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Leadership in the world of social networks

Dr. Tali Gazit explains how Zelensky manages to unite his people and also mobilize global support through social networks

Volodymyr Zelensky. The photo is from The Presidential Office of Ukraine website,
Volodymyr Zelensky. The photo is from The Presidential Office of Ukraine website,

He is a former actor, reality show refugee, comedian and even short. But he is the most popular leader who has arisen recently and he is sweeping not only millions of private people but also the vast majority of the world's countries. Zelensky's main weapon is the telephone that connects him to social media and from there to his people and the world at large, and he uses it better than any other leader of our generation, certainly better than his rival Putin, the villain of the docu-series we are all addicted to these days. Dr. Tali Gazit from the Department of Information Sciences at Bar-Ilan University writes about the leadership of the man who succeeded during war, to unite his people and also to mobilize international support and all through social networks. 

In recent years I have been researching virtual leadership. One that allows single people, sometimes completely anonymous, to manage to lead and sway significant communities without the limitation of time or geography. At the same time we are talking about the fact that even leaders who were not born online must use it. Studies point to Bibi and Trump as examples of leaders who do this well. At the local level, I show my students posts by Ran Konik, the mayor of Givataim, who conducts discussions with the residents of his city at eye level through a Facebook group (not a page!) that he manages.

And here is a leader who most of us have never heard of before, who in times of crisis picks up his phone and enters the pages of history. In the study of leadership models, the comparison of Zelensky with Churchill is warranted. Like him, he was caught in a situation of a brutal war that he did not want. Like him, he knew, in a time of crisis, to position himself in an impressive leadership position that both mobilized his people and generated worldwide compassion and a desire to help. This is an old-new leadership style. This is a situational leadership, like that of Churchill and that of Moses, that knows how to support and uplift a people in moments of crisis that is on the verge of depression, with the help of a discourse of hope, of "we" and of a personal example. This is leadership at the right time and place that mobilizes with all its might and responds to a difficult, sacrificial situation. And so, while Churchill of the 20th century is credited with particularly wonderful speeches ("If large parts of Europe and many old and glorious countries also fell or will fall under the rule of the Gestapo and the entire broken apparatus of the Nazi regime, we will not be deterred and we will not be disillusioned. We will continue until the end"), Zelensky of the 21st century has a wide audience and the messages he releases are short, catchy, contemporary and quickly become viral and influential ("Listen. I am here. We will not lay down our weapons. We will defend our country because our weapon is the truth" ).

Everyone likes and shares

At the beginning of the year 2022, and after two years of Corona in which we all learned to live online more than on the streets, Zelensky knows how to use social networks in an inspiring way. He knows how to turn to emotion, in private stories, in a targeted help request, in sharing about himself and his family. In the research I have conducted in recent years, I have found all of these to increase engagement and sharing on social networks. The managers of the virtual communities already internalize this and also know how to profit from involvement in their community. Even the cynics - the silent majority on the net who usually only watch and do not react - cannot remain indifferent to a video of a beautiful little girl asking Putin to send his soldiers home, liking and sharing.

Although we witness the support of tycoons such as Elon Musk in the moves of Zelensky, who provides him with the Internet, leadership in the digital age no longer has to be based on the money of tycoons and lobbyists. Micro-financing of the general public, exposed to the viral content, can not only meet the economic needs aimed at by the leader but also break the chain of capital-government obligation. His presence on the web makes the individual move uncomfortably in his chair and want to do something. And if this "something" is to donate, then there is a high potential here for a mass infusion of funds from all over the world. And here we are already witnessing initiatives to raise public funds, for example, with the help of buying Ukrainian products on the website Esty, or by ordering apartments throughout Ukraine through Air BNB. in order to help the country and its citizens

Leadership in times of crisis requires a focus on the task at the same time as an empathetic concentration on the leaders. But unlike in the 21s when Churchill worked, leadership in the digital age of the XNUMXst century requires other, additional abilities. First of all is digital literacy at a very high level. It requires the accessibility of information and its management, the use of visual symbols (a military t-shirt, a selfie in the city center), the ability to move between different and creative digital platforms. Zelensky, an actor at heart and a born leader, controls all of these with a firm hand.

While Putin takes us back decades and lowers the iron curtain on the media, we get to follow a historical event and a leader who knew how to unite his people, bring pride and hope out of them and mobilize citizens and leaders from around the world in his favor with the help of social networks. There is a new world order here, not only in the theory of wars and global power relations, but also in the theory of leadership in an era where social networks are a city square as important as Independence Square in Kyiv.