Understanding Emotional Health Through Zelenskyy and Putin
There are many important lessons to learn from Ukraine’s President, Volodomyr Zelenskyy: lessons about leadership, communication, justice and dignity. One of the lessons we can learn from him is the nature of emotional health, and how important it is to pursue emotional health, especially in contrast to stoicism. Rarely have such opposing qualities been embodied as Zelenskyy’s embodiment of emotional health, and Vladimir Putin’s embodiment of stoicism.
Understanding emotional health is an important task for Christians today. For over a decade, allegations of abuse have ruined and tarnished Christian leaders, and there is little sign of this stopping, with recent allegations about John MacArthur, Mark Galli and Brian Houston. As I pointed out in this piece for Mere Orthodoxy, racism and abuse have exposed the tendency among evangelicals to approach all social issues with moderacy, when such issues instead demand decisive care and passionate opposition.
It may seem counterintuitive to see Zelenskyy as an embodiment of emotional health because it’s common to associate leadership in war with stoicism. Common wisdom would seem to say that leaders in conflict must always rise above the battle and make hard decisions based on facts rather than emotions.
But this way of thinking makes two critical mistakes. One is that it conflates emotionalism with emotional health, as if they were essentially twins with slightly different personalities. The other error is the idea that emotions are not integral to leadership, especially wartime leadership. Contrasting Zelenskyy and Putin helps us see these errors, and helps us to understand how important emotional health is for us all.
Emotional Health is Not Emotionalism
Emotionalism is the unholy elevation of emotions. It is the centralizing and prioritizing of emotions over all other elements of human psychology. Like almost every other -ism, it takes an important element of our humanity and makes it the only important element.
Emotional health, on the other hand, makes space for emotions as a part of the whole of who we are. Emotional health makes emotions work with the different parts of our lives, rather than against them. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!”
So Zelenskyy, as the President of Ukraine, needs to maintain balance and focus as a leader. Emotions cannot override who he is, but neither can emotions be eliminated from who he is. When he says Russians will “see our faces, not our backs”, he is not only brave, but is declaring and displaying to Russia the whole humanity of his people, emotions and all.
When he says, “That is why our soldiers help [the Russians] with the path to God’s judgment” and “Resistance for Ukrainians is a feature of the soul,” he is connecting Ukrainian emotions to the spiritual dimension of the war. He sees the whole of the person when he connects emotions to all that they are experiencing.
Emotionalism is not the slightly crazier twin of emotional health. Emotional health makes space for emotions but never at the expense of the whole person, and this is a critical element of good leadership, even during war.
Emotions are Integral to Leadership
Wartime leadership always involves making hard decisions that cannot be avoided. But this does not mean that stoicism is the best way to manage emotions for leaders.
Emotions can easily seem like just another problem that needs to be controlled, especially strong emotions. But emotional health knows that managing emotions, especially the strongest ones, does not come from exerting iron control over them, but by giving them space, like airing out clean, wet laundry.
This is where Zelenskyy is so different from Putin. They both have the appearance of control as leaders of their nations. But Putin is attempting to maintain absolute control over Russia and Ukraine, and to accomplish that, he projects absolute emotional control over himself and the Russian people. Any expression of negative feelings about his war or loss of Ukrainian life is forbidden and punishable by years in jail. Tens of thousands have been detained after protesting.
To picture how all of this works, consider Andy Crouch’s authority/vulnerability quadrant for leaders:
Putin is living in the upper left (Corner IV), exercising strong authority but no vulnerability. He is exploiting the Ukrainian people, who are suffering in Corner II with great vulnerability and no authority. Everyday Russians are in Corner III, withdrawn and quiet, or withdrawing completely by leaving the country.
Zelenskyy, however, is flourishing because of his authority and vulnerability. Remaining in Ukraine allows him to remain as President, but it also carries significant danger to his life. His famous response to the American offer of escape, “I need ammunition, not a ride”, was a good line, but it was also coming from a place of real risk.
This vulnerability allows him to maintain a healthy authority. It gives meaning to his expressions of lament, complaints about Russian aggression, and his call to Ukrainians to remain strong. “It was a day of difficult events,” he noted in a recent address. “But it was another day that brought us all closer to our victory.” Zelenskyy’s strong leadership is rooted in the emotionally healthy encouragement of expressing the full spectrum of human emotions, which is galvanizing his army “far beyond Western expectations”.
The Failure of Stoicism
Putin’s stoicism and lack of vulnerability are doing the opposite. The various problems that plague the Russian army demonstrate the perils of seeking absolute control over emotions. Desertions have increased, some deserters have been shot, and outbursts of emotion from Russian leaders point to the problems of stoicism in wartime leadership.
Despair and apathy are multiplied when emotions are suppressed, and this is as true for each of us personally as it is for the Russian army. This is what happens when we make emotional control absolute.
Emotional health is not emotionalism, it is the thoughtful management of emotions. And emotional health is integral for leadership; the benefits of it are manifesting themselves in Putin’s war with Ukraine. The war on the ground is still on-going, but the war of principles, inner-strength and personal influence has already been won by Zelenskyy and his emotionally healthy leadership. We would do well to follow Zelenskyy’s leadership ourselves.