I like to pay attention to leaders who seem willing to connect and lead in authentic and meaningful ways. And like most of the world, I can’t help but be fascinated by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s leadership style.
Chances are you’ve seen Zelensky speak or watched one of his numerous interviews with mainstream media. Or maybe you’ve tuned into a parliamentary address (he’s addressed over a dozen nations). Politics and war aside, Zelensky’s ability to connect with audiences, be influential, and ultimately lead through a crisis is transforming how leadership is perceived.
What qualities and behaviours make an effective leader? While there’s the obvious ability to communicate well and influence others, these are surface level qualities compared to the deeper foundation of open, authentic, meaningful leadership – the kind that cultivates psychologically safe workplaces.
As an ACHIEVE trainer, I facilitate our Psychological Safety in the Workplace workshop and like to consider leadership through this lens. When staff work in a psychologically safe workplace, they feel valued, engaged, and satisfied. These values form the foundation of a healthy workplace culture.
Here are three leadership skills that are linked to inspired and psychologically safe workplaces:
Core Leadership Skill 01 | Vulnerability
Research tells us that leaders who show vulnerability are more respected and liked than leaders who don’t show any sign of weakness or personal emotion. Examples of showing vulnerability include admitting if a situation is challenging or difficult, sharing a personal story, or admitting when you’ve made a mistake. Whether he’s speaking about his own family or the tragic death of a child, Zelensky openly shares how he feels and allows the world to witness these vulnerable moments.
Takeaway: Being vulnerable doesn’t equate to weakness, it can actually make you more relatable to team members. Show vulnerability in crisis situations, difficult conversations, and situations where you don’t have all the answers. Vulnerability doesn’t mean being emotional – rather, it means sharing how you feel about a situation or providing a perspective that is not hampered by titles and roles. This critical leadership skill will improve dialogue between leaders and teams and create safe workplaces where people don’t fear repercussion from being open and vulnerable.
Core Leadership Skill 02 | Accessibility
Despite over five months of war, Zelensky has remained remarkably accessible. Every night, whether he’s on a train or poised outside the presidential compound, Zelensky speaks directly to the Ukrainian people in a video address. In these addresses, he doesn’t spat empty platitudes or share news you’d easily find with a quick Google. Instead, he updates the nation, sharing about politics, policies, and recounting the day’s conversations and meetings. There is no guessing about what happened that day – it’s all there, just a click away on a smartphone.
Takeaway: When people understand what’s happening in their organization, they feel included and valued. Keep team members informed about organizational processes, important decisions, and changes. Making a consistent effort to inform team members about organizational happenings helps people feel connected and like they’re in the loop, which are feelings associated with a psychologically safe working environment. Employee town halls, digital newsletters, and personal addresses are examples of how to be accessible.
Core Leadership Skill 03 | Inclusivity
Zelensky turns accolades like being named one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people of the year into opportunities to pay tribute to the Ukrainian people. He also makes a point to include ordinary people in his many speeches. For example, in one address he wore a t-shirt designed by a Singaporean teenager. He also talks to soldiers, children, medical staff, and ordinary families, making it seem that everyone, regardless of role or status, deserves his attention.
Takeaway: Spend time focusing on people at all levels of your organization. Does your workplace have frontline staff that are sometimes underappreciated? Make a point of showing gratitude. Has an employee recently achieved a personal milestone? Celebrate that achievement. Build trust and rapport by showing equal attention to organizational divisions, and think of your workplace as your front line – connect and regularly check in with inclusive attention.
It’s been said that leadership is not about titles, positions, or divisions. Rather, it’s about relationships – the ability to connect and relate regardless of title or position is what makes a leader worth following.
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