On Winston Churchill’s first day as Prime Minister, Hitler invaded Holland and Belgium.  As told in the riveting new saga of the year, The Splendid and the Vile, Hitler waged an unrelenting bombing campaign killing 45,000 people in London. Author Erik Larson shares how Churchill taught the British people “the art of being fearless.”  As Larson observes, it was the year that “Churchill became Churchill, the cigar-smoking bulldog we think we all know, when he made his greatest speeches and showed the world what courage and leadership look like.”

Today as the world faces a silent, invisible invader in the form of a virus, it’s hard to avoid searching for models of what leadership means in these times, and Churchill is the first place we look. Though 1940 was a bleak year, in 2020, facing this virus, we may feel equally vulnerable. The new enemy has no human face to demonize. We haven’t quite found our fighting spirit. This thing we can’t even see has raced around the globe, ignoring sovereign boundaries, in the time it took the Third Reich to assemble at a single border.

What kind of leadership do we need right now, to cast out this invader, and restore our people and our economy to health? What can we learn from history, including our own, that will help us be better, braver and bolder than we feel?

Some of you, like me, are old enough to have lived through 9/11 and the Great Recession. Others have just heard about these or they are childhood memories. For those who already managing teams and running companies, is there something to be remembered and learned again?    

In 2001, I was just starting my firm and it was frightening. In 2009, we had a bigger business, but there were more people, more clients, more at stake. What did we do?  I find many of the memories have faded.  It’s not that fun to dredge it up again. And, I’ve also found myself wondering, what is different now? 

We were not, then, utterly isolated from one another. For the most part, we went to work.  We were busy.  We lived, maybe with more caution, but we got together in our communities.  We surrounded ourselves with family, friends, neighbors, colleagues. Yes, these were confusing times and we were sometimes scared.  But we had the solace of human connection.  We were together.

What is required in of leaders this time, in these circumstances? 

Where I have settled is that the fundamentals of leadership are the fundamentals.  Not to say it’s easy.  It’s just what’s required.  We have to face every single thing head on.  We must be practical.  We must be realistic.  And, once we have that clear-eyed view, we must be absolutely, unassailably, courageous.  

Churchill was a realist though it wasn’t what people thought of him early on.  He knew Britain wouldn’t survive, unless he could lure the United States out of isolationism.  He understood perhaps better than anyone that the odds were stacked against Britain.  But he was first and foremost the epitome of unfettered confidence.  He had a brashness that was off-putting to many.  More bravado than balance.  More pride than pragmatism.  When he took the helm, he was elated.  “That it had come at such a dark time didn’t matter,” says Larson. “If anything, it made his appointment all the more exquisite.”

How do we unearth the courage to face down our own doubts in a crisis?  How do we teach others to be courageous?  There’s a great deal of psychology in that loaded question… I’m neither qualified nor interested in examining it.  But I think it comes down to something fundamental.  We simply decide to be courageous.  We decide courage is the only choice.

As I write this, we are closer to the beginning than the end of this global mess. We don’t know how tough it will get.  We hope the measures now being taken will reduce the impact on our health and economy. We still believe we can get on with our lives sooner than later. We hope that the pain is not too bad, and the recovery is swift. 

Still, we’re in the middle, and when you’re in the middle, you’re in the middle.  That’s when courage matters most.  It’s harder to sum it up, so we have to dig deep. Some steps we take and decisions we make won’t be very popular. But our job is to encourage people to believe in themselves.

So, let’s not flinch.  Let’s lead people to do amazing things.  This is a choice that will change our companies, change our country and change us for the better.     

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