The key players in the Ukrainian conflict embody distinctive styles of leadership
the view. charismatic leader. The pragmatist.
The main players in the Ukraine conflict — Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and US President Joe Biden — represent three distinct styles of leadership, according to Samuel Hunter of the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
“It doesn’t always happen that you have one of both. You often have the same styles kind of bumping heads with each other,” says Hunter, a professor of industrial and organizational psychology. “But in this scenario, you have one of each of the three styles. on the world stage.”
According to Hunter, there are multiple paths to driving, and no one way to drive is perfect.
Putin is an ideological leader. Psychiatrist Kenneth Decliva, a senior fellow at the George H.W. Bush Foundation for US-China Relations, has studied the former KGB agent (the foreign intelligence and internal security agency of the Soviet Union) for 20 years.
“He is a ruthless, authoritarian leader who has committed cruel acts over the past two decades,” says Dicleva. “Until the invasion of Ukraine, it was fair to consider him an accomplished tactician and strategist.”
Putin has developed an image of a physically fit action man, posting photos of himself topless on horseback, spearfishing, carrying a rifle, flipping an opponent while practicing martial arts, and allegedly wrestling a bear.
“Putin exemplifies a familiar and old style of leadership in that he presents himself as uniquely powerful and destined,” says Michael Blake, professor of philosophy, public policy, and governance at the University of Washington.
He presents himself as capable of defeating others, of wisely deploying cruelty and other forms of political skill, and also as unique in his ability to restore Russia to a golden age in its past. And this image of the leader is very common in political history. It’s associated with fascism, Blake says, but it’s not unique to fascism.
One of Putin’s driving motives is to restore Russia to the former glory it enjoyed as the Soviet Union, which was a world power until it collapsed in 1991.
“Ideological leaders are often more reactionary,” says Hunter. “So there is a past era that they either wish to exist or hope to return to. That is really the point, which is that they wish to return to an earlier era. In Putin’s specific case, to go back to Soviet-era Russia, where there was more power and influence over The world stage in relation to Russian influence.
Zelensky emerged as a charismatic leader. The former actor and comedian surprised many with his courage and determination after Russia invaded his country on February 24.
Charismatic leaders are personified in a number of different ways. But two things that set them apart are this sense of hope, that sense of change, often, [and] Not always but often a positive emotion, talking about a brighter future and making change to make things better,” says Hunter. “And so, in many ways, Zelenskyy captures that with broad audience appeal, engaging audiences and a broad message.”
While Putin appears to be following a familiar book, Zelensky is making the case for a new one, according to Blake.
“Zelensky seems to present an unusual profile of leadership that is not determined by fate or some kind of political genius,” says Blake. “Instead, it is almost accidental. His personal style of self-presentation is less concerned with portraying an unusual lack of fear or extraordinary physical prowess.
Given Zelensky’s entertainment background, many underestimated the political upstart. Nevertheless, he succeeded in rallying his people to rise up against the Russian attack. When the United States offered to evacuate the Ukrainian leader and his family, Zelensky famously refused, saying, “The battle is here. I need ammunition, not a ride.”
“I think the Russians, the West and even the United States misunderstood Zelensky,” says Dekleva, a fellow at the Bush Foundation. “I think we assumed Zelensky was lightweight…and he’d run away. And he did, I don’t think we’d have that conversation today. I think he had an epiphany when he started the invasion, and he made a decision that resonated with the world.”
Biden, who led the West’s response to Russia’s attack on Ukraine, is an example of a pragmatic leader.
“Biden represents the realist course,” says Hunter. “Pragmatic leaders are about solving problems. They are often very rational, data-driven, numbers-driven. Pragmatic leaders are boring in many ways.”
Biden has been in politics since 1972, when he was first elected to the US Senate. He was re-elected six times before leaving to serve as Vice President Barack Obama for eight years.
Joe Biden represents all of the above. He’s an old-fashioned Democratic leader, says Blake. “He is less interested in presenting himself as unique, or as the embodiment of fate, or in presenting cruelty as a supposed political good. In this, I think, he had a certain aspect of some of Zelensky’s virtues. But he had much less opportunity to show their depth.”
When it comes to Ukraine, much of Biden’s focus has been on taking a measured approach to protecting US interests, while staying out of the conflict itself.
“A lot of this is keeping the temperature down or taking the passion away from it. Pulling a lot of the levers behind the scenes. Making sure you build allies and networks, using things like economic sanctions, rather than, hopefully, military interventions from the American side,” says Hunter.
A major crisis can amplify or define a politician’s leadership style.
“We can be very guarded and measured and collected most of the time, but during a crisis, you’re under time pressure and pressure,” Hunter says. “All of these things come together to make self-regulation more difficult, and it shows who you really are. … If that pressure is enough, you start to see who these leaders really are.”
The types of leaders involved in a conflict can dictate the type of resolution needed. In Putin’s case, that would require a technique called tactical empathy, Dikleva says.
We are now in a very delicate and very dangerous situation in which Putin is cornered. He suffered a loss of prestige. He is now an outcast, and is cornered. “He’s a dangerous Putin,” says Dikleva. “I think we have to be very careful and offer, diplomatically, a so-called ramp or a means of de-escalation and making Putin feel – both internally to himself and propagandistically – … that he has achieved his goals and can save face and walk away from this war.”
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