Over the years I have helped to facilitate many leadership programmes, working with individuals and teams to explore what leadership means, how they might develop their leadership potential, and what impact that might have on what they do and those they work with.
On these programmes, people often start to talk about leadership role models, and the same names come up again and again. Perhaps unsurprisingly Winston Churchill is a firm favourite. I say “unsurprisingly”, but actually I wonder how many of us have really ever stopped to reflect on what we think made him a great leader? Or do we just reel out the name because we just “know” he’s a leadership model.
I recently saw Ben Brown’s play Three Days in May, which portrays the deliberations of Churchill’s war cabinet at the end of May 1940. Watching the play prompted me to start reading Ian Kershaw’s book Fateful Choices, the first chapter of which forms his historian’s analysis of the same three-day period.
It was a turbulent time. The German army had overwhelmed most of eastern Europe and had, for the time being at least, made peace with the Soviet Union. In western Europe, France and Belgium were on the brink of collapse, whilst Spain was in the grip of civil war and Italy was in the hands of its own fascist dictator, Mussolini. Churchill had just two weeks previously become Prime Minister of a Britain which was starting to look increasingly isolated and vulnerable. If great leadership was ever needed, this was a good time to show it.
The play and the book focus on the deliberations of the war cabinet about the options for Britain, with were broadly two-fold. One option was to work with the French to explore the possibility of a peace settlement, using Mussolini as a deal broker; the other was to go on fighting alone, irrespective of whether France or Belgium were defeated.
Much of the drama of the play – and indeed of Kershaw’s gripping historic account – centres on how the various characters in the War Cabinet approached the various options, and how their views shifted over the three days in question.
I don’t propose to rehearse all those deliberations here – if you are interested, I can thoroughly recommend both the play, and the book. But what struck me is this – by the end of the three days, I don’t think any of the politicians held out much hope that peace negotiations would deliver any sort of settlement which Britain could agree to. Notwithstanding that, some thought it was still worth trying, to see what could be achieved, and on the understanding that fighting it out was still an option if the negotiations collapsed. In a sense, they argued, there was nothing to lose by negotiating.
What Churchill saw – and in my view one of the things which sets him apart as a great leader – is the very real human impact of this. He saw that there was everything to lose in such a course of action. For if once the British people, the military, and foreign powers saw that the government was prepared to negotiate, morale would be broken. Even if, on paper, the forces which Britain had available to commit to a renewed conflict were the same or greater, the passion and the spirit would have been lost.
The circumstances there were extreme, and the stakes were unthinkably high. But the principle holds true for other leadership decisions. If you are going to lead, then you’d better be sure that people are following – and that means looking not just to the substance of your decisions, but to how they are made and to what human and emotional impact they will have.