Michigan Ross Prof Brings Lessons From Ukraine War Into The MBA Classroom

Maxim Sytch is a professor of management and organizations at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business who teaches about leadership. Born in Ukraine and raised in the former Soviet Union, he has had plenty to talk about with his MBA students in the last six weeks.

What has surprised him is how enthusiastic students have been to discuss and derive lessons from the war that began with Russia’s full-scale invasion on February 24.

“I was impressed by how open and eager students were to discuss the war in Ukraine in the classroom” Sytch tells Poets&Quants in response to a series of emailed questions. “To me, it shows leadership and maturity. Perspectives that politics should be kept out of the classroom have always struck me as incredibly obsolete. Our business school students are future global business leaders, and they will not only have to address world headlines because they will be on the minds of their employees but also make tough leadership decisions in complex political and economic contexts.

“I firmly believe that it is our responsibility as faculty to prepare them for these moments.”

UKRAINE IN THE CLASSROOM: CONTRASTS & SOMBER REMINDERS

Maxim Sytch of Michigan’s Ross School of Business

Sytch, a Poets&Quants 40-Under-40 professor in 2014, came to the United States as a college student but still has many connections, including family members, in Ukraine and Russia. He tells P&Q that he last visited Ukraine in October 2021, and last traveled to Russia in 2019, but he speaks with relatives and friends in both countries often — especially since the start of the war.

He points out that Russia’s war actually began with its annexation of Crimea in 2014, an illegal act that was never fully repudiated by the international community — a fact that may have emboldened Russian President Vladimir Putin to go further. Sytch says the contrast between the leadership styles of Putin and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky provides endless learning opportunities for the young future leaders in Michigan Ross’ MBA program.

I am a professor of management and organizations and I teach leadership, so we frequently reflect on variations in leadership styles,” says Sytch, who got his Ph.D. from Northwestern University and taught at the Kellogg School of Management before joining Michigan Ross. “Juxtaposing President Zelensky’s and Putin’s leadership styles has generated a vibrant and thoughtful conversation. It brought to light, for example, the sharp contrast between empowering one’s team and allowing them to speak in their own voices versus creating an echo chamber based on fear, deprived of psychological safety.”

He contrasts Zelensky’s style of empowering and supporting his subordinates with Putin’s style as displayed during a Russian Security Council meeting in which he humiliated his head of foreign intelligence. “We watched this video in class to understand how all of the influence techniques we frequently study in business classes as driving positive change can also be used toward disastrous consequences,” Sytch says. “It was a somber reminder to us all of how creating a culture of fear deprives any leader of truthful information, which in turn translates into disastrous decisions.”

Below read Maxim Sytch’s observations about the war, how it has affected his MBA lessons, and his concerns about the durability of international support for Ukraine.

Q&A WITH MICHIGAN ROSS’ MAXIM SYTCH

How have MBA students responded in class to discussions about the leadership styles of Putin and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky? Have class discussions sparked any insights you hadn’t considered?

Let me start by saying that I was impressed by how open and eager students were to discuss the war in Ukraine in the classroom. To me, it shows leadership and maturity. Perspectives that politics should be kept out of the classroom have always struck me as incredibly obsolete. Our business school students are future global business leaders, and they will not only have to address world headlines because they will be on the minds of their employees but also make tough leadership decisions in complex political and economic contexts. I firmly believe that it is our responsibility as faculty to prepare them for these moments.

I was struck by how personally many of the students took the war – even those without direct ties to Ukraine – and how emotional they were in discussing its implications for the world.

I am a professor of Management and Organizations and I teach leadership, so we frequently reflect on variations in leadership styles. Juxtaposing President Zelensky’s and Putin’s leadership styles has generated a vibrant and thoughtful conversation. It brought to light, for example, the sharp contrast between empowering one’s team and allowing them to speak in their own voices versus creating an echo chamber based on fear, deprived of psychological safety.

