Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has galvanized the public in a way the world hasn’t seen since Winston Churchill. The comedian turned world leader is being lauded for his leadership by standing up to his Russian neighbor and valiantly joining his compatriots to fight off the Kremlin’s brutal invasion of his country.
Let’s look at what Zelenskyy’s example offers security leaders.
Take Your Shot
Eminem emphasized owning “the moment.” He rapped, “You own it, you better never let it go/You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow/This opportunity comes once in a lifetime.” Zelenskyy’s reputation was imprinted when, on behalf of his fledgling democracy, he stood up to an autocrat seeking to restore the post-World War II Soviet regime. He took his one shot and made it.
Security professionals may also get only a single shot to define themselves. For some, it may have been during the COVID-19 crisis. For Chris Krebs, former Director of Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), his moment came when, in the face of tremendous pressure, he rebuffed President Trump’s claims that voting machines were compromised. He has faced tremendous consequences but remains steadfast in his stance.
Stand Up for Principle
Zelenskyy’s defiance is based on democratic principles of freedom and representative rule, and most of the world has stood beside him. Sometimes security professionals find themselves in ethical dilemmas. As in Krebs’ case, it may cost you your job or your friends, but not your reputation or values.
R.C. Miles, who has led security teams at multiple organizations, once had to confront executives who were installing surveillance cameras to monitor people doing their jobs. He brought his concerns to the CEO, who agreed that this type of use contravened the values of the organization. He got them to turn the cameras off. In another role, despite significant pushback, he called out staff who were assuming aliases to spy on other organizations, pointing out that the practice violated accepted principles of scientific research as well as the company’s own ethical guidelines.
If security professionals do stand on principle, they have to be prepared to pay the price. “It’s at that moment when you’re truly tested,” Miles says.
Lead By Example
Zelenskyy has backed up his tough talk with action. While he could have taken refuge in other countries, he stayed behind, donned military gear, and took to the streets to fight for his people. This has inspired tens of thousands of countrymen and women to follow his lead. Ukrainian expatriates are flooding back to the mother country to join the cause, as are many non-Ukrainians. Legions of cyberwarriors have also come to the country’s aid, trying to disrupt Russian infrastructure.
Leading by example can take many forms. Credo Cyber Consulting Founder Antoinette King was blown away when, after having just met Andrew Lanning a couple of weeks earlier, he asked her to appear on his program to discuss her industry experience. “I was floored that he asked me,” she recalls, since she hadn’t presented before. “I asked him, ‘Why me?’ and his answer has stuck with me ever since.” Lanning had publicly committed to championing diversity and representation on his show and in the industry at large. “He didn’t just wave the flag of diversity,” King says. “His company actually adheres to that principle above everything else.”
Zelenskyy, perhaps via his entertainment background, has mastered his image. Videos, pictures and memes show him looking fit, bravely protecting the streets with fellow soldiers or remotely addressing overseas presidents and legislators. Contrast these with the aloof, sallow images of Putin, perhaps best represented by a photo of him talking to French President Macron across a long table. The memes are endless. People have rendered the table as an airport baggage carousel, a sushi conveyor belt and a ping pong table. In the vast space between the two men, jokesters have inserted the figures from da Vinci’s Last Supper, pairs of figure skaters and Bernie Sanders in mittens.
Security professionals are unlikely to appear on the world stage, but image counts just as much on the factory floor, at a trade show, or in the board room. It speaks volumes when security leaders stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their colleagues during a crisis.
Use Simple Language
“I need ammunition, not a ride,” said Zelenskyy. Those simple, crystal-clear words painted an indelible picture of a man refusing to abandon his nation. Simple language is more forceful, inspiring and memorable.
Nelson Mandela called democracy an ideal “for which I am prepared to die.” He didn’t say, “It is incumbent on me to strive to achieve a democratic society, succumb though I may.” Martin Luther King, Jr., had a dream. He didn’t postulate alternative futures. Keep it easy and memorable.
You’ll probably never get the opportunity to stand up to a Russian dictator. But Zelenskyy’s blueprint for leadership works well at any scale. Take your shot and own it.