The cataclysmic events in Ukraine have brought forth 21st-century heroes and villains. Volodymyr Zelenskiy has risen to the moment, much like Winston Churchill and other 20th-century leaders did, while Vladimir Putin may end up in the same league as Hitler and Stalin.
In a nutshell
- War makes or breaks leaders
- Character is at the heart of what makes a good or bad politician
- Volodymyr Zelenskiy has become an example to follow
The dangerous default position of those of us who are getting older is to nostalgically assert that today’s political leaders are not up to scratch with those who preceded them.
In puzzling over the dearth of leadership in Europe, and generally in the Western world, how easy it would be to sound like Statler or Waldorf, the cantankerous characters who made their first balcony appearance on The Muppet Show in 1975. From the safety of the balcony, Statler and Waldorf delighted in jeering and heckling the entire cast of characters.
And then comes along a man like Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to prove that circumstances can still produce great leaders while the war crimes of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s army starkly remind us that the first duty of a nation’s leader is to ensure the security and defense of their people.
Mr. Zelenskiy’s extraordinary courage teaches us a great deal, sharply recalling much that has been forgotten.
His example may even be capable of creating a renaissance in political leadership.
I asked myself what qualities make for a good leader. And along came Ukraine’s president.
Even at this late hour what has occurred in Ukraine may force the weak and windy to consider whether they have fallen into the byzantine trap of arguing among themselves, as Constantinople and Byzantium were about to fall, about the gender of angels. The politics of peripheral concerns looks like self-indulgence of a high order when set alongside the scarred faces of civilians fleeing the carnage in their Ukrainian cities.
The marginal and fringe obsessions that have become the preoccupation and staple of political discourse and ideology suddenly look largely irrelevant as a sovereign state continues its fight for its survival.
Before the invasion of Ukraine, this essay was going to be on the dearth of political leadership and, in asking whether its absence matters, my conclusion is that it certainly does. I asked myself what qualities make for a good leader. And along came Ukraine’s president.
The English writer, C.S. Lewis, in “The Abolition of Man,” concluded that inadequate education creates “men without chests.” It’s a description that fits too many people in leadership positions today.
Are we – should we – be forming tomorrow’s leaders and investing in young men and women who need formation? Should we be giving them something other than politically correct wokeness – equipping them with political courage rather than political correctness?
But there is only so much that can come out of a textbook.
Adversity shapes character
Never neglect the interplay between circumstances and leadership – where skills and judgment are honed, in the university of adversity and from which leaders emerge because of the strength of character shaped in adverse conditions.
Harold Macmillan, the British prime minister from 1957 to 1963, when asked what factors shape political careers replied, “events dear boy, events.” And, since ancient times, our history books have described events that have made or broken leaders.
The accounts are littered with examples of good and wise leaders – and plenty of examples of their opposites.
For every Cicero, there was a Caligula – the Roman emperor who in four short capricious and inept years undermined the Empire.
For every Aristotle, there was a succession of Greek tyrants.
Towering 20th-century figures
In Europe, we can call up the memory of towering figures such as Bismarck and Gladstone, or from the 20th century, singular leaders such as Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle, Alcide de Gaspari, John and Robert Kennedy, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan (who Mr. Zelenskiy says inspired him).
But we can hardly overlook the murderous ideologies of powerful leaders such as Hitler, Stalin and their contemporary imitators today – in the fast-growing authoritarian states – from Belarus to Turkey, from North Korea to Iran and which, modeled on the tyrannical leadership of Mr. Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, threaten their own citizens, their neighbors and world order.
Yes, we can summon the ghosts of America’s founding fathers, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin and the rest, but we must also summon up the ghosts of the world’s other superpower.
In China, where between 1958 to 1962, in entrenching communism, historians estimate that Mao Zedong and his Chinese Communist Party were responsible for 45 million people losing their lives – making it the biggest mass murder ever recorded. By contrast, I often think of the bravery of the solitary “tank man” who stood in 1989 in an act of defiance in front of a column of CCP tanks in Tiananmen Square. That was sacrificial leadership of a very high order.
In “The Oak and the Calf,” reflecting on the sort of leaders who had condemned him to the Soviet Union communist gulags, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – a one-man resistance movement against communism – asked: “When our purpose in life is almost overwhelmed by the external circumstances of life, how do we cope? What sources of strength can we call on? Does character matter?”
As Mr. Zelenskiy has vividly demonstrated, character not only matters, it is at the very heart of what makes a good or bad leader.
In the United Kingdom, we have seen the importance of character in the spotty lives of parliamentary leaders who lose the trust of the people because they themselves cannot be trusted to tell the truth or to live by the laws which they have promoted. There is a joke being told by civil servants in Whitehall that in Ukraine they have a leader who was once a comedian but in the UK it is the other way around.
