After the years of learning about viruses, we’re learning in Kyiv today that courage is also contagious. After an absence of leadership in many countries, Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine is showing what a difference it makes.
The comic-turned politician has a powerful combination of skills. He’s an orator with the moral clarity of a prophet. He came to power to clean out the corruption of the Ukrainian state and take on the oligarchs who had robbed the people.
Zelensky knows how to read his audience. His broadcasts from the front have gone viral. They have defeated the polished propaganda coming from Moscow and have brought a people together.
After decades of division and corruption, the national ideal he has embodied has led to a united response. From every walk of life, every age, the struggle to defeat the invader has united a people.
The film of those lining up to take a weapon is striking. People introduce themselves as actors, tennis players, drivers, cooks, business owners and parents. It’s moving to see a single motivation – to protect – bringing people together.
Zelensky is part of it. His handheld selfies, speeches, and images of himself in fatigues has shown a leader not just comfortable with his people, but part of them. Not separated by palace walls, but walking amongst them. A little touch of Harry in the night, as Shakespeare said about Henry V at the siege of Honfleur, was more motivating than all the gold the enemy could offer.
Courage is infectious. Ukrainian MPs I met recently are following his lead and sharing images of themselves armed with rifles they’d never held before and ready for a war they didn’t choose showing themselves to be part of what can only be called a national movement.
Scenes of people across the country doing what they can is mesmerising because bravery is a quality we all crave. We watch the villages standing in the way of tanks, the old and young filling petrol bombs, the citizens taking their place in the line and ask ourselves — could I do that?
That courage has carried him further. His courage, quiet wit and moral clarity, is providing an example that many around the world are finding inspirational. Because we all know leadership matters. And how it contrasts with others.
Zelensky is not leading a cult. At his inauguration he asked that government workers end the old soviet practice of putting images of the ruler on the wall, instead he said put pictures of your children and look at them before you take a decision.
He called out the corruption that let the rulers get away with crimes others would pay for.
Democracy, as he explained in the most powerful description of government of the people, by the people and for the people in many generations, means that everyone is president, everyone is responsible for the country. So even running a red light, would be an affront to his constitutional oath.
That human touch, the equality and reminder of family duty as at the heart of duty to the whole nation, are a stark contrast to the ruler who sits alone in Moscow.
In his golden palace, so afraid of a virus he can’t even meet his generals, so cut off he doesn’t know how poorly his army is doing, so deaf he doesn’t hear the cries of his own people, sits Vladimir Putin.
Though the arms are massed against him, Zelensky and Ukraine are showing that courage is infectious, and Putin is afraid of infection. What a difference leadership makes.