The Ultimate Wartime CEO
Updated: Dec 12, 2022
Zelensky is a living demonstration of the ultimate wartime leader. He leads with both a clenched fist and an open heart.
Last week, TIME chose Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and the Spirit of Ukraine as its 2022 Person of the Year, an annual recognition of a person, group, idea, or thing that, for better or for worse, has done the most to influence the events of the year. The designation is a well-deserved recognition of the courage, skill, and resolve of Zelensky as a leader and the Ukrainian people in their fight against an unjust Russian war. From a business and leadership standpoint, TIME’s choice couldn’t have been more timely. Leaders and companies are increasingly turning to Ben Horowitz’s now famous 2011 essay, “Peacetime CEO/Wartime CEO,” as guidance for how to lead in these challenging times.
There’s a lot to be said for the essay. In wartime, defined by Horowitz as any time a company is fending off an existential threat, leaders need to shift into a different mode. He describes several ways of leading, contrasting the way a peacetime leader and a wartime leader should behave. For example, Horowitz argues, “Peacetime CEO does not raise her voice. Wartime CEO rarely speaks in a normal tone.” The call for increased urgency and focus in wartime, of course, makes a lot of sense. But the essay ignores the fact that these traits are essential regardless of the environment. We shouldn’t need a macroeconomic shock or existential competitive threat to remind us of the value of healthy paranoia at all times. Worse yet, we are beginning to see leaders use the wartime CEO label as an excuse to engage in reckless and irresponsible behavior.
The best wartime CEOs are those who extract the most valuable virtues from the designation – low tolerance for distraction, an aversion to consensus, and a willingness to be directive – while retaining the time-tested traits of stability, maturity, courage, and respect. Indeed, the very best leaders are able to be simultaneously tough and kind in the most trying of times. This is where Zelensky’s example is so helpful. He is a living demonstration of the ultimate wartime leader. The war has forced him to evolve. As the TIME article describes:
Aides who once saw him as a lightweight now praise his toughness. Slights that might once have upset him now elicit no more than a shrug. Some of his allies miss the old Zelensky, the practical joker with the boyish smile. But they realize he needs to be different now, much harder and deaf to distractions, or else his country might not survive.
At the same time, he has retained the qualities that have made him so special. He leads with both a clenched fist and an open heart. In the year ahead, we would all be well served to follow Zelensky’s example as we navigate the challenges of these times.
David French has written another excellent article, “How Fundamentalism Fails,” in which he argues that the key to the end of extremism will be when “the community of the closed fist ultimately creates a community of the open hand.” He concludes by arguing that, “Ultimately, fundamentalism—for all of its punitive power—simply cannot compete with grace in the contest for the human heart.
In writing this week, I revisited my blog from May of this year titled “The Oak and the Reed,” in which I argued that the palm tree – benefitting from both the strength of the oak and the adaptability of the reed – may be the best metaphor for wartime leadership.
A quote I revisited this week from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Characters and talents are complemental and suppletory. The world stands by balanced antagonisms.”