Leadership lessons from war

Leadership + Management


War is never pleasant, but CEOs could learn a thing or two from Ukrainian military commanders, according to 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 organisational behaviour at the business school; and Veronika Savruk, communications manager of social enterprise Walnut House and business school alumna. They share thoughts from a volunteer battalion of the Ukrainian army in “Kowledge@Wharton”. Here are the researcher's conclusions:


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, hard-working 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 they lead. 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 betray their common values. The same can be said for businesses or organisations - integrity helps leaders build trust among followers.


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.


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.”

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.

Digital Transformation

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.

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.


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.



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