“We need someone like Churchill.”
Amid the din and fury that was the debt ceiling debate earlier this month, you could hear the plaintive cry for “Churchillian” leadership. Peculiar, in that nearly all who flocked to the call were not even alive when the avuncular British Prime Minister rumbled out of the august of his faulty career to inspire Britain to confront and later play a role in crushing Hitler. Whomever you think may best be assigned the role of dunce or devil in the budget talks last week, there was a yearning expressed that holds a message for leadership in crisis.
It is not the man we seek (most only know him in his cigar-chomping caricature); what is more durable is the sense that he was perfectly suited to address a national crisis of enormous proportion and complexity. No business crisis today comes close to rising to the level Churchill faced, but the affection we hold for him (even as Americans!) suggests there is more relevance than we might imagine between his style and the issues many leaders face today.
1. He was authentic. He drank, he smoked, he joked, he dictated correspondence while sitting in the tub (eeek!), but people felt like they knew him, without pretension or posturing. I have always said that people will follow an authentic leader over a cliff at least once.
2. He was calm in the midst of chaos. Churchill retired to his study (or his bathtub) once a day. He had an inner calm that he protected and nourished. He did not add to the noisy voices of the madding crowd. He was calm at his center, and it showed.
3. He focused energy on the essential. I believe the way to manage complexity is to master simplicity. When hearts are racing, teeth are grinding and fists are clenching, it is no time for arcane dissertations or playing two-handed economist. He made a simple statement that rose above the many conflicting stakeholders he faced, and inspired people to adopt it.
4. He knew the power of a purpose-driven voice. His speeches ring true today because they appealed to the human spirit. People do not reach deep and follow based upon a spreadsheet; they respond when they are moved and inspired.