LvBS for Knowledge@Wharton: What Leadership Lessons Can Business Learn from Ukraine’s War?

28 Feb 2018

War brings the kind of duress that can force even old-style militaries to change. Ukraine has faced just that situation as it continues to battle Russia in the Crimea and elsewhere. In the corporate world, businesses also can find themselves in a competitive war. CEOs could learn a thing or two from Ukrainian military commanders, according to this opinion piece by Sophia Opatska, vice rector for academic affairs at the Ukrainian Catholic University and founding dean of the Lviv Business School; Andriy Rozhdestvenskyy, executive director of the university’s Leadership Center, and professor of leadership and organizational behavior at the business school; and Veronika Savruk, communications manager of social enterprise Walnut House and business school alumna.

For more details read in publication special for Knowledge@Wharton.

War is a familiar refrain for the Ukraine, whose conflict with Russia has been going on for the last four years. Formerly part of the Soviet Union, Ukraine inherited the vestiges of the Soviet Army, which operated in inertia for a quarter century and lacked development. For too long, the military had been plagued with old leaders using traditional methods.

But Russia’s aggression in 2014 forced the country to redefine its approach to the struggle, re-think how to shape long-term strategy, properly implement tactical or operational steps and how to lead people. As a result, the Ukrainian army is transforming its traditional hierarchy to create new leadership styles and models.

So what can businesses learn from a military forced to change in the midst of turbulence and relentless change? We share examples and reflections from a volunteer battalion of the Ukrainian army that was able to introduce qualitative approaches in a short period of time.

For proper analysis, we would like to use a model of leadership that takes into account not only competencies but also character. Competencies include skills in strategy, managing people, running an organization and other business matters. Character encompasses the 11 virtues of drive, collaboration, humility, humanity, integrity, courage, temperance, accountability, transcendence, justice, judgement — plus commitment. (See «Developing Leadership Character» by Mary Crossan,‎ Gerard Seijts, Jeffrey Gandz‎, January-February 2012 issue of Ivey Business Journal, Ivey Business School, Western University, London, Ontario, Canada.)

Character and Competence

The past 25 years have shown that in several high-profile cases (Enron, Tyco and others), skilled leaders from various sectors brought their organizations to collapse due to certain weaknesses in character. Good character is crucial during the decision-making process, as well as in team formation and engagement and building trust in all stakeholders. Therefore, it is a mistake to underestimate the importance of character.

«The Ukrainian army is transforming its traditional hierarchy to create new leadership styles and models.»

Drive and courage are well-recognized virtues in war as well as in business competition. But what about character traits such as integrity, accountability and humility? Let’s take a look at each character virtue in turn.


What is integrity? That’s when your words match your actions. Integrity increases trust between a leader and his or her team. A Ukrainian commander with the call sign «Bilotur» shares this story: «Our battery had a very conscientious, hardworking and creative unit commander, but he lacked integrity. I had to fire him from a management position as his actions were too unpredictable. We never trusted him as we were not sure what his next step would be. It is crucial that your actions as a leader are consistent and people trust you.»

In war, it is extremely important for commanders to win the trust of those whom they lead. Sometimes, the commander’s reputation as a trustworthy leader would be enough to make soldiers embark on high-risk operations because they know that the leader would not let them down, would take care of the team and would never their betray common values. The same can be said for businesses or organizations — integrity helps leaders build trust among followers. Research shows that integrity is one of the most important virtues for C-suite managers. («The value of virtue in the upper echelons,» John J. Sosik, William A. Gentry, Jae Uk Chun, 2012.)


Accountability is another important virtue. Bilotur shared this anecdote about a friend who could not clearly communicate with a team: «At some point, it became difficult for him to explain to his subordinates the logic behind his decision making. He was an extremely talented and intelligent man and could effortlessly implement different strategies, but did not know how to communicate or explain his decisions. When soldiers asked, «Why should we do that?,» he answered, «Because I said so.» This phrase was enough for him to lose credibility in the eyes of his unit members. This example taught me that this is not the way to act.»

The leader should be accountable to subordinates. That’s because when people feel they are part of a team, they become confident in the leader, in themselves, and in their colleagues. They understand that what you do as a leader is in the best interests of the group. If the leader ceases to be accountable, the team begins to doubt how much of its actions actually contribute to the achievement of their goals. People still will do as they are told but at the expense of team unity and commitment.

It is important to be accountable not only to the team but also to the community. For the Ukrainian army, volunteers play a very important role — and most of the key technological successes came exclusively from them. «Working with volunteers, I realized that by reporting to them, I get a different level of trust and help. I remember I sent them a video of our most successful victories. They saw that the help they provided to our unit resulted in a concrete result — the destruction of the enemy,» Bilotur said. «This accountability allowed us to reach a different level of trust and interaction with the volunteers.»

Accountability of the leader also plays a major role in preventing corruption. According to 2014 research report «The Dark Side of Leadership,» by Aurora de Souza Watters from the Civil Service College in Singapore, self-serving behaviors of leaders reduce accountability and transparency of choices and actions, making this virtue vital for all areas, especially public service and politics.