But at least in a democracy the electorate can tell jokes about their leaders and ultimately pass a verdict, turfing them out if they wish.
Not so easily done in totalitarian regimes – as arrested protestors in Russia, Belarus and Hong Kong have discovered. Ask the Russian Orthodox priest who, in a sermon on Last Judgment Sunday, in his village church, challenged Mr. Putin’s war and found himself imprisoned as a consequence.
The twisted character and lack of virtue in the lives of the European, Asian, African and Latin American dictators who have murdered, tortured, persecuted, plundered, or imprisoned their citizens, succinctly answers Solzhenitsyn’s question – character does matter.
It is notable – and we see it again in President Zelenskiy – that the character of great leaders has often been formed in adversity or suffering. He is the grandson of a man whose three Jewish brothers were all murdered, executed by the Nazis.
Driven by a patriotic belief in the common good, such leaders invariably have a vision based on upholding the rule of law, entrenching democratic rights, the creation of societies based on fairness, merit, justice and truth.
Men like President Zelenskiy see leadership as public service, not as a passport for corrupt self-enrichment. And they would recognize the truth of the prophet’s words that “where there is no vision, the people perish.”
But let me note the flaws and failings of even the best of leaders. Hankering after a mythical lost age of giant leaders can all too easily blind us to the inevitability of human failing or to the circumstances in which such leaders were made.
In 1979, on entering the House of Commons, as the “baby of the House,” I was very privileged to encounter political leaders who had been formed during the vicissitudes of World War II.
Many had direct family memories of the colossal loss of life during World War I. Those harrowing experiences shaped and tempered their attitudes and thinking.
War had made leaders of men who might otherwise have been footnotes in our history books.
Churchill – with whom President Zelenskiy is sometimes compared – had a very checkered political career, spanning 70 years. His disastrous decisions in 1915 over the invasion of Turkey at Gallipoli, his advocacy of the use of poison gas, his treatment of strikers, support for eugenics and much more besides, are not the marks of a great leader.
Ability to learn from mistakes
But the ability to learn from mistakes is.
Churchill learned from his failures and the years in the political wilderness. That greater self-awareness and deepening of his character, reflected in his determination not to give up – and willingness to stand alone having correctly read the threat posed by the rise of Hitler – made him the leader that a country at war desperately needed. His inspiring words and courage were the gifts his nation needed. Yet, in 1945 they did not reelect him, preferring instead the vision of a more just society presented by Clement Atlee.
Churchill then demonstrated the greatest leadership gift of all in accepting defeat and ensuring the peaceful democratic transfer of power to his opponents. He did not lead or incite angry mobs to storm Parliament Square and would have been aghast to see such scenes on Capitol Hill in 2021 in his beloved America.
Labour was then in power in Britain for five years but very quickly dissipated their electoral advantage, illustrated by the story of Sir Hartley Shawcross, one of the “nearly men” of the 20th-century British Labour Party. A redoubtable lawyer, one of his colleagues, Hugh Dalton, described him as “very able, obstinate and self-important, too keenly conscious of his good brains and his good looks.” Shawcross even owned a yacht named “Vanity.”
His vanity and arrogance finally finished his leadership ambitions after publicly stating of Labour: “We are the masters now.” He later admitted: “I’ve said a lot of bloody stupid things in my life, and I think that was the most stupid thing I’ve ever said.” Hubris saw Labour out and Churchill returned to office at the next election.
Shawcross’ story illustrates how quickly leaders can come to see themselves as masters rather than public servants of nations and forget who gave them the right to govern.
Singular public servants
However, the post-World War II period did produce some singular public servants.
In France, the exiled De Gaulle led free France against Nazi Germany and restored democracy; in West Germany, Adenauer, having been imprisoned by the Nazis, led his Christian Democratic Union to power, restored democracy and stability in West Germany, thereby gaining great international respect for his country and his economic policies: Wirtschaftswunder – the postwar economic miracle. In Italy, Adenauer’s Christian Democratic colleague, Alcide De Gasperi, having been sentenced to four years imprisonment by Mussolini’s fascists, became the country’s postwar leader and a founding father of the European Union.
All of these men had the shared experience of being winnowed in adversity. It would take until 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall to fully comprehend the adversity that shaped the men and women who would bring freedom to Central and Eastern Europe.
I once spent some time with Vaclav Havel who described how, during the communist era in Czechoslovakia, it felt as if everyone had been compromised by the nature of the regime: that personal survival had become their foremost consideration. He said that the population was living a lie in which truth had become the first casualty; that “the saving message is that the truth prevails for those who live in truth,” adding that, in the formation of the next generation of leaders, this message “might be inscribed on the Moses baskets of every nation’s babies.”
