A Blog by Jonathan Low


May 29, 2023

Why Leadership Is Ukraine's Secret Weapon

"I need ammunition, not a ride," will go down in history as one of the great wartime leadership rallying cries. 

Ukraine has demonstrated many impressive traits in its war against Russia - determination, resilience, adaptability, intelligence and patience. But many of them flow from the character of its civilian and military leaders who have outfought, out-strategized, out-performed and out-communicated their opponents. These intangibles and the leaders who personify them have enabled a fractious country to come together and defeat a far more conventionally powerful foe. JL 

Mick Ryan reports in War In the Future:

In the past few months, Western nations stepped up the provision of weapons for Ukraine. But other aspects of combat power are even more vital for Ukraine's defense: the moral and intellectual aspects of a nation reinforcing culture, values and legitimacy, and a foundation for the will to fight. These are the domain of great leaders who listen to their subordinates and provide purpose, resources and direction. They then step out of the way, allowing subordinate leaders to get on with the job. President Volodymyr Zelensky united his people and led his nation through the calamity of a Russian(invasion). Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov, gained masses of military aid and Commander-in-Chief Valerii Zaluzhny, oversaw the military strategies that have let Ukraine (prevail). Leaders must be resolute and bold. But, they must also never let go of their humanity

In the past few months, many Western nations have stepped up the provision of weapons and munitions for Ukraine.

This will be key to the coming Ukrainian offensives and comprises the physical elements of the combat power to defeat the Russians.

But there are two other aspects of combat power which are even more vital for Ukraine's defence. 

These are the moral and intellectual aspects of a nation fighting power. The intellectual components provide the knowledge of war, strategy and cognitive capability — the "what to think". The moral component reinforces culture, values and legitimacy, and is a foundation for the will to fight.

The moral and intellectual aspects of combat power are the domain of humans and, in particular, leaders. Few need reminding of the role played by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in this war.

A former comedian with a very low popularity rating as late as 2021, he has risen to this historical moment. Zelenskyy has united his people and led his nation through the calamity of a Russian campaign designed to exterminate his country.

His "I need ammunition, not a ride" moment will be recorded in history alongside the great statements of wartime leaders such as the UK's WWII prime minister Winston Churchill's "we shall fight on the beaches", or Abraham Lincoln's "last full measure of devotion", delivered during the American Civil War.

The secret of good leadership is that it is a shared undertaking. Great leaders listen to their subordinates and then provide them with clear purpose, resources and direction. They then step out of the way, allowing subordinate leaders to get on with the job, while they ponder and plan for the future.

Two unsung heroes

For Ukraine, another critical leadership function is played by Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov and Commander-in-Chief Valerii Zaluzhny.

Reznikov, the hoodie-wearing former lawyer, has shuttled between Kyiv and Western capitals gaining masses of military aid for his nation. He is one of the unsung heroes of this war.

Zaluzhny has been more internally focused, expanding his military while overseeing the military strategies that have seen Ukraine defend itself and take back territory, while also planning for the offensives to come.

Both men, as in all democracies, operate within what Eliot Cohen has described as an "unequal dialogue" between the civilian and military leadership. It is a robust, interactive and ongoing dialogue about the war, where all have a say but only one — the president — makes the final call.

Zaluzhny commands another layer of leaders, his senior military leadership, which heads the army, navy and air forces, as well as his joint forces command, intelligence, logistics and other functions.

These generals, while their names are not generally known outside Ukraine, provide important leadership. They are the ones who turn strategic direction into plans, fighting forces, logistic support, air defence, long-range strike, intelligence collection and the many other vital military functions that must be synchronised for a nation to win a war.

The art of war

They must be experts in the art and science of generalship.

Retired Australian Army Major General Steve Day has written of this as an intellectual endeavour, where "generals must understand the character of war and create a vision of success. They must be resolute in their commitment and bold in their execution to achieve this success. But, they must also never let go of their humanity, their compassion for innocent civilians, their own soldiers and even the enemy."

Good generalship is key to winning wars, as is doing so in an ethical and just manner. It is an art the Ukrainians have honed during the war, and one almost entirely ignored by the professionally and ethically corrupt Russian Army.

A final layer of leaders that will be vital for the coming Ukrainian offensives will be tactical leaders. These are the section, platoon, company, squadron, battalion, regiment, wing and brigade commanders whose entire focus is the rehearsals, preparations and execution of close combat to defeat the Russians.

Executing a myriad of tasks while tired, wet, time-poor and lacking the full picture of the situation before them, the training, education and development of these leaders is the primary function of good military institutions. Militaries that take their eye off this and shift promotion incentives to headquarters and committee performance tend to fare poorly.

The fate of a nation lies with its leaders

The existential threat of the Russians has seen the Ukrainian armed forces build a new generation of tactical leaders.

Many of them — leading from the front — have been killed, wounded and terribly maimed in this war. At the same time, they have been learning about new ways of war, to exploit drones and digital command networks to better connect reconnaissance forces with artillery while also improving and networking combined arms operations.

It is this generation of tactical leaders who have (mainly) eschewed old Soviet doctrine, learned Western approaches to mission command and then developed their own Ukrainian Way of War.

These leaders provide the purpose, direction and inspiration to their people in circumstances few outsiders understand. They are commanding a Ukrainian army made up of professional soldiers as well as the hundreds of thousands who have left their lives as musicians, tradesmen, doctors, dancers and others united by a common love of their country, and who have accepted the unlimited liability of military service.

Like no others of their society, tactical leaders are given the profound and terrible responsibility of leading their units in killing their enemies on the battlefield. It is the purest, and most horrendous, expression of human will.

Therefore, as we celebrate the valuable commitments of Western hardware in preparing the Ukrainians for the offensives to come, we should not forget the leaders that turn these mountains of material into effective war-fighting formations.

As the various phases of these offensives are executed, it will be these leaders at many levels who will ultimately determine victory or failure. The fate of their nation rests on the quality of their leadership.


Post a Comment