I recently finished reading The Splendid and the Vile, a fantastic novel depicting Winston Churchill’s first year as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. While reading, I was struck by the gravity of the situation Churchill faced immediately upon stepping into office.
Hitler had begun his conquest across Europe conquering Holland and Belgium. France would fall soon afterwards. Throughout his first 12 months as Prime Minister, Germany would bomb the United Kingdom relentlessly, killing tens of thousands and destroying many cities. Leading a nation at any time would be a monumental task. Leading a nation through World War II, with the threat of constant bombing and imminent invasion is hard to fathom.
Throughout it all, across many public addresses, Churchill recognized the importance of maintaining a confident and positive front. It was perhaps one of his greatest traits, presenting a courageous attitude that made other people feel stronger and more hopeful.
He articulated the importance of this specifically in a message to all ministers:
In these dark days the Prime Minister would be grateful if all his colleagues in the Government, as well as high officials, would maintain a high morale in their circles; not minimizing the gravity of events, but showing confidence in our ability and inflexible resolve to continue the war till we have broken the will of the enemy to bring all Europe under his domination.Winston Churchill, The Splendid and the Vile p. 56
Two key aspects stuck out in this note.
First, Churchill recognized that people look to leaders during times of crisis. If leaders are panicking and reacting poorly, this same attitude will trickle downstream. It’s critical for good leaders to present a confident front when faced with difficulty.
Second, he specifically mentioned “not minimizing the gravity of events.” It’s possible to both present a calm, confident front and speak truthfully about the full weight of what’s ahead. The British could literally see bombs falling from the sky and destroying buildings. Leaders had to address this piece honestly. But, they could speak truthfully while instilling confidence by detailing how the United Kingdom would respond.
Regardless of whether you’re in a recognized leadership position or not, there’s a good chance someone is looking to you for an indication on how to act. It’s important to remain calm while still being honest about the situation.
As Churchill’s wife, Clementine, reiterated to him in a personal note, “One leads by calm.”