Ukraine offers a model for leadership

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Politicians seeking spotlights are bad for America

By Dan Thalmann, Washington County News

Legend has it that after successfully leading the colonies through the Revolutionary War, George Washington turned down calls to become the first king in America.
In 1783, while the United States was trying to figure out its new government (the Constitution was signed in 1787), there was some thought that a monarchy would be a proper direction for this new country with Washington on the throne. Instead, Washington resigned his commission as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. He headed back to a simple life on the farm. His supporters would eventually elect him as the first President of the United States in 1789.
Some leaders prefer to be surrounded by sycophants – people who excessively heap praise on their leaders, often in hope of favor in return. Not George Washington. Known to be humble, he set the stage for the birth of our Constitutional Republic by focusing on limited government and our country, rather than himself.
It has been inspiring to watch the Ukrainian people and their President Volodymyr Zelensky as they face off against a Russian invasion. With his background in entertainment, President Zelensky has figured out a way to use the spotlight to put a focus on the solidarity of his country’s people.
Right from the start, when the United States offered to evacuate Zelensky from the capital city Kyiv, he quickly turned down the offer, saying “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.”
He followed that up with a response to false claims that he left the capital city as Russian missiles were dropping in Kyiv. He refuted the claims, posting a video of himself and Ukranian officials in Kyiv, listing each of them. “We are here.”
No doubt, he understands optics. But he has not sugarcoated the seriousness of the situation, though he has avoided an American-style fear narrative. Instead, he has preferred to speak to the truth of the situation and has been candid with his expectations of the international community, asking the world to step up against the Russian threat and in defense of freedom.
What a different approach this is compared to what we’ve seen in America during our internal conflicts over the last couple decades. These days, our leaders seem more interested in obtaining the momentary dopamine hit of a viral tweet burning their opponents, rather than building consensus in support of American ideals. How sad.
Zelensky is a rare figure these days in his obvious and proven willingness to put himself in harm’s way in defense of his country. As a result, Ukrainians… no… seemingly almost everyone in the entire world… has aligned with Ukraine in this conflict.
We need more of this from our leaders, and less of the political antics that comes from both sides of the hyper-partisan aisle.
In an op-ed in the New York Times this week, columnist Thomas Friedman wrote about leaders who earn the support of their constituents.
“Influence is something that has to be earned and re-earned every day by inspiring and not compelling others to follow you.”
Leaders are people whose words and actions gain the support of their followers, rather than through threats or jabs or political litmus tests.
When Zelensky was first elected president of Ukraine, with 72 percent of the vote, he took a position much like George Washington. Rather than chasing the fame and power that comes with the position, he advised the Ukrainian people to avoid hero worship, “I don’t want my picture in your offices: the President is not an icon, an idol or a portrait. Hang your kids’ photos instead, and look at them each time you are making a decision.”
Zelensky’s approach to leadership is refreshing after what we’ve had to experience in the United States for the last couple of decades. And it seems to be working.
We need to support this model of leadership within our political culture.
Editor’s note: Dan Thalmann is publisher of the Washington County (Kan.) News and past-president of the Kansas Newspaper Association.