A few years ago, I was invited to do a fireside chat at a large tech company and one of the audience members asked me a question that I’ve never forgotten — can political leaders be thought leaders? At the time, I had never given the question much thought and my answer reflected a certain bias against the idea, maybe because of my own experience working full time on a large political campaign, where I must admit I met few thought leaders! I had always put political leadership in a separate bucket from thought leadership, although I would include political advocacy work as a key component of a thought leadership strategy.
More recently, I’ve had a chance to rethink my answer, especially in light of the very visible example of Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine, that we see playing out on the world stage. Zelensky is using many techniques of the best thought leaders and he’s doing so while also in the fight for his life and on behalf of millions of his fellow Ukrainians. There is much to learn from (and admire) in his efforts – let me distill a few of the techniques I’ve seen, and I’d welcome any others to share their ideas in the comments.
Speak Your Audience’s Language
Usually, when we encourage leaders and thought leaders to speak their audience’s language, we are referring to word choice, tone, inflection, and style and Zelensky has been able to pivot quite effectively from speaking to the Russian people to speaking before the British Parliament to speaking directly to his own countrymen and then speaking to world leaders at large. His communication skills, honed as a comedian and an actor, are well-developed and they are critical to the success of his appeals, no matter his audience. But Zelensky is also, quite literally, speaking his audience’s language, given his capacity to be equally eloquent in Russian and Ukrainian, which allows him to relate effectively with those he most needs to connect with – both close to home and appealing to those in his enemy’s territory. How might you better speak, literally or figuratively, in your audience’s language?
Tell Stories and Appeal to Emotions
The human brain is wired for stories and Zelensky is using the power of story – his own and those of his countrymen — to build our understanding, shape an emotional connection, and invite us not to sit on the sidelines but to act. When he shares his own fears of assassination and tells us he and his family are #1 on Russia’s target list, his vulnerability engages our empathy and compassion. And when he shares individual examples of the destruction of Ukraine (the bombing of a maternity hospital, or the death of a fleeing refugee), he is utilizing a very effective technique Sam Horn calls the empathy telescope. As she explains it, we can put ourselves in the shoes of one person, we cannot put ourselves in the shoes of millions. By drawing people’s attention to specific, individual stories, he makes the war real and ignites our desire to DO something, not just sit back or dismiss this as a war happening on the other side of the world. What stories would best engage people to join with your efforts?
Although a novice political leader – Zelensky came to office for the first time in 2019 – the Ukrainian President does have a unique background that prepared him for this moment. According to a recent edition of The Daily podcast, from the NY Times, Zelensky’s main role as an actor was in a sitcom where he played a teacher who ‘accidentally’ ends up running for President. In that role, the character he played addressed voters through a series of selfie videos – and later, Zelensky used that same technique in his own political campaign and after he took office. His selfie videos since the war began have a very authentic and genuine appeal to them — they come across as raw and unedited and capture the importance of the moment in a way that no other communication can. Some may call them stagecraft, but they are highly effective in rallying others to his side. How might you appeal authentically to your stakeholders?
Stand For Your Community
“This is our land, our country, our children,” Zelensky says in a recent video. “And we will defend all of this.” Journalist and historian Anne Applebaum argues, in a recent interview on Fresh Air, that it is Zelensky’s background as an actor that allows him to fully embody the role of President at this moment, not in a superficial way, but as someone who understands the symbolic importance of the role and that, “If you’re the president of the country…what you do has symbolic importance and you are not yourself…. You don’t get to make choices as you and what you might personally want to do. You have a larger responsibility to the citizens and to your country’s image in the world.” As thought leaders, while our role is usually not as important as leading our country during a war, we often have the opportunity to stand for our community, putting aside our own interests in order to represent their needs. Our actions are seen as representative of the cause we are advocating for, and we must remember that others will look to us as role models. In what ways are you taking a stand for your community?
Dispel Myths (Lies) & Create a Clear Narrative
As a political leader, and as a thought leader, one of your primary roles is to dispel myths and create a strong narrative that outlines both your reality and your vision. From the beginning of the war, Zelensky has set a tone of defiance and defined the narrative that Ukraine did not invite this war, but they are staying to fight it to the end. While Putin spoke of an ‘unavoidable special military operation to protect the people in the Donbas’, Zelensky called Putin’s actions a ‘cowardly invasion.’ While the Russians said they were not targeting Ukraine’s civilian population, Zelensky has spoken eloquently of the lived experience of those who woke up to shelling at 4 o’clock in the morning on the first day of the war and have remained stalwart even as the shelling continues against children, cities and even hospitals. In one of his most-watched videos, he clarified for everyone who feared he had fled, that ‘we are all here, defending our independence,’ while Putin passed a new law that ‘criminalizes spreading information that contradicts the government’s line’, and threatens extensive jail time to anyone who dares to tell the truth. What myths must be dispelled and what narrative will you craft to tell a new story of the future?
Harken Back to Shared Traditions
One of the strongest oratory techniques, and one that is taught to debate students, speakers, and leaders alike, is to harken back to shared experiences and traditions in order to bring people together and rally them to your side. Zelensky’s speech to the UK Parliament, which ended with him receiving a standing ovation, was masterful as he harkened back to WWII and Churchill’s famous speech by saying, “We will not give up, we will fight until the end and we will not lose. We will fight until the end in the air. We will continue fighting for our land, whatever the cost. We will fight in the forests, in the fields, on the shores, in the streets.” He later quoted Shakespeare’s Hamlet, another powerful rhetorical technique, “To be or not to be,” Zelensky said. “Thirteen days ago, this question could have been asked about Ukraine, but now, absolutely not. It is obvious, we will be. It is obvious, we will be free.” What traditions and experiences matter most to your stakeholders and how might you remind them of those while inviting them to step into the future with you?
Create a Call to Action
To engage people and enroll them in your cause, it is critical to craft a compelling call to action that is clear, specific, and actionable. For Zelensky, this has evolved from a call for trained fighters and for Ukrainians abroad to return to fight the Russians, to a plea for a strengthening of sanctions, to a request for resources and arms, and above all for a no-fly zone across Ukraine. Leaving people in doubt as to how they can be involved in your cause out of a misplaced fear of asking for too much or being seen as too demanding will not strengthen your capacity to make a difference, it will cause untold harm to the future you are trying to bring about. Utilizing your ‘bully pulpit’, as Zelensky has done, brings people to your side and harnesses goodwill and positive public sentiment – as witnessed by today’s headline– American Voters Now View Ukraine as Favorably as France, Germany, and Japan. It will be interesting to see how Zelensky’s planned speech to the US Congress on Wednesday shifts this even further. Stay tuned. What is your call to action and how will you enroll people in your cause?