On Feb. 26, The Atlantic published Franklin Foer’s moving essay “A Prayer for Volodymyr Zelensky.” Foer highlighted Zelensky’s life before politics as an actor and eloquently opined on Zelensky’s character—not the role he plays, but what drives him as a human being. The essay provided a window into what leadership looks like in the face of tyranny and aggression. Although Foer didn’t speculate on how being an actor prepared Zelensky to be a leader, knowing he was an actor raises a question: Are there leadership lessons to be learned from the acting profession?
Zelensky never studied acting formally; he studied law but didn’t practice it. He developed into an actor by participating in competitions and starting his own company, which led to his success as both an actor and comedian. Our society often questions the value of the liberal arts, especially visual and performing arts. So why do the arts matter? Could they prepare someone to be a leader in times of profound stress, grave danger and uncertainty?
In times of crisis, leaders need to be brave and committed to their cause; they need to manage chaos, solve complex problems and hold true to their principles. The acting profession requires the same (as do the arts in general).
Bravery: Actors learn to go on stage despite the fear of failure. They know in their most vulnerable moments, expressing anguish, anger or hopelessness, someone might boo or laugh. They face the reality of public shaming by the possibility (and probability) of critics excoriating their performance in the news. And yet they go back onstage, again and again. Most actors develop a thick skin and become undeterred in their mission to perform successfully.
When Zelensky speaks to leaders with greater resources and power than his, he does so without shame or concern for what others might think of him. He knows his mission is worthwhile and exudes confidence in moments of true vulnerability and profound risk.
Commitment to the cause: Actors learn to fully commit themselves to roles they play by forgoing the trappings of vanity and ego. They may transform their appearance and risk their health and well-being to perform their role well. One technique, called the Method, teaches actors how to fully assume the identity of their character in order to execute the portrayal accurately and authentically. The actor becomes the person they portray. Also, actors understand that they are a part of a whole team. Their role, whether large or small, impacts the entire performance. They know others depend upon their performance for success.
For Zelensky, he doesn’t act presidential by showing up in a particular costume (clean-shaven and in a suit or a warmup jacket emblazoned with a presidential seal) on camera during a crisis to prove he’s the president. He is the president and acts accordingly by caring for those he serves and joining in their struggles side by side. It’s not about him; he understands everyone else depends upon him. He shows up authentically with a job to do. He doesn’t fake assurances; he shares in others’ worries and concerns.
Managing chaos: Actors learn how to think quickly on their feet. If an actor forgets a line, a prop is missing or an accident occurs onstage, actors must roll with it. They accept the situation and adjust their actions to keep the performance moving. They don’t give up and leave midperformance. Actors practice improvisation and know their ability to do so affects their success. They think and act quickly; they are comfortable with chaos.
When the Ukrainian government (and its citizens) removed road signs to confuse and deter the Russians, it managed chaos through improvisation. Replacing the sign on the Boryspil highway with one that read “Russian Warship, go fuck yourself” is a masterful example of the repartee one learns through improvisation. Its shocking directness disarms the opponent psychologically. With Russian hesitation and confusion, there is an opportunity for Ukrainians.
Solving complex problems: The phrase “the show must go on” isn’t just a silly idiom regurgitated by hucksters; it means, quite seriously, “come hell or high water, we will continue.” Those in the acting profession are trained to respond and solve, without fail. They are taught (and expected) to make it work, whatever problem they face. To do so, they are resourceful and quick-thinking. Theater technicians can fix just about anything with literally nothing. Is the battery pack for the actor’s microphone shorting out because he’s sweating under the lights? No worries; put it inside an unlubricated condom. Seriously. Theater people are geniuses—real-life MacGyvers. If you’ve doubted their resourcefulness, check the budget for your institution’s theater department, the pay the faculty and staff receive, and consider the productions they pull off. It’s astounding.
So, for Zelensky one question was “How do we arm the people and inspire them when we’re outgunned and outnumbered?” Answer: You have the Pravda brewery in Lviv create Molotov cocktails in their bottles and attach labels that read, “Putin is a dickhead.” And this is just the beginning.
Principles: There is nothing more sacrosanct to artists than the freedom of speech. The importance of speaking truth, no matter how unpopular, shocking or difficult to accept, pulses through every vein in their bodies and creates the core of their very being. The commitment to ensuring their voice and the voices of their colleagues are heard cannot be underestimated. They don’t take kindly to censorship, banning works or preventing access to ideas that may challenge the status quo. They’ll fight to the bitter end to defend their principles; they don’t care whom they offend in the process.
Foer illustrated Zelensky’s bravery and unwillingness to abandon his duty and promises to himself, others and his country. He recounted Zelensky’s response to an offer of exile from the U.S.: “The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride.” And in those 10 words, Zelensky showed the world what it means to have a functioning moral compass and what it means to be accountable to others as a leader. He knew there was something greater at stake than a job—even his own job, his life and countless other lives—individual agency, cultural identity and democracy itself.
Conclusion: These are grave times. Zelensky exemplifies leadership under enormous pressure when the stakes couldn’t be higher, but his actions and courage don’t surprise anyone working (or trained) in the arts. Educators in the visual and performing arts teach students how to develop these characteristics every day, all day long; it’s expected that students learn them and exemplify them as they practice the profession.
The goal of developing leaders who are innovative, creative problem solvers is embedded in nearly every college and university strategic plan in the nation with the hope of preparing students for the complex world they face. But instead of looking toward the experts, the arts are derided and defunded. Not only do artists use their skills to create things of aesthetic and intellectual value, but their skills are vital in difficult times. It’s time to stop questioning the value of the arts, why they matter in a world in crisis and what one can do with training in the arts.