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Mike Mears - Senior Warrior Intelligence Analyst

In May 2022, I had a Zoom call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky hosted by the UK think tank, Chatham House. He sat behind a small table with his brown sleeves rolled up, in contrast to Russian President Putin’s approach of sitting at the end of long tables in ornate rooms.

Zelensky spoke without notes. He said the Russian invasion is a priority for the whole world and not just Ukraine because Russians have blocked shipment of corn, sunflower oil and grain. Lower income and middle-class people will suffer as a result. “We see no end to this yet—no indication Russia wants to end this war.” He discussed Russian war crimes at length.

In spite of the weighty topics, Zelensky spoke with an upbeat undertone—"there is a bright future ahead of us,” and “we are absolutely confident we will defend our independence.” He spoke from the heart.

In the last newsletter, we discussed how we judge leaders by visual cues, especially behaviors. Let’s examine Putin’s and Zelensky’s visible actions to determine how we rank the two leader’s leadership acumen.

Leadership: Zelensky vs. Putin


Before comparing, we need to consider cultural variances. While western leadership styles are similar, the American leadership approach may meet resistance when transplanted wholesale into a more formal European corporate setting—and vice versa.

Russian leadership culture is quite different. I lived in Russia for three years and had an opportunity to observe leadership styles used by politicians, diplomats, and managers in factories and government organizations. Russian leadership is far more autocratic than would be tolerated in the West.

For Instance

For instance, Russian managers rarely smile. When I asked about it, a Russian official told me that smiling makes you appear silly, and is not acceptable for Russian managers.

In addition, Russian managers generally prefer strong centralized command and control and don’t as readily accept inputs from subordinates as western managers.

Cultural differences can explain some but not all the behavioral differences between Zelensky and Putin.

A visit to the wounded

Zelensky’s and Putin’s differing approaches when visiting wounded soldiers are worthy of an afternoon’s discussion as a comparative leadership case study.

Zelensky walked to the hospital, chatted, bantered, posed for selfies, and awarded medals early in the war reflecting a more western style. Note the visual cues you spot in this clip: relaxed, comfortable, happy, optimistic, compassionate, while starting with a casual, “How are you boys?”

Putin’s fist hospital visit starkly contrasts because of Putin’s autocratic approach. Putin held off visiting wounded soldiers for a month after the invasion and then provided a few stiff remarks in a staged visit with two soldiers standing at attention


While the two hospital visits provide indicators of compassion and different leadership styles, there may be deception involved. Sharp-eyed social media observers point out that the man Putin is shaking hands with—who doesn’t appear wounded— also appeared as a Chelyabinsk factory worker in a previously staged Putin visit. Maybe deception is involved.


Both leaders enjoy broad popular support within their countries since the war began. Putin gains his support by offering a one-sided message through the two government-controlled TV channels. His messaging often stokes fear of the West and reassurances that he is in total control and can handle the situation.

(For an intriguing look at how Russian media is manipulated, read Peter Pomerantsev’s book, Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia.)

Zelensky’s strong popular support springs from his actions. Unlike Putin’s staged settings, Zelensky often mixes with people. During the hospital visit, he shook hands with hospital staff, patients, and visitors.

Earlier this week, I asked a Ukrainian pilot whether he voted for Zelensky. He said,

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Putin’s message is epitomized by his PR photos—horseback riding, hang gliding, and hunting. They project an I’m tough image.

Ethical leadership

Both men are consistent, driven, and focused, but to what ends? Ethical leadership focuses on the dignity and rights of others. It’s often marked by leading for the common good, and leadership by example.

During Zelensky’s Zoom call, he gave a note-free, passionate overview of the war and it’s cost to his people. He told the story of a young Ukrainian girl during the siege of Mariupol who drank from a mud puddle to stay alive.

A week after my call, Zelensky replied to foreigners who advised him to give up parts of Ukraine for peace with Russia.

Ordinary Ukrainians. Millions of those who actually live in the territory they propose to exchange for the illusion of peace, Zelensky said. “You must always see people. And remember that values are not just a word.

On the other hand, Putin’s passion stems from a vision of Russian dominance over Eurasia. Six months before the invasion, Putin published an article on the Russian government’s official website justifying his upcoming aggression on historic revisionism. Putin said, I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia. Our spiritual, human and civilizational ties formed for centuries and have their origins in the same sources, they have been hardened by common trials, achievements and victories. . . For we are one people.

If one substituted the word ‘Germany’ for ‘Russia,’ Putin’s article sounded much like Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

It may be too simplistic to say one leader wants to save his homeland while the other holds a misguided belief in recapturing an empire. Ethical leadership requires we go deeper and look at motive.

  • Zelensky cares about the people of Ukraine, including the young girl in Mariupol.
  • Putin’s shirtless PR pictures signal some narcissism. Perhaps Putin’s motive is not simply to build a Eurasian empire, but something more focused on self— to be the first Czar of a Eurasian empire. And at any cost.

In my Zoom call and through his day-today behaviors, Zelensky rallies much of the world to his side. He has inspired greatness in his people—they have blossomed with innovations in tactics, weapons modifications, and even fundraising. Putin invoked fear to achieve compliance and his actions may hobble his country politically and economically for decades.

The man building his empire hides in bunkers, while the other visits troops in the field

I’ve not seen such polar opposites in decades of studying leadership behaviors. When it comes to leadership, Zelensky’s moral clarity raises the bar for all of us.

Mike Mears

Mike Mears

Mike Mears retired as the CIA’s Chief of Human Capital where he founded and headed the CIA Leadership Academy. He is a trainer and leadership consultant to government and private sector organizations.

Prior to CIA, Mike was senior vice president at GE investments where he managed private equity funds, was a turnaround specialist, and a Six Sigma Black Belt. Before that, he launched eleven small business start-ups, and was president of a fast-food company. Mike served as commander of a nuclear missile site, a general’s aide, and was decorated for valor as a U.S. Army combat platoon leader in Vietnam.

He earned his undergraduate degree at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and his MBA from Harvard Business School.

Mike teaches or lectures on leadership at Department of Defense, Georgetown, University of Salzburg, University of Maryland, and the National Intelligence University. 

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