The war in Ukraine is a catastrophe of epic proportions. No matter who “wins” this conflict, there will be tens of thousands dead and wounded on both sides. Lives will have been lost permanently or changed forever with life-altering physical and mental injuries. The invasion of Ukraine also created the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. Over 6.2 million people have fled Ukraine with another 5.1 million internally displaced, according to the latest figures from the United Nations. Beyond the human cost, Ukraine’s economy is being devastated and will likely take decades to rebuild.
There are so many lessons that can be learned from this conflict. Many revolve around the realms of politics and military strategy, but there are even more if one digs a bit deeper. On vivid display in the war in Ukraine are lessons about the effectiveness of leadership. Conversely, there are even harsher lessons on what happens when there is an absolute failure of it. And this wisdom doesn’t only apply to those on the battlefield but to anyone looking to become a better leader. In this article, we will discuss the following:
- How Russian leaders fell into the “dictator trap”
- Why taking care of your “troops” matter
- How leadership lessons from battle transfer to business
- What lessons leaders can learn from the war in Ukraine
FALLING STRAIGHT INTO THE “DICTATOR TRAP”
The first lesson on leadership started before the war even began. Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) is responsible for internal security and espionage in former Soviet states. It had spied on Ukraine for decades, and FSB agents were expected to play a critical role in paving the way for and taking part in a quick decapitation and replacement of Ukraine’s government. The expectation was that removing the Ukrainian government would be easy and that the Russians would face little resistance. But extensive and clandestine polling conducted by the FSB and other intelligence sources showed this wasn’t the case. The Russians wouldn’t be greeted with open arms as liberators, and the Ukrainians were ready to put up a fight. However, that critical information was never included in reports given to Vladimir Putin.
The lesson: There is no official explanation for why intelligence about the Ukrainians will to fight never made it to Putin. More than likely, it is because anyone who gives Putin bad news winds up in Siberia, falling out a window or is surprised by their own “suicide.” By ostracizing or eliminating any divergent points of view, FSB agents knew it was a much better idea to tell Putin precisely what he wanted to hear. He had fallen directly into the dictator trap (for a deeper explanation, read our blog post here) and was operating in an informational vacuum leading to an incredibly poor decision. And this trap isn’t just for dictators, as business leaders have fallen into it too. To make well-informed decisions, you must create an environment where employees are not afraid to speak the truth. Do the opposite, and you might do the business equivalent of invading Ukraine.
A LONG TABLE OF DETACHMENT
One of the many enduring images from the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine is Putin at the end of a ridiculously long table. At the other end was a general updating him with undoubtedly “stellar” news about the war’s progress. The photographs conveyed an image of a leader detached from reality and aloof to the suffering of his troops along with the actual situation on the ground. And they fueled rumors of Putin’s supposed poor health. In stark contrast, the leader of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, was often seen near the front congratulating his troops on a victory or out in public.
The lesson: Effective leadership requires a certain amount of detachment. After all, seeing the big picture and making the right decisions can be challenging if you are busy running around in the trenches with your “troops.” But becoming too detached is also a risk that can do as much damage as it can convey, whether intentionally or not, that you don’t have regard for your employees. Being a genuinely emphatic leader that actually cares about employees is a much better tactic. Read our blog post for more details on how empathy can be a more effective management style.
SOMETHING TO FIGHT FOR
Russia’s intelligence agency wasn’t the only one that mistakenly thought toppling Ukraine would be relatively easy. Most Western agencies surmised that Ukraine’s military might hold out for a week before succumbing to Russia’s much larger forces. But Ukraine surprised the world with its historic defense of Kyiv from a multi-pronged attack. Some of the Ukrainian successes in the early days of the war can be attributed to Russia vastly underestimating them. But a lot of it has to do with the fact that the Ukrainians knew exactly what they were fighting for. They had no interest in becoming a puppet state of Russia and were willing to die for their country and way of life. In contrast, most Russian soldiers had no idea why they were in Ukraine with many being told they were on a training exercise.
The lesson: You are not (hopefully) asking your employees to lay down their lives. But if you want them to perform at their maximum, they need to believe in what they are “fighting” for. Employees who don’t believe in your brand’s mission simply work for a paycheck. Creating a sense of a larger purpose is the responsibility of every leader, and building the right company culture is a great way to start. Check out our blog post on why your company’s culture is its most important secret weapon.
IGNORE TROOP MORALE AT YOUR PERIL
The will to fight and morale are linked but not entirely the same. However, both play critical roles in the combat effectiveness of any fighting force. On display in the Ukrainian conflict are two completely different approaches to morale. Ukraine does its best to keep morale among its troops high in a challenging situation. It equips them with the best equipment possible and promptly evacuates the wounded. Leaders at every level praise their soldiers’ efforts and commend them. Russia takes the exact opposite approach treating the vast majority of its soldiers as disposable cannon fodder. Wounded are often left abandoned, some soldiers are equipped with ancient equipment and the consequences for failure in battle are often harsh. Can you guess which one is the more effective combat force?
