Sometime in April 2022, I realized I needed to invest in some significant development of my crisis management skills. I had the book The Splendid and the Vile on my reading list, recommended to me as not just a history lesson about London during the Blitz, but a great book on leadership as well. It turned out to be the perfect read as I experienced the challenges of uncertainty working at Twitter during April through July this year.
I noted several key takeaways from Winston Churchill’s leadership as he led the British people through their darkest year, one where they endured relentless bombing for months on end and lost 45,000 Britons.
- Winston Churchill communicated his belief that the war was winnable. In both intimate settings with his cabinet and family as well as external speeches and communications, Churchill made it clear that he was a true believer. In times of crisis, people need to hear their leaders lead the rally cry by saying they believe there is something to fight for, and a way to survive and win. If the leader believes, the people can believe.
- Churchill acknowledged the pain and loss every step of the way. He visited bombed cities and met with the bereaved. He wept. In his speeches, he was brutally honest about the losses. This built up trust, and allowed him to pivot from dire truths to optimism for the future.
- Churchill communicated frequently. During a crisis, the people need to hear more reassurances from their leaders, and he made sure he was visible. The people knew their prime minister was working tirelessly on their behalf, which gave them courage. When we don’t have new information to share, leaders can be tempted to go dark, but it’s crucial to stay present and accessible.
- Churchill counted on, and drew out, the resilience of the British people. While dealing with bad news bombs is not the same as enduring real bombs, similar reactions include shock/paralysis, fear for life and livelihood, and panicked decision-making. During the Blitz, something remarkable happened: after the initial terror of early bombing, over time Brits became proud of themselves and their country when they found that they could survive the attacks and somehow still resume their daily activities. It changed how they saw themselves and each other. They leaned in to a sense of being in it together, in being resilient. They lived out the “Keep Calm and Carry On” mindset of 1939 posters published by the British government.
- A robust city (or company) is hard to wipe out. In 1940, before the Blitz, London’s population was about 8.5 million people. Even with constant bombing, 0.5% of Londoners were killed over the year. Air raids challenged people’s health and morale and proved fatal for some, but there were too many people and it was too large a city to be obliterated by the forces against them. Similarly, companies with thousands of employees and hundreds of millions of users can suffer bad news cycles and attrition, but can often survive through hard times. I found it relevant and helpful to be reminded to think on longer time frames.
In summary, what does all this mean for me as a leader? I should:
- Proclaim my belief in our success
- Acknowledge the challenges and setbacks before setting a vision for moving forward
- Ensure frequent (e.g. weekly) communication during times of stress and uncertainty
- Watch for signs of resilience and pride, and celebrate our ability to band together in tough times
- Take courage in the fact that we can take many blows and still come out the other side
There’s a reason we trust “battle tested” leaders. Seasoned managers have seen teams through good times and bad. To be our best, our strategic abilities must be honed by both.