The Power of Presence

Like a long-awaited medical report, the last three weeks have presented a comprehensive diagnosis of global geo-political truths that have laid unstated for years: Putin is ruthless, Russia (or at least Putin) sees Ukraine as its own, Ukraine was a whole lot more committed to democracy than most thought, Germany’s true loyalties lie with the West, NATO still has a role in the world, Russia’s army maybe isn’t as powerful as we thought, the United States and the European Union can work together.

But the X-ray that put all this on the chart was a singular move by one person, an event (or non-event) that brought all of the above to the fore.  The President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Oleksandrovych Zellensky, stayed put.   When Russia began its attack and when every other head of state would have understandably sought asylum to save their hide, Zellensky did not leave; he stayed in Kyiv with his people to personally fight for their freedom.

His decision is instructive on so many levels.  It speaks not just to politics but to leadership in general, whether you’re a babysitter of three, a CEO of thousands, or head of state of millions.  Ukrainians are signing up in droves to participate in the resistance.  Suburban moms are learning how to use a rifle.  Bigtime weapons are getting flown in from friendly nations around the world.  I can honestly say that, no matter how well this former actor/comedian could wordsmith a speech, he could never have pulled off this sort of loyalty if he had left.  He stayed on.  And a people were inspired.

What can we learn from this?  Stay put.  Don’t leave.  Nothing builds greater trust than just being there.

As a pastor, people ask me what to say when they go to a hospital and visit an ill relative.  I tell them that the less they say, the better.  That 90% of the blessing is simply the fact that you are there in person.  Nothing much else matters.

How many movies have you seen where the little league baseball player, the teenage dancer, the 5th grade talent show contestant, or the lead in the high school musical peeks out into the crowd at the last minute for that parent or guardian whose sheer presence makes the difference between an electrifying performance or a tragic loss of confidence.  Exaggerated?  Sure.  But the message is clear: “Just show up.  Please!  Just show up.”

What caused so much mental health breakdown during the pandemic among children?  Lack of presence.  Physical, tangible presence.  Relegated to a tiny box on someone’s screen, the teacher was “there” electronically, the classmates were in the next desk over “virtually,” the curriculum was being taught in theory.  But outside the box, no one was really there.

The first and unmistakeable sign a retail business is on it’s way out?  The manager’s not around anymore.  He or she has off-loaded responsibility to an entry-level worker and on paper everyone has a job to do and everything is supposed to work.  But of course it doesn’t.  Why?  The head guy may be smart, clever, a good administrator, an amazing businessman, . . . but absent.  Things will go downhill.  It’s just a matter of time.

Trust involves a lot: integrity, competence, sympathy, vulnerability, etc.  But the cornerstone is presence.

I don’t know the outcome of the invasion of Ukraine.  I don’t know how this new ally of the West will fare.  I don’t know if Zellensky will survive.  But I can tell you one thing: five years from now, ten years from now, fifty years from now, what the Ukrainians will remember is not what their leader said, but what he did.  He was there for them.  And that made all the difference.

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