I am sitting at a sidewalk café in Kyiv, surrounded by the ancient ruins that are the apartment buildings lining Volodmyrska Street, one of my favorites in the world. There is the playful banter of young women at the table next to me, smoking, drinking Americanos with milk. I’m holding a moment, thinking about the conversation I had with Bob McDonald the previous night. There is a Harvard case study about the cultural transformation he catalyzed after inheriting a department dogged by scandal as the eighth Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2014. That impresses me, the fact there is a Harvard case study written about him. His reforms were the types of things he implemented at Procter & Gamble where he commanded the global giant as the Chairman, President, and CEO at the pinnacle of a 33-year career. This also impresses me. Bob is impressive to say the least. But what gets me the most, beyond what his mere presence brings to a country struggling for its own identity, is that he fits in so well with anyone lucky to share his time, no matter their background or status or age, whether it is the new Minister of Veterans Affairs in Ukraine, Iryna Friz, or John Boerstler, a former Marine NCO now nonprofit leader who organized the trip. He exudes something I picked up in Chicago at the Patrick Tillman Leadership Summit this year called “transformational humility.” It’s a leadership trait of some who inspire their teams and organizations through their own humility. Humility isn’t to be confused with meekness. Humility is what gives us the ability to see and treat others as equals, and leaders who practice humility can often transform the dynamic across their spheres of influence. How is this relevant in Ukraine? Well, as the U.S. continues to use its soft power to help our strategic partner rid itself of a Russian-backed insurgency on its border in the Donbas Oblast, we ought to keep in mind as Bob so aptly put it during our trip—“a stronger veteran makes a stronger country.” If I know as a soldier that when things go wrong on the frontline, that I will be medically treated and successfully reintegrated into society, then I am more apt to serve. And Ukraine needs good people who want to serve in its armed forces. From a geopolitical standpoint, I would rather the U.S. and Ukraine invest more in healthcare infrastructure for soldiers and veterans than build another missile silo, for example. When the Donbas finally frees itself from Russia, it could be that a strong economy and modernized Ukraine is what tips the scale in favor of freedom and human dignity. And is it possible from a global leadership perspective to exercise humility over military power to create the conditions in which peace and security can take root? Remember that a former U.S. Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs went to Ukraine because he loves veterans, and he insisted that you call him “Bob.”
P.S. A big thank you to Ben Butler whose generous support enabled me to travel to Ukraine for this mission. While I was there, I also conducted a four-hour mind-body skills workshop with Donbas veterans, spouses, clinical and non-clinical professionals, and researchers. The response was overwhelming and I’m working with the Center for Mind-Body Medicine and the veteran community in Ukraine to provide more training in the very near future!