Let me come clean. I have to take two Lorazepam with a potent cocktail in order to shakily board a plane—I’m not afraid of flying so much as I am of crashing. Yet there I was this week, card-carrying coward that I am, glued to CNN, moved to tears, Googling how I can join Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky’s “International Legion of Territorial Defense of Ukraine,” a call for soldiers the world over to join the fight for freedom in his country.
Don’t worry—they only want people with actual military experience, and mine is limited to having viewed Full Metal Jacket. But I was struck by what Zelensky’s words prompted in me—a resolve, a recognition that some shit is more important than my own comfort and safety, a sense of common purpose with those I don’t even personally know. Did you see his “We. Will. Not. Forgive” speech on Sunday?
Ukrainians! Today is Forgiveness Sunday. A day when we always apologized. To each other. To all people. To God. But today, it seems, many have not mentioned this day at all. Have not mentioned the obligatory words: “Forgive me.” And the obligatory answer: “God forgives, and I forgive.” These words seem to have lost their meaning today. At least in part. After everything we went through.
We will not forgive the destroyed houses. We will not forgive the missile that our air defence shot down over Okhmatdyt today. And more than 500 other such missiles that hit our land. All over Ukraine. Hit our people and children. We will not forgive the shooting of unarmed people. Destruction of our infrastructure.
We. Will. Not. Forgive. Hundreds and hundreds of victims. Thousands and thousands of sufferings. And God will not forgive. Not today. Not tomorrow. Never. And instead of Forgiveness, there will be a Day of Judgment…A family was killed in Irpen today. A man, a woman and two children. Right on the road. When they were just trying to get out of town. To escape.
We will punish everyone who committed atrocities in this war. On our land. We will find every bastard. Which shot at our cities, our people. Which bombed our land. Which launched rockets. Which gave the order and pressed “start.”
There will be no quiet place on this Earth for you. Except for the grave.
Downright Churchillian, am I right? The moral clarity, the call to commonality, the emotional resonance—all in the midst of life-threatening chaos. In his brilliant book The Splendid and the Vile, author Erik Larsen points to Churchill’s “knack for making people feel loftier, stronger, and, above all, more courageous,” and the comparison sits there for all to see: Zelensky just may be Churchill with a social media account.
Zelensky makes us feel so deeply because we’re not used to someone, anyone, in our politics who is so devoid of calculation, so resolute in knowing, really knowing, just what’s worth dying for.
JFK once said of Churchill that he’d “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle,” and now here comes Zelensky, marshaling a different language toward change. For the last two weeks, we’ve gotten a crash course in crisis leadership from this former Ukrainian comic, someone I didn’t take seriously as a world leader until now. It goes beyond Zelensky’s courage and character. According to Penn’s Adam Grant, we’re drawn to prototypical members of our group—leaders who reflect our best selves back to us. He writes on his blog:
“They’re the people we see as exemplifying the ideals of the group and acting in the best interests of the group. Think of Jacinda Ardern personifying Kiwi strength and inclusivity when she condemned the mosque shootings as acts of terrorism and arrived in Christchurch wearing a hijab. Remember Mahatma Gandhi literally embodying Indian principles of peace and asceticism when he protested against British colonialism. A leader is someone who takes a stand to protect what’s core and distinctive to the group.”
Well, Ukrainians are fighters. Dressed in fatigues, walking his own war-torn streets, Zelensky marries his people’s “bring it on” swagger with a stirring sense of compassion—as when he has let captured Russian soldiers call their mothers. He and Putin both stand at 5’7”, but only one of them seems to be haunted by that fact, forever driven to prove he’s taller, bigger, and not to be trifled with.
Zelensky’s courage and emotional intelligence these last 10 days has prompted in me waves of leadership envy. Here in Philadelphia, we’re not at war per se, but we are in a series of slower-moving existential crises: bullet-ridden Black and Brown bodies piling up, public disorder raging, children in the deepest depths of poverty.
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When, just days into the war, Zelenskyy hunkered with his team in Kyiv and, via his phone, kept repeating to his countrymen “I’m here. We’re here,” it prompted a question. Every day, Billy Penn publishes its “Mayor Watch” and most days it reads: “No public events on the schedule for Mayor Kenney today.”
Just where is our leadership?
“What Zelenskyy is doing is unbelievable—that line, ‘I need ammunition, not a ride’ will go down in history,” says the mad genius political consultant Neil Oxman—the messaging guru whose strategic whisperings have elected countless candidates to public office throughout the nation, including Ed Rendell and Michael Nutter here. “To say something so sharp and simple under that pressure is just unbelievable. Like you, I’m glued to CNN and the BBC, watching this drama, and watching how he’s changing hearts and minds in real time.”
