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Lights and Shadows of President Zelenski


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The Conversation

Luis Ángel Díaz Robredo

Lecturer at School of Education and Psychology

Volodymir Zelenski's behaviour after more than six weeks of invasion as head of the Ukrainian government has generated much admiration. awardMedia outlets such as TIME and Forbes describe him as a true 21st century leadership modeland even politicians have proposed him and the Ukrainian people as candidates for the Nobel Peace Prize for 2022.

Why is Zelenski seen as special and different from other politicians? There are many definitions of leadership, but the following is a good reflection of some commonly accepted ideas in psychology. Peter G. Northouse points out:

"Leadership is a process of influence between leader and followers aimed at achieving the goals of a group, organisation or society".

This definition is broad and allows for a very diverse set of leadership styles to be included, from the most authoritarian and hierarchical to the most democratic and flexible.

Let us look at a few defining moments in the Ukrainian president's political life to understand his style.

Rise to power

The beginning of Volodimir Zelenski's short political life is closely linked to his degree programas an actor. After studying law at licentiate degreein 2000, he devoted himself exclusively to acting and directing plays and films.

After various hits and misses, in 2015 he became a star on Ukrainian television thanks to his starring role as the Ukrainian president in the series Servant of the people.

Unexpectedly - no previous political experience is on record - in 2018 he founded a party with the same name as the TV series, which also incorporated many members of his production company Kvartal-95 into the political team.

On New Year's Eve 2018, on primetime schedule, Zelenski appeared on television announcing his candidacy and unashamedly using the name of the series that had made him so famous.

Months later, Zelenski won a landslide victory in a virtual campaign, via social media and Youtube, without public rallies or press conferences.

Since then, and up to the date of the conflict, the new president tried to put some reformist policies on internshipon internal administration, the Donbas conflict and foreign relations.

In the run-up to the invasion, his attitude to the mobilisation of Russian troops near the border was remarkably nonchalant, to the point that on 28 January 2022, barely a month before the invasion, Zelenski asked the US and the UK not to create alarm about Russia's invasion announcements as it would damage his country's Economics.

The emotional leader

Once the Russian invasion began, Zelenski's behaviour took a radical turn in the international scene.

From the previous timid diplomatic activity, a frenetic virtual presence in the parliaments of different countries (up to 12 parliaments in two weeks) has developed and is still continuing.

Zelenski seeks to persuade international public opinion with suggestive and emotive words that generate empathy for his cause: before Germany he cited the Berlin Wall; before Japan he recalled the Fukushima nuclear incident and its similarity with the Chernobyl plant taken over by the Russians; before the US Parliament he recalled Pearl Harbour and the 9/11 attacks; before the British Parliament he quoted the famous phrase of W. Churchill "We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall fight in the hills, we shall fight in the hills. Churchill "We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender!" and before the French Elysée he named the motto "liberty, equality and fraternity". In all of them there is a clear goalappeal to empathy, solidarity and the shared values of political leaders.

An image in perfect transformation

The president's image has also evolved since the first days of the invasion: he quickly abandoned institutional forms and, wearing the familiar green military T-shirt, the unshaven beard of several days and an unkempt appearance, went out to the trenches, to the most recognisable places in the city or to hospitals to take photos with the population, to support the troops or to show resilience and closeness in the face of adversity and fear.

Once again, the use of social media gave him a fantastic advantage in reaching out to the people.

It is true that Zelenski lacked sufficient political experience to date and certainly made initial mistakes. But it is also true that he has used the value of charismatic/transformational leadership.

Thanks to his skillwith social networks and the media, he has been able to appeal to the moral strength and confidence and win the admiration of many: the civilian population, the Ukrainian troops and the thousands of international volunteers who have joined his ranks and made a heroic effort.

Moreover, it has managed to move international political leaders who have not hesitated to donate huge amounts of military equipment. Probably, without these characteristics that he has shown in these last weeks of war, Ukraine's statuswould be very different today.

It remains to be seen whether the leader character created by Zelenski will be able to withstand the terrible script of war in the future.