of making decisions.

How do you, how does the U.S. military, the Ukrainian military, instill this kind of agile thinking, this distributed, edge decision making? What lessons can we take away for training for our own teams?

In order to create an agile organization, you really need disciplined processes. It’s counterintuitive, but if you have a system which everybody speaks the same language of leadership and the same language of decision making, then they all can understand what the commander is, whether it’s a general or whether it’s a CEO, what their intent is, what they’re trying to achieve as the end state.

Then they can nest each of the tasks below that, pushing it down to the front lines so that the sergeant in the field knows, within his realm of responsibility, “Hey, you take the tanks from the beginning, fall back, call in the artillery, fall back again, hit the tanks, retaliate, fall back.” They understood what was within their responsibility and they knew their left and right limits.

It’s the same within a corporation. We talk about this all the time with some of the best corporations. To get the entire leadership team aligned vertically and horizontally is the first step, and to get the C-suite or the commander all agreeing what is the primary mission and what is the leader’s intent, where are we going to take this company in the next five or ten years and then pushing it down to people who can make decisions on their own late at night, alone in the factory, or if they’re a dispersed team at a different location. But they all understand what they’re trying to achieve, and that’s the first step.

You spent a lot of time with General Zaluzhny. What else should we be learning from his performance?

From the observations I’ve had, one of the least appreciated traits I think that a leader has is a sense of humor—especially in extreme crises. To be the calm in the chaos, to not panic, but also to be able to make jokes, it just releases a lot of the tension in the room or on the battlefield, or in the boardroom. A sense of humor can really go a long way to inspire people, getting them to rally.

And humility. He’s achieved great success, he’s the highest-ranking person in the entire military, but yet he’s very humble and he treats every private the same as he treats a lieutenant, the same as he treats his colonels and everybody else. They’re all equal, and he always says, “every life is precious.”

Unlike the Russian military, they treat their soldiers with respect and it comes out in so many different ways. You have an army that is very inspired and it’s a high-performing team because they treat everybody with respect, and therefore they get all their buy-in.

Everybody I talk to there says, “Ukraine or death.” And they mean it. It’s easy to say in peacetime, but they’re in a wartime situation and men and women that I talk to, every one of them would rather die than be occupied and they face that real threat. They have the will to fight, they have amazing soldiers willing to risk their lives and give their lives for freedom. But they don’t have enough weapons. That’s the biggest worry right now.

They’re all bonded together, and it’s all because of leadership. They’re just completely bonded behind this movement to get rid of the Russians at any cost and to continue the fight until they achieve victory. That’s amazing leadership. It’s Churchillian.


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