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Rebuilding a Country One Puzzle at a Time

Like so many Ukrainians (and many others worldwide), alumna of the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) Yaryna Zhurba, ached over the destruction of her homeland’s landmarks and cultural sites when Russia invaded.

Instead of waiting for someone else to take action, she partnered with a team of like-minded individuals to help rebuild Ukraine.

Ukrainian Puzzles started with an idea of creating jigsaw puzzles from images of buildings damaged during the war. Symbolic rebuilding through puzzle pieces is also a contribution toward true rebuilding because 100% of the profit is donated to that purpose. And since our puzzles are made in Ukraine, it's a form of support for the economy, too.”

The images in the puzzles depict Ukrainian landmarks, buildings, and sites, so people can enjoy the act of putting a picture together and restoring Ukraine visually to its pre-invasion condition. Zhurba said this felt like the right way to make her own contribution to her country’s fight for freedom.

When Circumstances Require a Different Approach

Launching a new business to help a country during a time of war might not be the easiest way to make a difference. In Zhurba’s case, it required collaboration with people in Ukraine to design and craft the puzzles, as well as to receive the donated profits and put those funds to use.

“The most important step is to form a team that shares a joint purpose and vision, and give each team member the freedom to act. On the Ukrainian Puzzles team, we’re all obsessed with the idea of making great puzzles spotlighting the beauty of the country.”

This approach is known as laissez-faire leadership. It might not be the best strategy in every situation, but laissez-faire leadership helps skilled team members execute a complex plan by giving them each the freedom to respond to challenges in a nimble, flexible way. In appropriate circumstances, it helps create a more agile organization.

Micromanagement becomes unnecessary when each team member knows what to do. A skilled team member can make better decisions than others on how to achieve goals most effectively within their own area of responsibilities.”


Encouraging a Collaborative Team Effort During a War

Laissez-faire leadership is also useful for teams facing situations where extraordinary logistical challenges complicate an already complex undertaking.

“Leadership is when one takes purposeful systematic actions to respond to a problem or challenge. In our case, we’ve seen a disruption of supply and logistics, power outages, and the breakdown of the key manufacturing machine. Most of the time, we’re all working from a distance and in different time zones. We couldn’t cope with these challenges if we had limited freedom to act.”

Each project or goal a team decides to pursue comes with a unique set of challenges and opportunities. For a project like Ukrainian Puzzles, which requires the collaborative effort of people coping with a military invasion, those challenges can take on profoundly sharp edges.

“The hard work and perseverance of each team member are the key drivers of our success at Ukrainian Puzzles.”

Taking Leadership Cues From the Military and the NSLS

Zhurba says that the team’s adoption of laissez-faire leadership principles stems from a close observation of one specific wartime leader.

“We look up to General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the head of Ukraine's Armed Forces. He’s one of the key reformers of the Ukrainian Army, helping it transform from a centralized organization into an army that has the freedom to make decisions at every level. This transformation has given them a big advantage.”

Another source of inspiration for Zhurba and her team is the NSLS. From taking advantage of high-quality leadership resources to learning the success secrets of other leaders, Zhurba says her membership has helped her immensely.

“The NSLS is an endless source of inspiration and support. It also helps with self-awareness. For instance, taking a test about what type of leader I am and discussing that within our chapter helped me understand my strengths and weaknesses so I can develop as a more efficient leader.”

What’s Next for Ukrainian Puzzles?

Currently, Ukrainian Puzzles is busy meeting existing orders and sketching out future plans.

“We have customers from more than 20 countries already. We’ve successfully gone through the product testing stage and we’re currently looking for the means to scale. Also, we’re working on a new Ukrainian Art puzzle collection.”

Moving forward, those plans include expansion and increasing sales to meet the country’s growing needs in the wake of the damage inflicted by the continuing conflict.

“My next goal is to scale the business so that we build a strong brand and sell hundreds of thousands of puzzles a year. It will enable us to make regular and significant donations.”


Zhurba’s Advice for Future Leaders

No two leadership journeys are the same; however, in every challenge met and goal achieved, there are lessons to be shared. Zhurba’s best advice for future leaders is to expect challenges, even when you’re constantly being surprised by uncertain circumstances.

“It’s important not to expect that something can be achieved easily. Instead, I try to anticipate a string of challenges. It’s better to be pleasantly surprised by good fortune than to be frustrated by a new challenge. We should even be grateful for a challenge because it makes individuals and organizations stronger.”

Zhurba also says it’s important to learn the lesson of taking prompt action.

“When you understand your purpose, start acting. Purposeful, persistent action is the essence of successful leadership. Even when you aren't completely certain, it's better to act now and even make mistakes that you can fix later, than to wait too long to take the first step.”

Whether you want to take a stand to help a nation under attack or provide shelter or food for members of your community, working with the right team can help ensure success.