“Darkest Hour” – A Study in Leadership

While taking time off over the holidays I went to see Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour. It is a wonderful film which follows one of history’s most famous leaders at the very moment that his leadership changed the world.

I encourage everyone wants to be a leader or wants to be a better leader, to go see this film as a step by step study in what truly makes a leader great. I won’t list everything you will take away; however, here are three areas which I think are the most powerful.

 Connection: There is a scene before he makes the greatest decision, not only of his political career but possibly the greatest decision in the future of the western world. He goes in the London underground to sit with the people he leads.

This is what I refer to as “Walking the Factory Floor”. He goes directly to those who will be most affected by his decision and whose point of view is so removed from the advisors and colleagues with whom he engages regularly. He knows instinctively that he cannot make this monumental decision in a bubble. He must reach out, connect, understanding and truly listen to all his constituents.

Not only did this experience help his decision-making, but it created a bond with him for the men and women with whom he spoke. They felt heard and important. They knew their leader in a way they had not before and would now be more willing to follow him into the challenges they were about to face.

Clarity: At one point while trying to craft a speech he says “I don’t have the words”. This is not something we would image as being a problem for one of history’s great writers and orators. However, the reason for his frustration is apparent to me. The truth is that ‘If it’s not clear to you, you can’t make it clear to anyone else’. That was his challenge. The problem was not that the words did not come, but that he was still unclear what to do. He was unsure of the message he wanted to convey. As a result, he didn’t have the words.

Credibility: Any biography or documentary about Winston Churchill will tell you, he made no apologies for who he was, what he said or even his sometimes challenging manner. He was at all times fully authentic. This does not mean he was always liked. Indeed most of his political career, both before and after the war, he was disliked by one or more groups (including his own party). However, there was never a doubt about who he was or where he stood. In the darkest moments of the war, this authentic leadership instilled trust and faith from his party, his country, and the world.

These are the foundations of great leadership. Whether you are a CEO, lead a team of two or are simply standing in front of an audience for an hour, find connection, clarity, and credibility and you will find others will follow you.


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