Leadership lessons from Ukrainian President Zelenskyy

Leadership lessons from Ukrainian President Zelenskyy

We’ve been taught some interesting career lessons: Stay in your lane, always say yes to opportunity, and always have a plan B. But most of this advice hasn’t proven beneficial, and many choose to follow the opposite of this canned counsel.

Author Matt Higgins is no exception. His book, Burn the Boats, encourages us to forget plan B and leverages his experience as the co-founder and CEO of RSE Ventures, founding partner of VaynerMedia, an executive fellow at Harvard Business School, and guest host on the ABC show Shark Tank.


Quartz at Work: How does a ‘burn the boats’ philosophy help your career?

Matt Higgins: Forget plan B! Research bears it out—even the mere contemplation of a plan B statistically reduces the probability Plan A will ever materialize. The reason is energy leakage. When I say the phrase burn the boats, many people reflexively recoil at the idea, confusing total commitment with risk mitigation.

These are not mutually exclusive concepts. In fact, they are inextricably linked. You can’t commit when you haven’t processed the worst-case scenario and made provisions for it. When we burn the boats, we tease apart the excuses we make to ourselves that hinder total commitment and illuminate the internal and external forces that impede risk taking.

What do modern leaders, like President Zelenskyy of Ukraine, teach us about applying ‘burn the boats’ thinking?

Historically speaking, a burn-the-boats move is a catalyst that unlocks a level of effort and commitment not otherwise contemplated. It’s why the concept is in sharp relief in a military context because the stakes are so high.

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When you look back on the war in Ukraine, there is a demarcation line formed by a single sentence. On the one side of that sentence is conventional wisdom concluding Ukraine could not defeat the mighty Russian military. On the other is the entire western world believing we have no choice but to defeat Russia, and if the population of Ukraine is willing to die trying, the least we can do is supply weapons.

It was February 23, 2022. Fearing that President Zelenskyy was going to be assassinated, President Biden secretly offered the young comedian-turned-president of Ukraine and his family safe passage, presumably to lead the resistance movement in exile. What happened next changed the course of human history.

“I need ammunition not a ride.”

With that simple reply, President Zelenskyy signaled to the free world and to his own people that he was prepared to fight to the death and had no intention of fleeing. He burned the boats. He made his first down payment on hope. Perhaps he could win. Perhaps he should stay and fight. Perhaps we should send weapons. He proved himself a student of both history and psychology by tapping into this desire we all have to move only in one direction with clarity of purpose and unshakeable resolve. We went from fearing for him to wanting to fight with him.

I am convinced when we look back at how Russia was defeated and the empire crumbled, it began with a burn-the-boats move the likes we have not seen since Winston’s Churchill’s Never Surrender radio address.

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Why is trusting our instincts so important?

From a very young age, society conditions us to distrust our own instincts and defer to supposed experts rather than refine our pattern recognition skills through experience and reflection. The problem with outsourcing judgment is that the advice we receive is often corrupted through incomplete information.

For example, when I was 16 and told my guidance counselor I was going to drop out, get my GED, and enroll in college ahead of schedule, he said I was crazy and throwing my life away. That I would never overcome the stigma of being a high school dropout. His advice made sense based on the facts presented to him. But what he didn’t know is that I came home to an empty fridge, slept on a chewed-up mattress on the floor, and stayed awake all night listening to my mother crying out in pain in the room next door. She was literally wasting away. I was ashamed by my poverty and did everything I could to hide my situation out of fear of ridicule—like many kids do. Zooming out and armed with complete information, dropping out of high school to get to college early so I could secure a better paying job faster actually made a ton of sense.

Exigent circumstances often call for radical decision-making. But so does breakthrough innovation. Never forfeit your decision-making to another. The better path is to audit your inputs and outputs, figure out what may be corrupting your own instincts and intuition, and shed your shame so you can think more clearly. And the way to do it is by cultivating self-awareness. When your back is against the wall, and everything is on the line, listen to one voice above all else: your own.

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How do we “optimize” anxiety?

At the exact moment we stretch beyond our own limitations, standing at the precipice of transcendence, we conjure an enemy. It is a voice of doubt that labels us an imposter. Anyone who has ever achieved greatness first had to slay this beast. When this kid from Queens took the seat next to some very voracious sharks on Shark Tank, the voice in my head immediately labeled me an imposter. I don’t care how successful you are, everyone making bold moves contends with imposter syndrome. If you can master the internal dialogue in your mind, you will accomplish anything you want.

I believe we need to do whatever it takes to train the voice in your head to be your biggest ally because the most impactful conversations you’ll have in life will be with yourself. Things will happen. And when they do, you have to not just be prepared to deal with them, but prepared to use them, to look for them, to love them. When bad things happen, I feel a sudden charge and borrow a page from Rahm Emanuel, the former mayor of Chicago: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.”

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