The other day a friend posted a picture of a Churchill figurine with the caption: What would Winston say? It’s a good question. As the world reels from a frightening pandemic, people everywhere are looking for strong leadership. Most are not getting it. Churchill’s legendary turn as a wartime Prime Minister of the United Kingdom offers an invaluable example of how to lead in a time of danger and dread.
When he became prime minister on May 10, 1940, Britain’s position looked hopeless. France was collapsing under a German onslaught. Hitler’s forces would soon stand on the edge of the English Channel, poised for the invasion of England that many considered inevitable. Britons feared the worst. The diplomat Harold Nicolson and his wife, the writer Vita Sackville-West, made plans to poison themselves rather than be captured by German invaders.
We all know what happened next. In the course of a few critical months, when the fate of the nation – and with it the democratic world – hung in the balance, Churchill rallied the British people, convincing them that, as grave as their position was, survival and even victory were possible. The lessons for leaders today are clear.
First, be candid. Churchill never hesitated to warn people about the peril they faced. In his very first parliamentary speech as prime minister he told them, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” After a flotilla of boats and ships rescued the British Expeditionary Force from the beaches of Dunkirk, he said that “wars are not won by evacuations.” The army’s escape “must not blind us to the fact that what has happened in France and Belgium is a colossal military disaster.” When Singapore fell to Japanese Imperial forces in February, 1942, he told the nation, “I speak to you all under the shadow of a heavy and far-reaching military defeat.”
Churchill was proud and often stubborn, and he certainly did not go in for the modern practice of issuing abject apologies, but when things were going wrong – and they often did, in the early going – he was smart enough to concede it. To blood, toil, tears and sweat, he later told the House of Commons, “I will now add our fair share of mistakes, shortcomings and disappointment and also that this may go for a very long time, at the end of which I firmly believe – though it is not a promise or a guarantee, only a profession of faith – that there will be complete, absolute and final victory.”
It was this combination of candour and faith that was so inspiring. In a new Churchill book, The Splendid and the Vile, author Erik Larson recounts that when Nicolson heard Churchill’s “fight them on the beaches” speech after Dunkirk, he told Sackville-West he could face “a world of enemies.”
Andrew Roberts, the author of Churchill: Walking with Destiny, writes that the prime minister was indispensable because he “exuded a confidence in victory that no other senior figure did, and was able to provide something that Neville Chamberlain [his predecessor] could not – hope.”
Can today’s leaders learn from this splendid precedent? Some are showing signs of understanding what needs to be said, and how to say it. After at first missing the seriousness of the challenge, they are sounding the alarm.
“We are at war,’’ President Emmanuel Macron told the French in a national address this week. “The enemy is invisible and it requires our general mobilization.”
“The situation is serious – take it seriously,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “Not since German reunification – no, not since World War II – has our country faced a challenge that has required such a high degree of common and united action.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talked about the historical echoes of the crisis, whether from wartime or the Great Depression, and said Canada has never faced a situation like this.
U.S. President Donald Trump – well, where do we start? His disastrous performance – first minimizing the threat to the United States, now saying that he saw it coming all along – is no less appalling for being altogether predictable and in character.
Finding the proper mix of candour and confidence is not easy. Politicians often shrink from painting the full picture of a crisis for fear of spreading alarm. That is a mistake. When things are bad, people usually know it and do not mind hearing it. They will stop trusting those who try to gloss over hard truths. But a crisis leader must also show that there is light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how long and dark it seems.
Churchill got it right, telling his people in his “finest hour” speech that if they could stand up to Hitler, “all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.” Indeed, in time it was - as it will be again when this crisis passes.