The rise of President Zelensky is not just about Zelensky himself. It is coupled with the increased stature and influence of the Ukrainian government and leaders such Dmytro Kuleba, the Minister of Foreign Affairs for Ukraine; Aleksey Arestovich – the Head of the Office of the President for Zelensky, Vitaliy Kim, the regional head of the Mikolyev Region; Vitali Klitschko, the mayor of Kyiv. They have all emerged as incredibly vocal, influential, and admired leaders, in part because of President Zelensky’s leadership.

And contrast it with Putin’s style, which was on display during the Russian Security Council meeting in which he humiliated his Head of Foreign Intelligence, Sergiy Naryshkin. We watched this video in class to understand how all of the influence techniques we frequently study in business classes as driving positive change can also be used toward disastrous consequences.

It was a somber reminder to us all of how creating a culture of fear deprives any leader of truthful information, which in turn translates into disastrous decisions. In light of these discussions, the recent reports from the world’s intelligence agencies that Putin is not getting truthful information about his army’s failures in Ukraine and the Ukrainians’ attitude toward him are hardly surprising.

A passage from a recent story about you: “For many Russians lacking access to accurate information for years, these falsehoods have morphed into an entire worldview that is difficult to unseat. Sytch also cautions the public from taking their anger out on the Russians they encounter.”

 Do you see parallels to this “alternate reality” in the U.S. right now, and are we seeing failures of leadership in contending with it?

Sadly, yes. Many people in the U.S. have a similar experience with conspiracy theories about the stolen elections and COVID-19 vaccines. Similar to Russia, these were at times promoted by the highest level of the government. We even got a name for such theories: “alternative facts.” And note that people have developed these worldviews in a country in which there is free media and press, and in which peaceful political dissent is not punished by arrests and jail time. And now just imagine what kind of beliefs people can develop in Russia where they lack access to disconfirming information and have been hammered by state propaganda for years, and where taking a “No to War” sign to the street results in an instant arrest.

And yes, taking out the world’s collective anger on regular Russians is not only unproductive but dangerous. It is factually and morally wrong. Sadly, in the U.S. we have a history of doing this. Think of the Japanese internment camps during World War II, the anti-Arab sentiment following the acts of terrorism, and just in the last two years, the anti-Asian sentiment associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Let’s not repeat it again. Doing so will only further Putin’s narrative that Russia faces an existential threat from the rest of the world and will make the entire nation feel cornered. Most of the Russians you will run into do not support the war and have probably even fled Russia because of Putin’s regime.

When were you last in Ukraine and Russia? Did you believe Putin would invade? How can he continue to lead Russia post-war, when he has been so repudiated by world leaders?



My last visit to Ukraine was in October of last year, and Russia — in 2019. I have relatives and friends in Ukraine and friends in Russia.

Let’s be clear that Putin already invaded Ukraine in 2014. He illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula and, by sending Russian troops and weapons to Eastern Ukraine, manufactured the separatist states that he later used as the pretext for a larger war.

At first, I refused to believe that Putin would start a full-scale war against Ukraine. The possibility of Russia starting a war against its closest cultural and ethnic neighbor, without any reason or provocation, seemed incomprehensible to me. Invading Ukraine also seemed like political suicide by Putin. My friends in Ukraine seemed equally convinced that it is the media needlessly stoking up the fears of the invasion.

I started to get more worried when Putin gathered the Russian Security Council on Feb. 21 to recognize the independence of the separatist states. It was a farce, a public show in which he humiliated Naryshkin, his Chief of Foreign Intelligence, and secured public commitments to the separatist states from his top cabinet members and parliament leaders.

The alarm bells went off the next day when Putin communicated to the media that a question came up whether he had recognized the independence of the separatist states in their current or historical borders. He said that, of course, he meant the states’ historical borders, which implied laying claim to the territory controlled by Ukraine. And this coincided with the U.S. intelligence cry that they were seeing not just the buildup of the Russian military on the border with Ukraine, but also the Russian military being in battle formation.