That message was certainly inscribed on Mr. Zelenskiy’s Moses basket – and imbibed with their mother’s milk by millions of Ukrainians.
Like Mr. Havel, President Zelenskiy understands the nature of the corrupted and dictatorial system that the Kremlin seeks to reimpose on Ukraine and its people. He knows his own story and that of his people. And like so many before him in Central and Eastern Europe he has unfurled his banner of truth and risked his life in its defense. He has the stomach to fight for his freedom.
He also knows the price tag attached to freedom.
On becoming president, he wore wristbands bearing the names of soldiers killed in the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine – where 14,000 people have been killed after Russia’s invasion in 2014. A good leader is never careless with the lives of their citizens. Mr. Zelenskiy knows the nature of human loss.
A good leader inspires and leads by example. So Mr. Zelenskiy turned down the option of being airlifted out of Kyiv to the U.S. saying, “I need ammunition, not a ride.”
There is something very appropriate about the title of the TV series he starred in from 2015, in which he played the part of a modest history teacher who denounced corruption and came to power. The series was entitled “Servant of the People.”
By comparison, in the West political leaders too often make the mistake of Shawcross and forget that they are the people’s servants. The extraordinary sacrifice of lives and treasure, which provided for our postwar freedoms, is also too easily forgotten. Our apparent lazy indifference to the defense of those freedoms created the conditions which led Mr. Putin to believe that he could place a new Iron Curtain across the heart of Europe.
A good leader inspires by example.
In 1989 I visited Lviv, Ukraine, and joined the crowd of 250,000 who were demanding democratic change.
I observed people laying flowers in front of the doors of a church closed 40 years earlier by Stalin. They had done so every day during the intervening 40 years and, every day, the Soviet police came to remove both the flowers and the crown of thorns nailed to the railings. And every day that followed the believers returned to place fresh flowers at the closed door.
I was given a secret document of the Communist Party which bitterly complained that despite all their attempts they had been unable to eradicate the “Uniates” and, even worse, “a large proportion of the youth” was taking part in its illegal activities. Mr. Zelenskiy was a boy at the time and learning the story of his Jewish family.
Defiance, hunger strikes and demonstrations had become regular occurrences. Imprisonment and torture were routine.
President Putin, who is said to greatly admire Stalin, should take note that it proved impossible, even for that monster, to destroy the human spirit. Despite the Kremlin’s best efforts, Ukraine has subsequently tasted more than 30 years of freedom and Mr. Putin will never be able to erase that from the collective memory. And he has massively underestimated the character of Volodymyr Zelenskiy and the people of Ukraine.
In the West we should make a careful study of the circumstances that have produced such bravery – not least because what Mr. Putin has done to Ukraine could be the fate of millions of other people too.
Human solidarity and resistance are born out of suffering and Mr. Putin’s failure to understand that – or to comprehend what motivates a man like President Zelenskiy – will prove to be the undoing of the Russian leader as he unites political forces and nations against him.
As Mr. Putin has demonstrated, leadership without adequate restraint is dangerous. “Strong leaders” can so easily morph into authoritarian leaders, even dictators – or even believing themselves to be immortal gods.
In North Korea, notable for voting with Mr. Putin at the United Nations in favor of his war, a succession of Kims have described themselves as “Supreme Leader” but Kim Il-sung went one further, taking the title “Eternal Leader.”
Having seen the preserved earthly remains of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il – along with those of Lenin and Mao in their Kremlin and Tiananmen Square mausoleums – I can attest that the epithet “eternal” was premature.
Kim Jong-un has settled for “Supreme Leader” – not that any visitor to that benighted country can see any evidence of great leadership, just grossly suffering of impoverished people while its leaders live in luxury and squander vast sums of money on developing nuclear weapons.
Too easily intoxicated on their own propaganda, such leaders need the whispering voice of the Roman slave who accompanied victorious generals as they paraded triumphantly through the streets of Rome to the Temple of Jupiter, constantly reminding them “You are mortal.”
Like their Roman ancestors, leaders – and would-be leaders – can all too easily fall victim to narcissistic egotism and vanity.
Of such leaders, Statler or Waldorf would doubtless say “not a lot” when asked the question “what do you think of them so far?” But faced with Ukraine’s president who told European Union leaders, when speaking to them on February 24, “this might be the last time you see me alive” – and on reading reports that 400 mercenaries have been sent to Kyiv with orders to kill him – even they might have to join the chorus of “Slava Ukraini” (Glory to Ukraine) and recognize that our ability to produce fine leaders is exemplified by Mr. Zelenskiy’s dignity and heroism which stands in such sharp contrast to the crude ramblings and incitements of those who seek to kill him. He is the antidote to the dearth of leadership in too many democracies.