In his book, Darkest Hour Anthony McCarten explores what made Winston Churchill such a great leader. What he discovers is something of a surprise. Churchill knew he was flawed. He doubted his judgments. He felt the burden of past failures.
Perhaps Churchill’s greatest strength is his ability to keep an open mind. Being able to hold contrary ideas helped him weigh up the different options before him but didn’t diminish his capacity to act decisively.
Winston Churchill is 65. His beloved Britain is facing annihilation. Nazi Germany is advancing unchecked, dispensing with any resistance. Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Holland, France – Europe is there for the taking.
There is talk of appeasement. ‘Let Hitler have what he wants as long as he doesn’t encroach on our freedom, our way of life.’
It is a period of political chaos. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain speaks of ‘peace in our time,’ apparently blind to the impending disaster. There is talk of him stepping down but he is reluctant to relinquish power.
Lord Halifax emerges as a possible successor but lacks the conviction to grasp the opportunity.
Despite widespread opposition in his own party and an ambivalent King George VI, it falls to Churchill to take hold of the reigns. On May 10, 1940, he is elevated to the position of Prime Minister of Britain.
In his first major speech to parliament he says,
“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”
Churchill is a realist. He understands this isn’t a time for the faint-hearted. This is a time for bold leadership – fearless, focused, and unflinching.
Churchill’s leadership provides insight into how we too can survive our darkest hour.
The power of words
Churchill reminds us of ‘the power of words.’ He is a highly skilled orator.
He wrote in 1897,
“The orator is the embodiment of the passions of the multitude. Before he can inspire them with any emotion he must be swayed by it himself… To convince them he must himself believe.”
He is convinced words matter. He believes every word counts. He knows words can intercede to change the world.
Churchill searches for a word, a single word that will inspire the hope of a nation. A failure to fill the void will result is widespread fear, disillusionment and despair.
He is looking for a word that will encourage and unite; a word able to withstand every withering attack; a word that is durable and can’t be diminished; a word that embodies a promise and a brighter future.
In his speech he says,
“You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word. It is VICTORY, VICTORY at all costs, VICTORY in spite of all terror, VICTORY, however long and hard the road may be; for without VICTORY, there is no survival. Let that be realised; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for…”
“VICTORY!” This is the word that will sustain a nation in its darkest hour.
Tell it as it is
There is nothing to be gained from doctoring the truth, sanitising it, making it more palatable. The truth stands whether we acknowledge it or not.
Churchill believed the people of Britain had a right to know, to be informed. If he were to galvanise their support he needed them on his side. It was vital they understood the seriousness of the situation. This wasn’t a ‘Phoney War.’ These were desperate times.
In his address to the nation, Churchill says,
“I speak to you for the first time as Prime Minister in a solemn hour for the life of our country… A tremendous battle is raging in France and Flanders. The Germans, by a remarkable combination of air bombing and heavily armoured tanks, have broken through the French defences north of the Maginot Line…
Our task is not only to win the battle – but to win the war. After this battle in France abates its force, there will come the battle for our Island – for all that Britain is, and all that Britain means. That will be the struggle. In that supreme emergency, we shall not hesitate to take every step to call forth from our people the last ounce and the last inch of effort of which they are capable…”
Know what you’re up against
You cannot fight a war if you have no experience of combat. You cannot mount a campaign if you don’t understand the motivation and capabilities of the enemy.
Churchill fought with Lord Kitchener’s regiment in Sudan and worked as a war correspondent during the Boer War. He was captured but pulled off a daring escape from his POW camp in Pretoria travelling nearly 300 miles to safety.
He served as First Lord of the Admiralty during the Great War and took responsibility for the human disaster that was the Gallipoli campaign against the Ottomans.
From as early as 1933 Churchill warned of the impending danger Hitler and his National Socialist party posed. He saw it in the eyes of the young, the desire to suffer for the Fatherland. Hitler’s military ambitions would soon become clear as he acted to extend his political dominance over Europe.
Churchill’s chilling words cut through any talk of appeasement. His was the voice of reason and resistance.
“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.”
Nazi Germany is flexing its military might. The fate of Britain and Europe is in the balance. It is a terrifying situation. The British people are largely unprotected and invasion is imminent.
Despite the gravity of the situation, Churchill maintained his daily rituals. His drinking habits are well documented. The iconic image of Churchill captures a pugnacious man with a cigar protruding from his mouth and a glass of scotch in his hand.
To ensure that he could function late into the night, Churchill religiously took a two-hour afternoon nap, which would then be followed by a hot bath (the second of the day) at 7 p.m. He was fond of somersaulting in the tub, displacing large amounts of water.
In my next blog post I will look further at the ‘Five Strategies.’ If they are implemented thoughtfully they will help you survive your darkest hour.