August 23, 2022
I just finished Erik Larson’s book The Splendid and the Vile, following the life of Winston Churchill from May 1940 to May 1941. It was a dark year for Great Britain and the world as Nazi Germany rolled over an unprepared Europe. The only thing standing in opposition was the United Kingdom, which is why the German Air Force relentlessly bombed London and other English cities for the entire year.
The bravery on display by Churchill was remarkable. He would watch the air raids most nights from the roof of 10 Downing Street, bombs landing only blocks away. The government never retreated from London. It was business as usual.
The eventual German invasion of Russia greatly reduced their focus on Great Britain, giving the country the breathing room desperately needed to mount a challenge to German supremacy on the European continent a year later, greatly assisted by the American entry into the war. But from May 1940 to May 1941 it seemed like Fascism was on its way to dominating the world. It appeared to many that the future was lost. But not to Churchill.
The Power of Belief
Churchill displayed heroic leadership to stay the course even though thousands died, were maimed, or lost everything over the course of that year. He kept the country’s fighting spirit alive through his famous oratory skills, where his legendary speeches directly addressed the darkness and challenges that lie ahead, but never lost sight of the hope that good would prevail over darkness. He gave the entire nation the belief that they could withstand the German onslaught — no matter how long and hard it got. He led by walking directly into danger with his bowler cap, cigar, and cane, saying “If I can do it then so can you.”
The Strength of Executive Competence
It's an incredible moment in history made by a man uniquely suited for the occasion. It got me thinking about what constitutes effective leadership. Is it the ability to impart belief and confidence upon those you lead? Is it to be a cheerleader for your team on their journey to grow and do difficult things? Or is great leadership rooted in operational, planning, and executional excellence — the ability to accumulate resources and deploy them to achieve organizational goals and profitable outcomes?
Which Makes a Leader?
In a way, this is a disingenuous question, because the answer is “yes” — both skills are important in a leader. But all competencies being equal, the motivational leader always wins, correct? Well, in my experience it depends.
Different Times Require Different Leaders
Organizations, businesses, countries, local governments; they’re all complex and ever-changing things. It is why such a premium is put on leadership, and also why it is difficult to learn leadership. The times determine the leader, not the other way around. New, dynamic leaders can emerge under challenging times, while established leaders shrink under pressure. There are times for boring, steady leadership and other times when dynamic, risk embracing leaders are needed. Some leaders inspire through vision, while others deliver through diligence, competence, and knowledge.
World War II was an unprecedented time and it required an unprecedented leader. Churchill is best known for his vision and inspirational speeches, but he was also diligent, competent, and knowledgeable on how to not just inspire a government and country during wartime, but lead it. He worked around the clock and surrounded himself with the best people. Criticism deeply hurt him, but he fought back through reasoned rhetoric and responded to the criticism with action to fix the challenges his administration faced.
Leaders of Today
Contemporary popular belief goes something like this, “our leaders just aren’t as good as they used to be.” As an avid reader of history, I get that we have few great examples of heroic leadership over our nation’s history, and those we do have were all forged by crisis. Lincoln, Roosevelt, Frederick Douglass, and of course Churchill — all changed the course of history against great odds. All had existential threats emerge on their watch and stuck to a moral high ground no matter the cost. All knew how a stirring speech could rally the people and change history.
That said, these great leaders were all surrounded by incompetent colleagues, which might sound similar to our own experience and times. Those incompetent leaders were often the ones who created the crisis in the first place. Or they were put in impossible political positions, unable to affect the change they sought.
That said, if you look closely, we can still see heroic leadership all around. There are Congressmen and women standing up for democracy right now by going against their own party. There are local activists and organizers who are achieving change. We have seen corporate leaders step up to take care of their employees during the Covid crisis and stand up for what is right despite pissing off some customers.
One thing that emerges in history is that, in times of crisis, great leaders step up to define the crisis, clearly communicate the challenge at hand, and make a call to action. There is often a call for sacrifice. The message is clear, it’s based on a moral footing, and it calls for the country to dig deep for a brighter future. It circumvents politics and appeals to our better angels. This is the leadership that our times demand.
What Makes a Leader: Building Belief or Executive Competence?
Answering that question is complicated. Perhaps we need leaders that can build us up and believe we can collectively overcome challenges during times of crisis. Perhaps quiet competence is most effective during times of stability. Maybe in this time of social media, dishonest brokers, and highly segmented media markets the inspirational, transformational leaders will have a tough time breaking through. Perhaps it’s easier to “lead” with grievance and fear rather than a moral compass communicating clearly and truthfully. As an optimist, I am hopeful society can still produce leaders like Churchill. The next Churchill will require a crisis to emerge (of which there are plenty of those to go around), strong motivational skills, and an ability to leverage our current communication channels to call for action. The times may change but our basic core of humanity does not. Humans need a purpose. Leaders who harness our desire for purpose can move mountains.