If you haven’t yet had a chance to see the film Darkest Hour about Winston Churchill’s most challenging moment just as he assumed the role of Prime Minister in England in 1940, I highly recommend going out to see it as soon as you can. Aside from the fact that Gary Oldman does a bizarrely amazing job capturing both the body and the spirit of Churchill, the movie itself is a great example of why it is so difficult to “keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you” and why leaders who can stay clear and calm in a crisis are so important.
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The movie itself is a little slow and might bore those looking for action, but it does a great job of communicating the stress and the vulnerability that can come to a leader in a moment of crisis and how quickly they can forget who they really are and what they are about.
For those who might be unfamiliar with the history, here is the basic scenario that Winston Churchill found himself in at the start of his job. (Forgive me if I get some of these details a little wrong. The gist is correct.)
1. Germany had conquered much of Europe, France being almost completely fallen in a surprise defeat.
2. The entire British army (300,000) troops were trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk and were unable to be safely rescued by the British fleet or air force, both of which were severely diminished.
3. America had signed a treaty stating that they would stay out of the war, limiting Roosevelt’s ability to send aid in the form of planes or ships.
4. The King of England did not want or trust Churchill, thinking that he was both reckless and too warlike.
5. There was dissension within his own war cabinet on how best to respond to the crisis, many desiring a peaceful solution to the aggression of Hitler.
(Because he seemed like such a reasonable guy, right?)
In the movie we see Churchill having to find the confidence in his voice and to trust his instincts without any evidence that they would be able to be successful in a war with Germany. The audience gets to see a leader in the absolute aloneness of having to make the biggest decisions of his life and the life of his nation. We can see the doubt and the uncertainty creep in as the reality of the situation becomes more clear to Churchill.
It brought to my mind a few thoughts about leading and communicating through a crisis that I think we could all use in our lives. Here are some things that I thought about after seeing this movie:
1. You will never be 100% certain.
One of the most humbling parts of leadership is that no one can know for certain that their decision will be the right one. You often have to make your decisions based on only 60% certainty. Paralysis comes when we try to be absolutely certain that the decision we make will be successful. Giving up on that illusion is the first step to being able to take action.
2. Accept reality for what it is.
The temptation to wish things were different is a tremendously human tendency. We sometimes resist the reality of our own limitations and obstacles, which often leads us to make poor decisions.
(Europe in the 1930s.)
When we refuse to accept what is happening as real, then we are operating from a delusion. The desire from some people in Churchill’s war cabinet for a peace treaty with Germany was based on a lack of acceptance of Hitler’s pattern of breaking those treaties whenever he saw fit. The idea of settling for peace was attractive, but it was also delusional given the recent past events. This type of acceptance does not mean that you have to capitulate to it, but it does mean that you can at least meet the challenge that is there, rather than try to ignore it.
3. Be clear, be calm and be emotionally engaging.
This one may sound contradictory at first, but I think that we all recognize it when we see it. If the message is not clear, then no one will be able to repeat it or understand it. Here is an example in Churchill’s own famous words from that time:
“We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, 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; we shall never surrender…”
While the rhetoric here is beautiful (Churchill was a great writer), note how simple and clear the message is. Nobody was confused that Churchill was asking his nation to fight (the word itself is repeated multiple times). Also note how he balances a calm and confident tone (“growing confidence and growing strength”) with the emotional drama of the last call to action (“we shall never surrender”), which works in part because he has been so specific and realistic about what that fight will look like. At no point does he make the challenge seem easy, yet he trusts his audience to both follow him and to feel the feelings that he is expressing (hope, fear, courage). The clarity of the message is matched by the measured quality of the rhetoric and the intensity of the emotion.
4. Act with integrity, communicate with authenticity.
In a crisis situation, you cannot suddenly become a different person. We have seen in the latest slew of powerful men who have been accused of sexual misconduct in the workplace that acting contrite after years of bad behavior doesn’t translate into forgiveness. The impact of acting without integrity for years can not only have a negative effect on your image, but it can also destroy any value and equity you have built into your company.
(Just ask Harvey Weinstein)
(Thanks to Michael Siegel for pointing this out to me.)
One of the greatest assets we have in moments of crisis is our own integrity and ability to communicate from an authentic place. This is clear in the case of Churchill, but it is also seen in many other examples in the corporate world. Most famously this was true during the Tylenol scare of 1982. For those old enough to remember, the Chairman of Johnson and Johnson, James Burke, famously responded quickly and with authenticity when there was a report that people had been poisoned by some bottles of Tylenol in Chicago. James Burke’s immediate response to pull all Tylenol off of the shelves despite the $100 million cost to the company, as well as his willingness to be transparent and emotionally vulnerable during his interviews with the news made him the gold standard for crisis leadership. If you want to have a clearer picture of this, take the time to watch this video:
Burke’s decision to talk to the news organizations alone, while risky and upsetting to the lawyers who were charged with defending Johnson and Johnson from litigation, was both courageous and inspiring and possibly helped the company from being financially ruined by the crisis. (Compare this with the response from Volkswagen after the realization that they had cheated the system with their diesel cars.)
The ability to communicate clearly and confidently in a crisis situation is not just about knowing what to say in a crisis. It is mostly about knowing yourself, understanding your audience and the situation, and speaking from a place of authenticity and integrity.
Churchill had this.
James Burke had this.
What can we do to cultivate this in our own leaders and in ourselves?