Leading in Uncertain Times: How Churchill Led Britain Through The Blitz

Leading in Uncertain Times: How Churchill Led Britain Through The Blitz



On Friday, May 10, 1940, at 4:30 in the morning, Hitler unleashed his blitzkrieg on the Low Countries.

That same day in London following teatime, Winston Churchill was summoned to Buckingham Palace for an audience with King George VI. Churchill departed as England’s new Prime Minister.

During the 1930s—his “wilderness years” he called them—Churchill took the lead, often alone, calling for British rearmament to counter the growing threat from Nazi Germany.

Now, following his appointment as Prime Minister, Churchill was experiencing a profound sense of relief, having lived his entire life for this moment. He was 65 years old. “At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene.” Unlike his predecessor, Churchill relished making tough, bold decisions.

Consider these seven lessons showcasing Churchill’s leadership during the terror of The Blitz as you wrestle with the uncertainties created by a global pandemic:

  1. Keep calm and carry on. While the words are not Churchill’s, they could’ve been. The words from this World War II poster encapsulate Churchill’s indomitable spirit and steady leadership. To lead in uncertain times means keeping your head while those around you are losing theirs. Remember that people want to be led.
  2. Address uncomfortable truths. Faced with adversity, we get to choose: We can ignore it, belittle it, or complain about the hand we’ve been dealt. Or we can play the hand to the best of our ability. Ignoring difficulties diminishes others’ respect of you. Complaining won’t change anything, and negativity poisons those around you. Anyone can be part of a team when things are going well. You need a great team—and a great leader—when things become difficult. Tell the truth to the British people, Churchill counseled, “they are the only people who like to be told how bad things are, who like to be told the worst.” Great leaders use adversity to build strength.
  3. Cast a vision that engages, unifies and inspires. Motivation comes from within. Inspiration comes from great leaders who recognize people’s hopes and appreciate that people with a purpose can fight through hardship. In his first address as Prime Minster, Churchill was blunt: “we have before us many long months of struggle and of suffering.” Yet his clear vision forward injected strength, courage and hope in Britons: “You ask what is our aim? I can answer in one word: victory; victory at all cost; victory in spite of all terror; victory, however long and hard the road may be. For without victory, there is no survival.”
  4. Tell people how they can help. Some believe happier people are more productive. Others believe productive people are happier people. One thing’s certain: In challenging times, get people moving. Sixteen days after Churchill took office, the entire British Expeditionary Force had been driven into the sea at Dunkirk. Churchill’s appeal to volunteers to evacuate the trapped soldiers was answered by 850 private seagoing vessels that rescued 340,000 men. Churchill tempered the rejoicing, warning, “We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.”
  5. Never waste a good crisis. The war unleashed Churchill’s boldest ideas. Within weeks of becoming PM, Churchill created the Special Operations Executive, known among insiders as the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare. Charged by Churchill to “set Europe ablaze,” the SOE executed subversive activity in Nazi-occupied regions. Today’s pandemic invites (or forces) you to improve, accelerate, pivot or reimagine your business.
  6. Affirm the capabilities of those you lead. Point to training, to competence and to experience addressing other tough situations. Most of all, point with realistic optimism to the belief that together we will accomplish our greater goal. “I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made…we shall prove ourselves once more able to defend our island home.”
  7. Treat your words as the performance they are. Inspiring leaders understand the importance of communication. Throughout history, the speeches imprinted on the minds of millions were delivered in times of crisis: from Queen Elizabeth encouraging her troops at Tilbury and Lincoln’s Gettysburg address to FDR reminding a worried nation that “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” and MLK’s dream of racial harmony. Churchill’s first public address as Prime Minister on Monday following his Friday evening appointment—a mere 730 words delivered in five minutes—pledged his commitment to victory and galvanized a nation with five words now known to millions who were unborn at the time: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” Words—whether read by the eye or heard by the ear—are tools leaders use to console, educate, influence and inspire.

In England’s darkest days, Churchill’s urgency, resolve and rhetoric bound up a nation as it stood alone against Nazi Germany’s terror.

As a leader, your job is not to mimic heroic leaders of the past. Doing so is inauthentic, and people will see through that charade. Yet your responsibility as a leader confers upon you opportunities to make history.

Because above all, leadership lessons from the past teach this: when everyone else around them faced the same set of adverse or ambiguous circumstances, it was the women and men with the courage to make a difficult decision who changed history.


- Greg Bustin, author of How Leaders Decide

November 9, 2020
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