School of Media Studies

Lessons on Leadership and Media from the Invasion of Ukraine 

By Linda Saint Marc and Miranda Gilbert.

Witnessing the invasion of Ukraine, the resulting humanitarian crisis, and the possibility for this situation to expand into chemical warfare, nuclear attacks, and cyber attacks is a shocking realization for the global majority. At the time of writing, more than 7 million people have fled Ukraine and are forced to seek refuge from brutal aggression by the Russian military wherever they can find it. Discussing the conflict with students in the Media Management Graduate Program, the nuances of the threat of global conflict creates opportunities to examine how leadership and personal values impact entire populations and the global community at large. It is also a moment to realize how advancements in media technologies enable front-line reports in real-time and media access despite efforts to silence the truth. 

Despite the threat to life on both sides and the rush of people leaving both Russia and Ukraine, we are seeing a refusal to discuss a critical part of the refugee crisis caused by this war. In addition to the 7 million Ukrainian refugees seeking safety around the globe, in the past few weeks alone, more than 200,000 Russian people have fled their home country. The disagreement with Putin’s war campaign and growing concerns about the consequences of a military draft has prompted Russians to voice their disagreement with and distrust of their country’s leader. Putin’s (former) people no longer have confidence in their leader and in his decision-making capabilities and as such can no longer stand by his values and actions. On the other hand, growing numbers of Ukrainian people are making the choice to stay in their home country as it slowly starts to be safer to do so. They do this because they believe in President Zelinskyy. His values and convictions strike a chord with the Ukrainian people and with the world at large and support for his actions and strategic decision-making continues to grow.

In a recent session of the Media Management and Leadership course within the School of Media Studies, Associate Professor of Professional Practice, Linda Saint Marc sought to unpack the ongoing events in terms of the evidence-based research and techniques students are exploring. Exploring questions about leadership and media, students shared their thoughts in relation to their studies.

[Linda Saint Marc] The world is observing significantly different approaches to and outcomes of leadership with the conflict in Ukraine. Based on what you have learned in our class, how would you describe the management styles of Putin, Zelenskyy, and other world leaders and the impact their actions are having within their nations and the global community?

[Erika Miranda] I want the war to end. I wish it had never started. At the same time, I am discovering that even in such a difficult situation, we can learn something valuable. Zelenskyy, seeking to survive and negotiate the fate of Ukrainians, has given the world unforgettable lessons in leadership. Leadership is more than words, it is how we influence people’s feelings and actions. A true leader reveals himself under challenging times. Zelenskyy has been offering the world valuable leadership lessons that inspire leaders in every organization. In a crisis, people need to see their leaders. 

In the following video, President Zelenskyy rallies with his people in a fierce show of strength and resolve for the safety and security of Ukraine. 

[MJ Diao] President Zelenskyy’s leadership style is one that can be described as charismatic. We have seen how Zelenskyy’s presence and motivational speeches (on both mainstream media and social media platforms) have been instrumental in strengthening Ukraine’s morale and asserting the country’s sovereignty. 

[Srishti Bhargava] The fact that Zelenkyy stepped in to act as a human shield for his own people shows that he is an ‘in tune’ leader who has emotional intelligence and empathy for the citizens of Ukraine. 

A now-famous phrase, at the beginning of the war, Volodymyr Zelenskyy refused to leave his home country for the relative safety of another location: 

“The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.”

— Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in a quote cited by an Associated Press article, Feb. 25, 2022.

[Anne-Lise Sehi] The conflict between Ukraine and Russia shows how different leadership and management styles can affect an entire population. Growing up in West Africa, I lived through two Civil Wars and one Coup. During the invasion by Russia, I noticed a type of management approach by Zelenskyy that I have never observed before from any leader. I think Zelenskyy is a democratic leader who practices pacesetting as he follows the same standards he sets for his team and citizens fighting for freedom. The fact that he decided to stay in his country during the conflict says a lot about him as a leader. He is eloquent and shows a lot of courage.

