This essay featured in the February 2022 edition of The B Team's monthly newsletter. Subscribe to receive leadership insights, advocacy opportunities and conversations between business and civil society leaders exploring a better way of doing business for people and planet.
“I thought I knew what bravery was. And then I saw Ukraine.”
I know I’m not alone in sharing this sentiment, expressed in a recent letter to the editor of the New York Times. We are all grappling with the disturbing state of the world. As scary as all of this feels, the solidarity, compassion and courage of the Ukrainian people is inspiring in a way many of us have never experienced in our lives.
Horror, heartbreak, humanity and hope, all at once.
B Team leaders rallied together last week in a response to the unprovoked actions of Vladimir Putin. We stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine in this dark hour. We also sympathize with the untold millions of Russian citizens who did not choose this destructive path.
Peace must never be taken for granted. Here we are in the 21st century—30 years after Francis Fukayama claimed we'd arrived at the “end of history”—witnessing an autocratic regime invade a sovereign democracy and target military personnel and civilians alike. The worst is still to come.
Yet Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy holds fast in the capital city of Kyiv, his “defiant spirit” on display in his selfie videos and formal remarks, including his February 24th speech, which Jonathan Freedland of The Guardian called a “speech for the ages, one that deserves to be read now and long after this crisis is over.”
A significant shift is in the air. We all feel it. The resolve of Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian citizenry is rallying people around the world at a speed and scale that is deeply moving. Their resolve is a wake-up call for the rest of us—a visceral reminder of what we believe, what we value, of a future that is worth fighting for.
Ukraine’s courage has inspired rare unity, in Europe and elsewhere. It is inspiring to see citizens, governments, business leaders, civil society, investors and student groups coming together—not only to condemn Putin’s violent and illegal war of choice, but to affirm democratic principles, open and free societies and the power of the many.
“As a dictator who may find it hard to understand that people’s faith in democracy is genuine,” writes The Economist, “[Putin] has almost certainly been surprised by the upwelling of popular support for Ukraine—the support that sees Londoners stand to the Ukrainian anthem and the Brandenburg gate in Berlin lit up in the blue and gold of the Ukrainian flag.”
“If the universal rule of law is worth aspiring to,” wrote B Team co-founder Richard Branson last week, “all of us must stand up and confront this threat. Peace and prosperity cannot exist without cooperation and commitments.”
A future of progress and shared prosperity hinges upon this thinking and, more specifically, this approach to leadership. No one, save for Vladimir Putin and a scattered cadre of illiberal revisionists, wanted this war; still, it forces a moment to rethink and reset leadership to better reflect the principles and qualities the world urgently needs in abundance: collaboration before competition, humility over ego, “power with” rather than “power over.”
Exploitative and outdated leadership ideals have brought the world to a place where we extract more than our planet can safely provide, then distribute it so unequally that we are losing social cohesion and trust in public institutions. Given the global challenges we face, this is hardly an approach fit for purpose in the 21st century.
In the immediate term, businesses and business leaders are stepping up en masse. Here are just a few examples:
PensionDanmark sold all government bonds as well as shares in companies in which the Russian government has "deciding influence.” Harley-Davidson has suspended its business in Russia and all shipments of its bikes to the country. Norges Bank Investment Management, Norway’s sovereign wealth fund (the largest in the world), is freezing all new investments in Russia and intends to fully divest its Russia holdings. The four largest US cell phone carriers are waiving fees and offering free long-distance calls to Ukraine. Airbnb is partnering with its Hosts to provide free housing for up to 100,000 refugees fleeing from Ukraine. And the world of sport isn’t sitting on the sidelines either. Manchester United of the English Premier League—a club I personally support—has canceled Russian airline Aeroflot’s sponsorship.
Ukrainians are living their values in the most profound way. They are putting their lives on the line in defense of freedom and opportunity, in defense of their children’s future. Away from the battlefield, will we join them? Each of us has a voice and the agency to reject oppression, affirm our common humanity and co-create the world we want and need.
And as Ukrainian scientist Svitlana Krakovska explained to Bloomberg Green recently, the war is inextricably linked to our climate crisis. Describing the moment when news of the Russian invasion reverberated inside a UN climate science meeting, she explained: “This human-induced climate change and war against Ukraine have direct connections and the same roots. They are fossil fuels and humanity’s dependence on them.” She expressed frustration that the war would overshadow years of scientific work that went into the new report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Released this Monday, the IPCC report is undeniably bleak, but time still remains to “secure a livable and sustainable future for all.” It will require bold ambition, shared urgency and relentless action. Are we up to the task?
The men and women of Ukraine have made their choice, courageously. Who will we choose to be?