Humility is another crucial trait in leadership. Bilotur notes that when he arrived at a volunteer battalion as a senior officer, «I was commanded by 19-year-old kids who had served in the army for several months. I was way out of my comfort zone, but my goal, irrespective of anything else, was serving my Motherland. I learned to reconcile [the situation to] myself, take certain things in stride and successfully passed this [test] of humility.»

«Integrity helps leaders build trust among their followers.»

Humility consists of self-awareness, modesty, constant learning and self-respect, passion, appreciation, respect and vulnerability, and is a direct path to development, according to Crossan,‎ Seijts and Gandz. If leaders want to make major achievements that have global impact, their ego and ambitions should recede to the background.

In the end, while having a great idea and big goals are important and can unite people, possessing a good education, experience, the right skills and the corresponding culture and structure will more likely lead to victory in the long run than mere fervor, especially if you understand the enemy’s strengths.

Ukrainian Digital Transformation

The world is changing, so one needs to use and implement new technologies to be one step ahead of a competitor or opponent. Embracing new technology does not, of course, happen overnight, and it’s not always easy.

First, there is a need to change one’s mindset. We change our thinking before tackling the technology, and only then can technology work for us over our competitor. A great desire for victory allowed Ukrainian commanders to bring the army to a qualitatively new technological level. They created fundamentally new communications, new algorithms for making military decisions, assessing the operational situation, among others.

Thanks to these technological innovations, the Ukrainian army was able to fight and incur smaller losses, which is critically important in war time. A failing business loses money, but in war, you lose lives.

Dan Glessner, vice president of digital at Genpact, wrote in a 2017 blog that, «Mindset is at the foundation of strategy development, culture creation, and change management. The implications of this new digital-first mindset will enable leaders to lead by example and create cultures where speed (e.g., short “sprints” vs. long planning cycles), learning (e.g., fail-fast and data-based decision-making), and empowerment (e.g., trust in employees and ecosystem partners) are hallmarks.»

As experiences in war have shown, even with the best-educated, professional people at the helm, when you work with old technology, you lose. The best people are rendered helpless, unable to counter the enemy. But with better technology and innovation, you can defeat an enemy that has more manpower on the battlefield.

Personnel Development

The task of the leader or commander is to organize training for soldiers as close as possible to the actual combat operations, in order to reproduce in detail the elements of the battle. It is important that there are people on the team who have real battle experience and not only can share this experience but create the training environment as close as possible to the real battle context. This allows you to learn with great focus and be at the highest level of combat readiness.

One phenomenon of war is high unpredictability. Carl von Clausewitz in his book, On War, (1832) described this as the «fog of war.» He wrote: «War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty.» With advancements in technology, the business world has become more fast-paced and less predictable — becoming more similar to a battlefield.

The military acronym VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity) has been frequently used by civilian managers and leaders who recognize that certain elements that make soldiers combat-ready could be adapted for business conditions.

Leah Houde and Steve Mahaley from Duke Corporate Education, in their article «Getting Your Leaders Ready for What’s Next? Experience is the Best Teacher,» conclude that experiential learning is one of the most efficient methods of preparing leaders for today’s reality. Context is a key part of experiential learning because «as the world continues to become more complex, more uncertain, and less predictable, it has become apparent that being good at something in one situation doesn’t mean that you’ll be good at it in another.» So one of the keys for preparing leaders is to match the learning experience to business needs and context.

«The best way to defeat an enemy is to correctly model and foresee its actions.»

While the future is unpredictable, we also have to take into consideration the skills needed in the next five to 10 years based on trends identified in reports such as the World Economic Forum’s «The Future of Jobs.» According to this report, the top three skills needed for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (fusing the digital, physical and biological worlds) are complex problem solving, critical thinking and creativity.


Leaders must operate within the right context — but they also need the right strategy. Lacking a strategy and action plan is like handing over one’s weapon to the enemy or competitor. Strategy is so important that all members of the team must understand it.

In war as in business, individuals are needed who can demonstrate a disposition to lead regardless of the position they hold. If the leader does not have a strategy and the team does not understand the group’s strategic intention, it becomes impossible to form a plan of attack or a plan of action.

When all team members understand the leader’s strategic intention, it leads to a strong group that is flexible and loyal during times of crisis or change. A value-driven strategy can be a key competitive weapon, but values do not reside in corporate structures; they live in people.

The best way to defeat an enemy is to correctly model and foresee its actions. If you do not respect your opponent, you will not be able to model behavior, because you will cease to study, investigate and explore it. Respect means never underestimating your enemy.

Sun Tzu famously said that if you know your enemy and yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles. If you do not know your enemy but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every battle.

Lessons from War

War, as well as business, takes place within the broader context of geopolitical, economic and social events. War is a time of constant stress and change, when plans and communications are destroyed, instructions are executed incorrectly, information is misunderstood, unpredictable situations arise and mistakes are made.

However, chaos does create opportunities in a wide range of contexts. The volunteer battalions in the Ukrainian army led to the formation of a new and stronger army during a very difficult time for the country. The leader’s role is to be vigilant to find even the smallest advantage. Therefore, it’s important to change tactics quickly as circumstances change, to deal effectively with external factors and to create victorious scenarios.