The phrase ‘how are you?’ has changed during this time from a polite greeting to a real question. We want to know exactly how people are coping. Forget the quaint notion of shaking hands or any kind of human contact. The normal wiring of our lives has been pulled out of the wall. I found it curious that one of the more repeated words these past few months has been resilience.
A Deloitte article by John Hagel and John Seely Brown entitled “New Architectures of Resilience – Are you headed to a restart or a new start?” defines resilient this way:
“Resilience is a key requirement for all of our institutions during these trying times, but we take a broad view of resilience as the ability to move beyond simply responding and recovering from unexpected challenges and instead finding ways to grow and evolve so that we can create even more value in the future. Rather than simply “bouncing back” to where we were before, let’s find new ways to connect our activities and help us thrive.”
One of the most talked about book this spring has been The Splendid & the Vile by Erik Larson. The book chronicles Churchill and Britain during the blitz of 1940-1941. Another trying time where a citizenry exhibited great resilience. It’s more than just another book about Churchill. It’s a narrative of the British people’s resilience to get through each day during the blitz. Not just in the sense of the British cities being bombed, but the violation of having your home city attacked. In The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson shows, in cinematic detail, how Churchill taught the British people “the art of being fearless.”
What you get out of this book that you won’t find in other works about Churchill? It is the grimness of the bombing raids night after night after night. Churchill breaking down in tears as he walked the bombed out streets surveying the damage. Wondering how much more bad news could he give the British people. The famed RAF completely helpless to stop the German bombers coming in every night.
Churchill had this ability to build national confidence and to help people, as he put it, find their own courage. And he did that by showing courage and absolute confidence himself. He was a master at teaching the art of being resilient.
Lesson in Leadership
What lesson in leadership can we take from Churchill? There are attributes we can bring back to our own organizations or daily lives. Churhill exhibited such supreme confidence that he could do something that leaders should do more often – deliver bad news. He never sugar coated just how bad things could be.
What did I learn from this book about Churchill’s leadership style?
Communication. You could also call it sheer oratory. He gave a sober appraisal of the facts. Sometimes to the point of scaring his audience to death. But then he would invariably follow with realistic grounds for optimism. No illusions. Not happy talk. Realistic grounds for a solution to the problem. In this case, the air campaign against Britain. Then he would follow-up with one of his amazing flourishes that would metaphorically, and sometimes literally, get people rising out of their chairs.
Life-long learning. Curiosity. Vision. Churhill was incredibly well read. He had a great understanding of the grand sweep of British history. He had a way of putting his audience into that story. As if they were soldiers on behalf of the empire and its history. That’s a very powerful thing to do.
Self-Awareness. He surrounded himself with great people. This is a great trait for any leader. You surround yourself with people who get things done. You’ll read about Lord Beaverbrook in Larson’s book. Self-awareness is being comfortable in your own skin to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you, with diverse perspectives to help you answer tough questions.
Social Awareness. Another thing Churchill was very much aware was the power of symbolic acts. This ability to convey to people a message broader than what they are simply looking at. They were part of something bigger than themselves.
Empathy. Churchill showed a great capacity for empathy. He often openly wept upon touring bombed out sections of London.
Much of it comes down to that ineffable thing called character. Churchill embodied character. How he came to burnish these skills of leadership is something I’ve thought a lot about. It’s not hard to pinpoint. He understood something very fundamental. You can’t make people believe something other than what they are experiencing. The British people understood they were facing an existential threat. To tell them anything else would have been to create a dissonance that would undercut reality. Churchill knew that.
The Splendid and the Vile takes readers to a time of true leadership, when–in the face of unrelenting horror–Churchill’s eloquence, strategic brilliance, and perseverance bound a country, and a family, together. In the midst of this churning hell, with no place safe or sacred, with a bomb falling even on Buckingham Palace, the new prime minister’s voice became a reassuring wellspring of hope and resolve.
Today we face hard times too. Historians remind us that we’ve had hard times before. Assassinations, sneak attacks, the dust bowl, the depression, social unrest, but it’s also true we’ve never had anything quite like this. We have more people out of work right now than at any other time in our history. Our economy has never come this close to a total shutdown. And a huge percentage of us remain at home.
The good news though is things will truly get better. That’s what life does generally. And on top of that we are resilient. It may take a little bit and be a bit uneven at first. It brings to mind something that Churchill said a year into the blitz:
“This is no time for boasts or glowing prophecies, but there is this – a year ago our position looked forlorn, and well nigh desperate, to all eyes but our own. Today we may say aloud before an awe-struck world, ‘We are still masters of our fate. We still are captain of our souls.”
House of Commons, 9 September 1941
The Splendid & the Vile by Erik Larson. Enjoy the book.