The lesson: Increasingly, we are seeing larger corporations act like Russia. They lay off large swathes of employees with little explanation or reasoning besides the need to make more profits. Then they expect those left behind to work even harder simply because they say so. Or they mandate return-to-office policies with little regard for worker input on the subject. The list goes on and on. None of these approach the level of disregard Russia seems to have for its soldiers, but they do significantly affect a company’s morale. And that torpedoing of morale always has a negative outcome. If you don’t take care of your “troops,” don’t expect them to take care of you.
LEADERSHIP AT EVERY LEVEL
The war in Ukraine exposed many deficiencies in the Russian military, but one that doesn’t get too much attention is its overall structure. Unlike their Western counterparts, the Russian military doesn’t have a strong officer corps. This lack of mid-level leadership means low-level soldiers go forward with their “marching orders” and are expected to carry them out no matter what. But no one is empowered to make adjustments if the situation changes, as almost always happens in combat. The only options are to keep trying to grind forward with outdated orders or retreat and await new orders from much higher up the command chain. One usually results in their demise, and the other loses a battle.
The lesson: Sergeants and lieutenants are the backbones of the U.S. military because they can rapidly assess a changing situation, make adjustments to overcome it on the fly and lead their team to victory. But some companies act like the Russian military by not enabling anyone except a CEO to make decisions. Like on the Russian battlefield, the result is a slow decision-making process often based on an outdated situation with many people unsure of what to do. Your brand might already have “sergeants” and “lieutenants,” but you need to empower them to make their own decisions and back them up when they do.
THE FOG OF WAR
The 2022 Ukrainian northern counteroffensive launched on September 6 in the Kharkiv Oblast caught Russia entirely off guard. Part of the reason for this surprise was that Ukraine had been baiting Russia with news of an upcoming counteroffensive in the south for weeks. Russia fell for the trap by redeploying thousands of troops to the south, including elite units like the 1st Guards Tank Army. But another reason for the surprise is that Russia has difficulty detecting real-time troop movements. Its satellites can spot larger fixed targets like airports and military bases. And smaller drones can surveil the front lines. Beyond that, Russia lacks the sophisticated intelligence and data-gathering resources of other armies to peer deep into a country. That “blindness” cost Russia dearly, as Ukraine rapidly reclaimed up to 3,000 square kilometers of its territory and inflicted heavy losses.
The lesson: Competent generals don’t operate “blind” or make decisions on hunches, and neither should you. Data is your best friend, and you should gather it as much as possible. You don’t need to take out a loan for a sophisticated RC-135V/W Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft. But you should collect as much first-party data about your customers as possible. Not sure what first-party data is or why it is so important? Read our blog post that gives a full explanation. More data makes you better informed and leads to sounder decisions. And it eliminates any nasty surprises that could be lurking out there.
ASKING THE IMPOSSIBLE
The heroism and bravery of Ukrainian soldiers is without dispute. They have fought hard and valiantly against a numerically superior force with much deeper reserves of equipment and ammunition. And they have pulled off some awe-inspiring feats with the defense of Kyiv, the taking of Kherson and the liberation of territory in the north. But they are not “super soldiers” immune to bullets, explosions, mines and death. Yet, somehow in the current counteroffensive, many expect them to be. Without air cover and while getting shelled mercilessly by artillery, Ukrainian soldiers were supposed to somehow advance through massive minefields on heavily dug-in Russian positions. It is something no Western military would ever do and almost an impossible task. The resulting high casualties shouldn’t be shocking to anyone.
The lesson: Having faith and believing in your employees is always good. They may even be able to pull off seemingly amazing feats too. But always asking them to pull off the impossible is a surefire way to grind them down and set them up for eventual failure. Leadership is not just about telling your staff to do something and setting goals. You have to be realistic about what your employees can achieve and set them up properly with the resources to win.
UNDERESTIMATING YOUR ENEMY
It is a fair assessment to say that Ukraine’s counteroffensive is not going the way it was envisioned. Many in the West thought they could sprinkle some modern armor among Ukrainian troops. Those tanks would then punch holes in Russian defenses, followed by thousands of combat soldiers. The Russians would quickly abandon their positions allowing Ukraine to reclaim vast swathes of its territory. On paper, it all looked relatively easy with many hoping for a complete collapse of the Russian military in Ukraine. But the reality is a lot different with Russian soldiers creating layers of fortified positions surrounded by dense minefields. Progress for the Ukrainians so far has been slow and costly.
The lesson: Much has been made in the Western media about the incompetence of the Russian armed forces leading some to underestimate them. Is the Russian army the most competent in the world? Definitely not, but they aren’t the most incompetent either, and there are lots of them. Are they slow to adapt? Yes, but they did adjust and were given the time to. Believing in “the hype” and underestimating your competition won’t cost lives as in Ukraine, but it is a serious mistake. Leading a brand involves having a clear-eyed understanding of your competition along with the strength and weaknesses of your company.
WE ARE HERE TO HELP
At Kahn Media, we can perform a complete analysis of your brand and its competitors to ensure they never blindside you. We can develop a sound business strategy that maximizes revenue and propels your brand forward. As a full-service marketing agency, we also have teams of in-house experts highly skilled in content creation, digital marketing, social media management, influencer engagement, experiential event management and hybrid public relations. Beyond creating a strategy that positions your brand for strength and growth, we can act as its turn-key marketing department, often at a more affordable price point than hiring your own internal team. Contact us to see what is possible for your brand.