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County Hall Corner: My Meeting with Klitschko

From the late 1990s to 2018, I was an international business consultant and leadership trainer in the Nordics, Eastern Europe, Ukraine, Russia, Israel, and India. My family and I lived in the Baltic republic of Latvia from 1991 to 2006, where I worked as a missionary helping to launch a theological seminary as well as several churches, and at the same time teaching organizational behavior and human resource management at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga. I learned a great deal about cross-cultural training during that time and was in high demand even after returning to the states in 2006.

These international training seminars were generally two or three days long and would have anywhere from 25 to 50 participants. I would take the first hour to find as much about my trainees as I could by asking questions about their backgrounds and the organizations they represented. I would then adapt my material to ensure that the examples I used would resonate with them and would also add or subtract material that I knew they would better relate to.

In October of 2008, I was doing one of these seminars in Kyiv, Ukraine, and after it had concluded, one of the participants came up to me and said that his boss wanted to meet me. Since I had some time the next day before my flight back to the USA, I agreed to meet this boss for lunch. My translator and I showed up the next day at the restaurant and found it was completely empty. We thought we got the time wrong, but the receptionist welcomed us enthusiastically and told us our ‘guest’ had reserved the entire restaurant for privacy reasons (!?) A few minutes later, a man walked through the door with two others, who stopped at the entrance and stayed there, obviously to prevent anyone else from entering. The man who came up to my table was a towering giant named Vitali Klitschko.

Everyone in that part of the world knows this man. He and his brother Vladimir have held almost every heavyweight boxing championship there is, so many in fact, they hold the record for this in the Guinness Book of World Records. They made a promise to their mother to never fight one another, much to the frustration of many fight fans, but it seems that they have beaten everyone else on the planet.

Vitali Klitschko, however, was no typical boxer. He studied hard and, in the year 2000, earned a Ph.D. from Kyiv University. He and his brother made millions from boxing and contributed greatly toward improving life in their country. Vitali’s charity and philanthropic work has been recognized by UNESCO, and received the German Cross of the Order of Merit (Germany’s highest honor for social and political engagement) and Hero of Ukraine Order of State, that country’s highest honor.

In 2005, at the age of 34, Vitali had retired from boxing to get involved in politics. The following year he became an advisor to Ukraine’s president at the time, Viktor Yuschenko. Klitschko ran for Kyiv mayor in 2006 but came in second. He did get elected to the Kyiv City Council and was still on this council at the time of our meeting in October of 2008. Just the week before, he had regained his world title in Berlin in what was known as his “Comeback Fight” and was now eyeing the prize that he had missed two years before, which was becoming mayor of Kyiv. He did not beat around the bush; he flat out asked if I would consider being his leadership coach for his aspiring political career.

I was tremendously flattered as his previous coach for his first run at mayor of Kyiv was former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani. I quickly learned that he had had three of his colleagues at my seminar, and they all agreed that I would be a perfect fit as a consultant for their boss. I already knew that money was no object with this guy, either. He could fly me over for one-on-one consultations at the drop of a hat. I could name my price — but I hit the pause button with Vitali to ask some probing questions.

Was he really finished with his boxing career? What was his true motive in wanting to become mayor of Kyiv? What skills did he believe he needed to improve? We had a very honest discussion for over an hour, and the more we talked, the more impressed I became, but also the more I was sure he was not ready to give up boxing yet. I saw the eye of the tiger still gleaming. He kept denying it, but I told him that one week after his fight was too soon to make the kind of decisions he was trying to make now. We agreed to stay in touch, and if in the next couple of months he still had the mayoral itch he had to scratch, we could discuss how I could help him toward that goal. It turned out that I was right, as Vitali Klitschko would not retire from boxing for another five years (!) and, without my help, was elected to the Ukrainian Parliament and, in February of 2014, finally realized his dream and became mayor of the capital city of Ukraine, Kyiv.

I have followed Klitschko through these years and believe that he is truly one of the most incredible leaders I have ever known. Even before the Russian invasion, he was making a difference in his country. His example since the invasion has been extraordinary. He was featured on the front page of the Washington Post on April 10th with the heading, “Champion boxer turned Kyiv mayor becomes a rousing wartime leader.” A quote from that article hits it right on the head, “While Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, an actor turned politician, has been hailed worldwide for refusing to leave the capital, it is Klitschko who has been far more visible on the transformed and barricaded streets of Kyiv.”

Vitali Klitschko will never dazzle anyone with his rhetoric. He is sometimes awkward in speaking, losing track of what he is talking about, or failing to complete a sentence. And many in his country questioned his true motives for entering politics. My one-hour encounter and following him virtually leads me to believe that deep, deep down, this man is a patriot. He truly loves his country and its people. Right now, every day, he is out there inspecting bombed-out apartment buildings, going to fire companies to inspire the firefighters, and showing up everywhere to strengthen the morale of the inhabitants of Kyiv. All this has been proof positive that he lives out what he believes. This is a true leader.