In addition to marveling at how Zelensky has risen to the moment and struck Churchillian notes, Oxman says there’s something reminiscent in Zelensky’s style: He’s walking the walk of successful big city leadership.
“Mayors have to be in-your-face,” Oxman says. “Think of all the great mayors: Rendell, Menino in Boston, Koch in New York. They’d be on the streets, rallying the people. They filled the role of prime minister of their city and they made voters believe someone was fighting for them. They made you feel. When Billy Penn reports that the mayor has no public appearance on his schedule day after day, that’s unacceptable. There are thousands of things that can go wrong in a city every day and a mayor has to be up for fighting those battles—in public. I’ve talked to friends of Jim’s who say he doesn’t leave his house or the office. In the old days, someplace like Committee of Seventy would have sued the mayor for not showing up.”
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Oxman, mind you, is a longtime supporter of Jim Kenney. In fact, his ads helped elect Kenney, and, in our conversation, he goes to great pains time and again to praise the mayor’s first term. “He spent considerable political capital to pass the soda tax, which took great courage,” Oxman says. “Very few politicians do what he did in the first term, but it was the right thing to do. I felt vindicated by him. That’s why I’m so disappointed now. 550 murders? And you’re not out there, showing up? He simply isn’t interested in governing anymore.”
It’s funny, I’ve written for a while that I’m done voting for candidates who need on-the-job training. In light of amateurs like Trump ascending to public office, I’ve argued that politics is a discrete skill— how about we hire those who have demonstrated the ability to bring disparate groups together, to build coalitions, to govern? Well, now here comes this comic-turned-president, proving that maybe pure outsiders are the way to go. One caveat, however: Governing just may be very different from leadership in times of crisis. Andrew Cuomo was briefly inspiring as a crisis manager, you’ll recall; but treating others with dignity and respect in non-freakout times? Uh, not so much.
“Think of all the great mayors: Rendell, Menino in Boston, Koch in New York. They’d be on the streets, rallying the people. They filled the role of prime minister of their city and they made voters believe someone was fighting for them. They made you feel,” says Oxman.
Similarly, Kenney may have been a perfectly adequate caretaker mayor before a tsunami of crises engulfed his mayoralty: Covid, race relations, the gun violence epidemic. Now, he seems ill-suited to the moment, but let’s be fair: It ain’t just him. This is a town of finger-to-the-wind transactionalism. Is there anyone with Zelensky’s surprising backbone and heart?
Perhaps it’s too soon to tell. After all, a few weeks ago, Zelensky himself wasn’t this rock star, existential hero. He was kind of a bumbling, amiable fellow—no wonder Putin thought he’d be a pushover. But Zelensky has changed, as if the danger in which he finds himself has liberated him. He’s past the bullshit, beyond the rhetorical sleights of hand that pass for politics these days. And the effect of his safety-be-damned demeanor is to inspire those of us watching to get beyond our own fears. It’s amazing how authentic leadership can make you feel freer.
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In a matter of 10 days, Volodymyr Zelensky has gone from obscure foreign leader to a cross between Churchill and Robert Kennedy. But when I think of him, I think of Robert Jordan, the protagonist of Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls, who, drawn into fighting fascism in the Spanish Civil War, discovers why he was put on earth in the first place.
“You have had much luck,” the young man tells himself, as he lay dying. “There are many worse things than this. Everyone has to do this, one day or another.”
And then Hemingway writes:
He looked down the hill slope again and he thought, I hate to leave it, is all. I hate to leave it very much and I hope I’ve done some good in it. I have tried to with what talent I had…I have fought for what I believed in for a year now. If we win here we will win everywhere. The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for…
Worth the fighting for. I’m praying—and I’m not inclined to do so—that this will not ultimately be Zelensky’s interior self-dialogue, that he will not face the moment Jordan did; but if he does, isn’t it clear now that he’d do so with all the stirring grace and courage as Hemingway’s fictional character?
Zelensky makes us feel so deeply because we’re not used to someone, anyone, in our politics who is so devoid of calculation, so resolute in knowing, really knowing, just what’s worth dying for. It’s been reported that Zelensky has survived 12—count ‘em—12 assassination plots. Here’s hoping his good fortune persists. But, as Oxman suggests, Zelensky has already won in at least one respect. The story of his larger-than-life leadership will live on and—who knows?—just maybe it will inspire some young Philadelphian to one day run for office and similarly stand up to corrupt bullies, no matter the cost.
Header photo courtesy manhhai / Flickr + President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky / Facebook