How One Man’s Social Identity is Inspiring the World

The World Is Watching

The world is transfixed by watching Ukraine mount a powerful resistance to the Russian invasion of their homeland. The face of leadership in this resistance has become 44-year-old former comedian and actor turned Ukrainian President: Volodymyr Zelensky. Through social media, the world has seen Zelensky hunkering down with his generals and his people as Russian forces advance on Kyiv (see video here). His leadership shines when he posts from inside Ukraine, instead of leaving for safe haven elsewhere, he plainly states, “I need ammunition, not a ride.”

In a recent article by our Behavioral Grooves’ guest Dominic Packer, along with his co-author Jay Van Bavel, they state Zelensky’s leadership has been “an act of identity leadership that has rallied the Ukrainian people and inspired the world.” In our conversation with Dominic (which happened months before the current crisis), we talked about how “Our social identities end up shaping a lot of how we navigate the world, a lot of our feelings about the world, and how we relate to each other.” This is the essence of what we see happening in Ukraine today.

Identity leadership is the way that leaders inspire and direct their followers by not only being “one of us” but also by embodying the actions that define who “we are.” Share on X Basically, identity leadership crafts the actions and beliefs that “we” take and aspire to. In this aspect, the former comedian and current president is a highlight reel for great leadership.

Leadership researcher John Adair said that the most important word in leadership is “we,” while the least important is “I.”  What Zelensky is doing is not just talking about “we,” but living it. His regular posts to social media are selfies from a war zone – showing him walking on the war-torn streets with his generals, in the hospitals with the wounded, pulling up a chair to sit down and talk with journalists, or huddled in a bunker with his people. All of this with a bounty on his head.

Contrast these images with what we see of Vladimir Putin of Russia: oftentimes in plush offices in a suit, relaxed, or sitting at long tables with many, many feet separating him from his generals. He is never seen with the people. Putin typifies an alternative reality version of what identity leadership is all about.

Leadership is Action – Not Just Words

Zelensky’s actions literally speak louder than words. Share on X

His ability to be “one of us,” puts him in a highly persuasive and influential position with his fellow Ukrainians. He is illustrating what researcher and author Robert Cialdini refers to as the “Unity” principle of persuasion, where the influencer (the leader) “is one” with those he’s trying to influence. In this case, because Zelensky is exemplifying the actions of being a Ukrainian in war, his influence happens more fluidly and naturally.

By remaining in the war zone, with his commanders, with the fighters, and with the citizens, he demonstrates emersion in the group. He is living the life that the group is living which increases his credibility, and hence, his influence.

This is leadership.

This is how a leader inspires actions and loyalty.

Followers look upon the social identity leader as “one of us.” He demonstrates what it means to be a member of the tribe by acting out the identity of the group. It is both a normative demonstration as well as a descriptive following of what being a member of the tribe means. It is showcasing what is expected but also reflects on what everyone is doing.

Zelensky is Mastering This

And it’s not just happening inside of Ukraine. The power of Zelensky’s messages are reaching far beyond the borders of the country he governs. The world has responded with support for Zelensky and the 40+ million people who call Ukraine their home.

The support for Ukraine in the US and Europe is strong. Zelensky’s actions are striking a chord with people all over the world who identify with a commitment to a cause, hands-on management, and fully accountable leadership.  By placing himself in the center of the conflict, putting himself at risk, and being with his people in their time of struggle, Zelensky has captured our imagination and connected with our own identities. His actions are pulling us into his tribe so that we are part of the identity and part of the experience. We want Ukraine to prevail because we feel a deep connection to who they are and what they are experiencing, in large part due to Zelensky.

That is leadership.