In a world of autocrats, the humble stand out

Ukraine’s new leader sets a welcome standard of humility in public service during a period of personal rule in many nations.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy attends a meeting with lawmakers in Kiev May 21.

In an era of strongman rule from Egypt to China, it is refreshing to see a new leader on the world scene who tries not to act like a personal hero but operates with compelling modesty. On Monday, Volodymyr Zelenskiy was sworn in as the elected president of Ukraine. One of his first requests? Don’t hang his picture in government offices.

“The president is not an icon, not an idol. Put there [on the walls] photos of your children, and look into their eyes before taking every decision,” said the father of two in an address to the Ukrainian people.

The novice politician won a landslide victory based on his popularity in a TV show in which he plays a humble schoolteacher comically elevated to the presidency. As a real-life president, he continued the theme of humility by walking to his inauguration, refusing an honor guard, and eschewing the haughty ways of the oligarchy that has dominated one of Europe’s poorest country. “People must come to power who will serve the public,” he said.

Whether Mr. Zelenskiy can resist the temptations of personal power, secrecy, and unaccountability remains to be seen. He promised “fewer words and more action” to end both deep-seated corruption and Russia’s hold on parts of Ukraine. Tough decisions must be made. And he faces tough opponents in Parliament. His humility could easily be taken as weakness.

Still, by its claim to openness, self-reflection, and denial of taking credit, humility is a great way to learn. Today’s autocrats pretend they are all-knowing, which leads them to make critical mistakes and demand personal rule without checks and balances. They practice certitude over kindness, ruthlessness over listening. Opponents are to be exploited or crushed, not seen as worthy of respect.

In many ways, Ukraine’s new leader resembles Joko Widodo of Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation. He officially won a second term as president on Tuesday. Even his opponents see this common man, once a furniture maker, as clean, honest, and humble. “My government is about harmony and opposing extremism,” he told a reporter.

His folksy, humble style is much admired by people in Asia living under dictatorships. In the same way, Russians are noting how much Mr. Zelenskiy differs from their president. In his inauguration, some in Russian media noted, Vladimir Putin arrived in a bulletproof car with the streets of Moscow cleared of people.

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