What Would Churchill Do?

Ask your leaders, ask yourself: A midnight essay by the publisher of Vital Speeches of the Day.

I was asleep at 9:00 p.m. but was awakened a couple of hours later, and there’ll be no sleep for awhile.

As I have asked myself so many times in these last two months: What would Winston Churchill do?

He would not lie there praying for sleep to come. He would pour himself a strong drink and read Erik Larson’s new book about his own finest hour—The Splendid and the Vile.

I’ve been reading this book this way for a month now—slowly, in the eye of the coronavirus, with the eye of a communicator, looking for insights like a bulldog for a bone. 

Here’s the first: A leader is a “dealer in hope,” as Napoleon famously said. But in a crisis, a leader can’t deliver hope before showing a total understanding and acceptance and even graphic articulation of the gravity of the situation.

Which means first, of course, having that understanding. The day he became prime minister of England in May, 1940, he was moved to tears by a gaggle of Londoners gathered to greet him as he entered 10 Downing Street through a side door. “Good luck, Winnie,” they said. “God bless you.”

Once inside, Churchill began to weep. “Poor people, poor people,” he said. “They trust me, and I can give them nothing but disaster for quite a long time.” 

Soon after—almost exactly 70 years ago—Churchill gave a speech in which he publicly predicted “the battle for our Islands, for all that Britain is and all that Britain means.” A “supreme emergency,” Churchill described it. Half of Londoners told pollsters they were terrified by the speech. The other half said the speech made them “more determined,” and “stiffened.” (A cold communication calculation: Is it worth scaring the easily stricken in order to embolden the heroes you will need?)

Churchill was just as rhetorically bracing with his own ministers, telling 25 of them after he finally abandoned the notion of a peace agreement with Germany after the fall of France, “I am convinced that every man of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”

Just as I told the executive staff of Pro Rhetoric, LLC on our last staff Zoom call! And just like Churchill’s ministers before them, they shouted their approval and huzzahs. “He was quite magnificent,” said our chief operating officer afterward. “The man, and the only man we have, for this hour.”

In all Churchillian seriousness:

Just on the off chance that you’re having a sleepless night of your own, the only way to listen to Churchill’s famous “finest hour” speech is to listen to the whole bloody 30-minute thing, which treats every listener like a cabinet minister, shows total mastery of the situation on land, at sea, in air—while acknowledging uncertainty in the most certain terms.

All of which gives great shocking might to the unbelievably dark concluding sentiment, “But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.'” 

Don’t bother lamenting the laughable shortcomings of our national leadership by comparison. Adapt, in your own sphere of influence, in a style that fits the moment, these eternal leadership principles.

Because you must. —DM

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