The mounting conflict in Ukraine should serve as a warning shot for leaders everywhere, whose indecision has been exposed by an invasion they should have seen coming. 

The only real response from our leaders – economic sanctions – have certainly dealt a substantive blow to the Russian economy. They may even weaken Putin’s leadership and sew domestic discontent. But they will not take Russian planes out of the sky or tanks off the streets. 

Decision paralysis seems to have characterised too many of our political leaders in recent years, particularly during the pandemic.

We failed to act when there were 150,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders earlier this year, just as we failed to act in 2020 when dozens of flights a day were leaving Wuhan and the surrounding region for major cities across the world – with no tests.

As a business leader, I know the importance of reading the tell-tale signs and swiftly responding to the threat. In business, if a leader fails to act, they will either be out of a job if not out of business. 

In politics, however, there are often no consequences for leaders. The same cannot be said for the people affected by leaders’ indecision, especially in Ukraine.

Autocrats have a way of operating behind smokescreens. Putin is different; he explicitly laid out his imperial ambitions in his essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” published in July last year. Putin has repeatedly referred to the fall of the Soviet Union as the “Greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century”. 

In short, he told us he would do it, and then he did it. And we still hadn’t decided what we would do. We still haven’t.

Assets were frozen and the Russian banking sector was crippled, but only after the bombs had been dropped. Unhappy oligarchs don’t bring people back to life. 

While we are waiting in the vain hope that there will be a peace deal as a result of the recent talks in Istanbul (where there was “no handshake” between the Russians and Ukrainians), we see the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War unfold across Europe. 

I’m not a foreign policy specialist, but I know that in politics, as in business (what are states other than the largest of corporations?) a quick decision is always better than no decision. Action has consequences, but so does inaction.

Sanctions should have been applied as soon as Putin started to amass troops on the border. The consequences of an invasion should have been made clear – simply saying that it was unacceptable was never going to achieve a behaviour change.

Another lesson from business is to honour one’s commitments. When Ukraine agreed to give up its nuclear arsenal (the third largest in the world at the time) under the terms of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, it was in exchange for protection from the UK and US.

We’ve failed to provide that in their hour of need. We can’t claim ignorance of Putin’s playbook, or of how high the stakes are: indecision has allowed him to unleash his ruthless military tactics of siege and relentless bombing in Chechnya and Syria, before Ukraine. 

This is all a lesson for leaders, especially those who have dithered on Covid, Ukraine and other issues that won’t wait for focus groups and committees.

Liberal democracies seem to be suffering from a decision-making vacuum. We need leaders who act in time, not act like walking adverts of the merits of autocracy.

Leadership only happens when a leader is ready to face the consequences of their actions. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is an example. He didn’t hesitate to decline the offer of escaping from Ukraine, and has doubled down on this every day since.

His decisiveness – and the social media evidence of it – is a message, and a lesson, in its own right.

He’s playing a bad hand the best way he can – and without hesitation. Anyone who has turned around a war, a political party, a business, or a career has done the same.

That’s the real lesson here: if you are decisive and exhibit true leadership, you can’t really lose.

James Caan CBE is CEO of the private equity advisory firm Hamilton Bradshaw and a former investor on Dragons’ Den.