On the afternoon before the invasion on Feb. 23, I touched base with one of my friends, an executive who leads a company with a major presence in Eastern Europe. We finished the conversation and then, just fifteen minutes later, she calls me back with discernable fear in her voice, saying that she and her colleagues are hearing that the Russian troops had gone off the grid and that they would be advancing toward Kyiv and Kharkiv later that night. I do not think I will ever forget that call.

Still refusing to fully believe in the reality of this happening and wondering if I would be needlessly scaring people, I nonetheless reached out to my friends in Ukraine, advising they be on alert that night. And a few hours later, I watched on CNN – still in disbelief – the first rocket attacks on the Ukrainian land.

Regarding your other question of Putin’s leading Russia, I think Putin has effectively abdicated from leading Russia. He put the pursuit of power, his empirical ambitions, and his lingering desire to restore the Soviet Union above the future of the Russian people.

He is now responsible for the lives of thousands of soldiers from both Ukraine and Russia, thousands of Ukrainian civilians and hundreds of kids. The recent evidence coming out of the Ukrainian cities of Bucha and Mariupol documenting atrocities against the civilian population committed by the Russian military makes Putin likely to be prosecuted by the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

In addition to bringing on the disastrous effects of economic sanctions, the damage already inflicted on Ukraine makes Russia liable for hundreds of billions of U.S. dollars in reparations. With this war, Putin has completely crumbled the already struggling Russian economy, and he stigmatized the nation for decades. He inflicted indescribable suffering on the people of Ukraine, while robbing the Russian people of their future.

One may indeed wonder how Putin can stay in power after all of this. What keeps him afloat is the thick veil of disinformation with which he surrounded Russia. The political opposition in Russia has been decimated, all oppositional TV, radio channels, and newspapers have been shut down. Major social media platforms, including Meta, Instagram, and Twitter, have all been either fully shut down or heavily restricted in use.

In parallel to this, increasingly larger amounts of media time are allotted to state news propaganda, which continues to perpetuate complete falsehoods, such as that Nazis rule Ukraine, that there is genocide against the Russian people in Ukraine, or that the Russians are liberating Ukraine from the Ukrainian nationalists.

The information from the rest of the world either does not penetrate this veil of disinformation or, when it does, it is labeled as fake and used to build up anti-West sentiments. People who could speak up are scared: the newly introduced Russian laws allow between three and fifteen years of incarceration for criticizing the war.

As a result, the data coming out of Russia indicate that the majority of Russians support the war, which is what insulates Putin – at least for now – from facing the consequences of his actions in the hands of the Russian people.

Do you worry that Americans are losing interest in the war and what that could mean for fundraising and donations — and political appetite for continued support for Ukraine?

Extremely. I have been worried about this almost since day one, knowing how short the news media cycles typically are in the U.S. In this respect, I give immense credit to the Ukrainian leaders, particularly to President Zelensky, who continues to share daily what is going on Ukraine. I have lost count of the number of addresses he has given to the parliaments of foreign countries and to the general public, appealing for diplomatic, economic, and military aid. His leadership, charisma, and outstanding communication style have become Ukraine’s secret weapons in this war.

I so impressed by the quality of reporting from major U.S. and European networks and media outlets who have their courageous reporters on the ground, in some of the most dangerous places in Ukraine in order to deliver a truthful story.
I also encourage all of us to help in this respect by spreading and maintaining awareness of the war and by helping the people of Ukraine. If you google the National Bank of Ukraine, you will see several opportunities to help on the Bank’s landing page.

Read more about Maxim Sytch and find links to groups supporting Ukraine here.

AND DON’T MISS UKRAINIAN B-SCHOOL PROF: ‘THE WORLD SHOULD MAKE SURE THAT RUSSIA FAILS’ and STANFORD MBA STUDENTS COLLECT MILLIONS’ WORTH OF MEDICAL SUPPLIES FOR UKRAINE

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