[MJ Diao] Throughout Russia’s unjustified invasion of Ukraine, President Putin’s policies of disinformation and criminalization of “free speech” proved himself to be an autocratic leader. 

[Erika Miranda] Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy are entirely different examples of leadership. Unfortunately, Putin left boundaries aside, and now Ukraine (and many Russian citizens) are suffering as a result. Power without ethical leadership leads to catastrophe. 

[Lilia Martinez de la Sierra] Putin tells people what to do and expects them to comply. 

An example of this forced compliance is the Russian parliament’s unanimous vote to approve a law that criminalizes the spreading of what Russia deems to be “fake news.” This means that Russian citizens risk facing up to 15 years in prison for spreading information that is considered going against the Russian government’s position on the invasion in Ukraine. At the same time, authorities blocked access to foreign media outlets and shuttered independent local news outlets. Despite the harsh restrictions on freedom of expression by their government, some courageous Russian citizens are risking their lives to protest Russia’s war and speak truth to power. 

[Emma Brazeau] It is clear that Putin has become a vicious dictator in his country and elsewhere. His blatant disrespect and disregard for the safety and well-being of his own people is difficult to grasp. 

At the March 2022 UN general assembly vote, 141 countries voted on a resolution “deploring” Russia’s aggressive actions and demanding that they withdraw all forces from Ukraine. Business leaders are also taking action by removing themselves and products from Russia. Companies that have withdrawn from Russia include Alphabet, Apple, Dell, Fortinet, Juniper Networks, Meta, Netflix, Spotify, Trimble, and TikTok. 

[MJ Diao] Additionally, leaders from international communities such as NATO have spoken with powerful solidarity to denounce Russia’s aggression and demand its cessation – in a Democratic manner, calling for collaboration, peace, and unity.

Established in 1949, NATO (The North Atlantic Treaty Organization) is united in solidarity and committed to protecting the members within the Alliance. Article 5 of the NATO charter states an attack against one Ally is considered an attack against all Allies. NATO Allies conferred in early 2022 to address the prospect of invoking Article 5 should Russia violate the sovereignty of any NATO countries. 

[Lilia Martinez de la Sierra] The impact of the different leadership approaches in shaping the relationships between countries. Some countries are allying, and others are breaking up relationships. The impact is directly on the economy and becomes a game-changer, not just for the nearest continent but for the whole world. In the same vein, as one of the leaders of NATO and as a democratic leader, Biden has emphasized teamwork to end the conflict. 

[LSM] Media plays a central role in the invasion of Ukraine. It enables audiences worldwide to witness events as they occur. Individuals can share their stories, connect with family members and media outlets, and in some cases promote disinformation and propaganda. Censorship and the ethics of media reports are factors that influence how audiences are informed. What has this situation demonstrated about the power, influence, and potential of media?

[Lilia Martinez de la Sierra] Media today has the power to engage people around the world with live news reports and personal stories of Ukrainians on the front lines of the conflict. Some actors involved (like Zelenskyy) are using media to appeal to other democratic leaders for support, and others (like Putin) are controlling media coverage by using misinformation to serve their political agendas. 

The reporting and media coverage of the conflict has been done by brave on-site journalists, and correspondents as well as everyday people fighting for their homeland and survival. Traditional journalism has grown into a new position. Independent news outlets and their journalists on the ground now serve as the barrier between us and fake news and misinformation. Journalists and the publications they work with are helping us to recognize the difference between news and fabricated stories meant to push a particular viewpoint or message. People around the world are taking to the streets, valiantly protesting the invasion and defending the people of Ukraine. They do this as Ukrainian women, children, and the elderly sheltering underground in bunkers. Others attempt escaping shelling and bomb blasts with a single bag of belongings and loved ones seeking safety in border countries as refugees. As millions leave the country Ukrainian men valiantly stay behind to join the fight for self-preservation and freedom. Watching these events unfold from the relative safety of our homes and classrooms, we see how media makes the world a smaller, closer place. One that connects us and facilitates the sharing of human stories, images, vital information, and resources. 

