May 10, 2022


It’s been more than two months since the hot war between Ukraine and Russia began.

The outcome to date has been a great surprise to many. There are important lessons to be learned from what we are witnessing… for military leaders, of course… and also for business leaders.

There was a clear expectation before the war started that Russia was much bigger, better armed, and militarily stronger than Ukraine. So far, the surprising results illustrate a few of the biggest lessons I have learned in my career.

First, and perhaps most importantly, is leadership. So far as I can see, the Russians are using a classic top-down, command-and-control approach to leadership.

Many reports indicate that Russian troops are unable to act without direct orders from above. This is a frequently cited reason why Russia has lost a startling number of generals and other high ranking officers. Unless these officers go to the front lines, they have trouble making anything happen.

In contrast, the Ukranians are demonstrating a great use of decentralized leadership. The Ukrainian army is using smaller and more lightly armed units who are empowered to make their own decisions. They know the goals and are able to adapt and exploit opportunities as they arise. So far, they are winning with their agility.

The Russians also appear to be hampered by poor logistical planning, an over-confident self-image, and a lack of vision. They did not carefully think through the operational details of what it would take to accomplish their mission. By some accounts, they barely even explained the mission to their own troops.

War analogies are typically overused in business, but success in either world depends on running an effective organization. The most effective organizations have clear goals and empower their people to act independently. They carefully examine their own capabilities, challenge their own assumptions, and think through the details of how they will accomplish their goals.

Organizations that centralize power become rigid, unaware, and unresponsive to threats and opportunities. Companies that are too proud of their past accomplishments become complacent, stop innovating, and only discover they’ve lost competitiveness when they’re already in trouble.

Things can change over time, but there is a kind of elemental truth in war. Business leaders should pay close attention to what is working and not working in Ukraine.

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