There is a scene in Erik Larson’s new book The Splendid and the Vile, in which he describes Winston Churchill’s House of Commons speech of June 4, 1940, warning of the gathering threat of Germany’s Adolf Hitler.
A danger, Churchill vowed, Great Britain would resist at all costs.
“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills,” he famously thundered. “We shall never surrender.”
As politicians in the chamber stood to endorse the sentiment with raucous applause, Churchill turned to a colleague and whispered, “And we will fight them with the butt end of broken bottles, because that’s bloody well all we’ve got.” As I read it, I thought: Maybe that’s what made Churchill so great; his ability to maintain a vestige of his old impish self while the world was collapsing around him.
Mr. Larson’s book on the Conservative leader’s first year as prime minister – also the United Kingdom’s most terrifying year of the Second World War – has become a smash hit in our quarantined world. This is somewhat of a surprise given how many books have already been written on the subject. But I suspect it has something to do with people seeking solace in stories of inspiring leadership – – in yarns about how those called to duty helped citizens cope, and ultimately prevail, amid times of great worry and uncertainty.
Times like today.
It’s been interesting to see who, on the world stage, has emerged as a first-rate leader as the pandemic has spread fear and death. There isn’t any head of state who has ever faced anything as daunting and terrifying. There is no instruction manual for navigating a crisis like this. Leaders rely on the wisdom and advice of those around them, but also on gut instinct.
Those regarded as having best handled this emergency share a few things in common with Churchill.
First, most leaders getting the highest marks for helping their countries avoid (so far) the worst of the pandemic have been true to something the British Bulldog always believed: Be honest with people. Don’t sugar-coat the seriousness of the problem, no matter how dark it may seem.
Second, these leaders have, like Churchill, resisted the temptation to raise false hopes, to suggest some miracle cure or easy answer is right around the corner, when no such thing exists. (It’s one of the many reasons Donald Trump does not make this list.)
Interestingly, another thing many of the leaders whose countries have been spared the tragic scenes we’ve witnessed in Italy, Spain and now the United States have in common: they’re women.
Go down the list: Germany’s Angela Merkel, Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, Norway’s Erna Solberg, Denmark’s Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and 34-year-old Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin. And that’s just some of them.
They’ve all been prepared to let science dictate policy, which, of course, is of little surprise with Ms. Merkel, given she has a doctorate in quantum chemistry. They’ve also been clear, direct and transparent, and have all been prepared to take quick and bold action, regardless of the political risks. (All very Churchill-esque qualities.)
That old British axiom, “Cometh the hour, cometh the man,” has never seemed more antiquated and grossly inappropriate.
All these female leaders have, in their own way, been able to convey an empathy that is often harder for men to express. And they have all been rewarded with polling numbers that have, in some cases, skyrocketed in response to their handling of the crisis.
This is not to say that all countries led by men have fared poorly. Not at all. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s handling of the fallout from the pandemic has mostly been very effective. Not perfect, but there is no such thing in these scenarios. To some extent, governments everywhere are making this up as they go along. There is no roadmap to follow.
Mr. Trudeau has been the government’s public face of this unfolding disaster. And when you look at him, most every day standing in front of his Rideau Cottage residence in Ottawa speaking to Canadians, you can see the strain this crisis is having on him. He seems to have aged before our eyes. And why not? The burden of his responsibility is enormous.
There have likely been many nights when not an ounce of sleep was enjoyed.
Many parts of the world are lucky to be led by people who, like Churchill, understand the human spirit and what it needs to thrive: hope. And these leaders are selling their citizens that hope, in exchange for often painful sacrifice.
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