[Anne-Lise Sehi] One thing that this situation taught me about the power, influence, and potential of media is seeing real-time updates from people living in Europe, Ukraine, and Russia. Learning about conflicts in history books makes you feel like during wartime everything is centered on the conflict situation, not the ripple effects of the war. You only have one version of the story. Today with social media, we can experience multiple perspectives and stories from diverse communities to understand how they are being impacted right now. Everyone is a reporter at this time. 

[MJ Diao] Media usage, particularly social media consumption, makes Russia’s invasion of Ukraine the most digitally recorded war to date. The massive influx of information that we have easy access to has caused many people, including me, to experience feelings of distress – despite not being directly impacted by the raging war taking place on the other side of the globe. However, the silver lining to it all is that it is heartening to see how people around the world are coming together, reflecting, and expressing solidarity through conversations enabled by media.

[Anne-Lise Sehi] For me, the most beautiful thing is to see that the war in Ukraine is connecting people around the world. Individuals everywhere are trying to do something to support victims of this conflict right now, through Tweets, Instagram posts, Go Fund Me campaigns, and other creative solutions.

[Srishti Bhargava] For instance, people are booking Airbnbs and Ubers in Ukraine without even being in the country to provide funds to locals, and these apps have removed their charges for their staff in Ukraine. It is through media that people from different parts of the world are connecting with people in Ukraine to provide support; especially monetary assistance.

As we are seeing more about the invasion in the media, students voice concerns about disinformation and propaganda. Especially in Russia, students note that the dismantling of independent news and media organizations creates a manipulative environment, run by the political and economical interests of one person, determined to create a false narrative that serves his agenda. While media has its disadvantages, we are still seeing engagement and worldwide connections that support and provide aid to refugees and victims. The world is witnessing a needless invasion and despite the best efforts of disinformation factories, independent media is working to destroy false narratives and to educate and show us what is really happening in Russia and in Ukraine. 

[Erika Miranda] In this information age, we live in times where we are constantly manipulated, whether by political or economic interests, and this may only worsen in the coming years. Without realizing it, we increasingly give more power to those who control the sources of information and thereby losing some of our freedom through this manipulation. As a result, it will become increasingly difficult to distinguish what is true from false in the future. To avoid this we must learn to question all of the information that we receive to form independent opinions based on verified information from trustworthy resources. Misinformation spreads so easily. We cannot trust everything we read or see. We need to think critically as individuals. 

[Emma Brazeau] We should always care about the safety of democracy. I think it’s important to understand and recognize the difference between propaganda and credible media. Until witnessing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I had never considered the significance of this difference.

President Biden and security professionals are warning Americans to protect themselves against anticipated cyber-attacks on banking systems, infrastructure and personal devices through ransomware in retaliation to the sanctions against Russia. 

In this moment of uncertainty, lessons on leadership and media from the invasion in Ukraine can offer inspiration. We can take comfort in knowing that we share values of democracy and freedom with allies around the world. Using reliable media sources, updating privacy controls, and advocating for media and information literacy equips us with the knowledge to combat disinformation, propaganda, and potential cyber-attacks. Additionally, there are countless ways for us to support the people affected by conflict with our actions. Collectively we can make a difference. 

Special thanks to the following student contributors in the Media Management Graduate Programs at The New School for providing their thoughts on the conflict in Ukraine for this piece: Anne-Lise Sehi, MJ Diao, Erika Miranda, Emma Brazeau, Lilia Martinez de la Sierra and Srishti Bhargava. 

The views and opinions expressed belong solely to the individual contributors and do not reflect the views and opinions of The New School or the School of Media Studies. Comments have been edited for brevity, grammar and clarity. 

Student contributor LinkedIn links:

Anne-Lise Sehi: 

MJ Diao:      

Erika Miranda: 

Emma Brazeau: 

Lilia Martinez de la Sierra: 

Srishti Bhargava: 

Photo Courtesy: Forbes

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