"The news from France is very bad." That's how British Prime Minister Winston Churchill began a radio broadcast on June 17, 1940, in the darkest hours of World War II. Churchill acknowledged the harsh facts, but also saw reasons for hope. In fact, he ended that broadcast with a line he would often repeat—"We are sure that in the end all will be well." Churchill's inspirational leadership and extraordinary communication skills rallied the British as they fought for survival.
Today we need business leaders who inspire their employees, clients, and customers, infusing them with the confidence that in the end, all will be well. Your employees are looking to you for inspiration. Each morning they read frightening headlines: recession, record high oil and gold prices, mounting job losses, a housing crisis, and the collapse of Bear Stearns (BusinessWeek.com, 3/16/08). According to a recent Wells Fargo (WFC)/Gallup survey of 600 small business owners, optimism is eroding. In March, the monthly confidence index fell to its second lowest level since its inception in 2003. It's a good time to ask yourself, what message am I relaying to my employees?
I asked a Churchill historian, J. Rufus Fears, a professor at the University of Oklahoma, to imagine Churchill as a business leader today. Here are some lessons that came out of our conversation:
Communicate a concise, long-term vision. In his first major speech as Prime Minister on May 13, 1940, Churchill posed a rhetorical question, "You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: victory." Fears, at the University of Oklahoma, explains: "Churchill had the gift of being able to build a consensus around a compelling vision. You can have the greatest vision, but if you can't boil it down to one line, it will fail."
Inspiring language is simple and clear. In war, the short-term goal might be to defend a position or to take a strategically important harbor, but the long-term goal—victory—remains clear. Your employees need to know what they're fighting for, how short-term projects will help them reach that end, and why their sacrifice will ultimately be worth it.
Speak the language of hope when others see despair. Churchill knew how to use the power of words to galvanize an audience. "Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory," Churchill said. When Churchill became Prime Minister, an English defeat by the Germans seemed inevitable. Most people in the government at the time expected Churchill to negotiate a truce.
According to Fears, 80% of the population called for a settlement with Nazi Germany. But after one famous speech on June 4, 1940, the morale of the British people completely turned around, with 80% now in favor of defending themselves against Nazi Germany. "We shall not flag or fail," Churchill said in that speech. "We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender."
In her book We Shall Not Fail: The Inspiring Leadership of Winston Churchill, Celia Sandys makes this observation: "Churchill was blessed with an affirmative quality modern leaders admire. He exuded hope and confidence…. Churchill proved that with the right leadership, men and women can be inspired to greatness in difficult times." Members of Churchill's wartime Cabinet said his words and attitude made people feel braver in his presence. Use your words to make people feel ready to tackle the challenges of a bad economy.
Don't hide the facts. Churchill didn't believe in hiding behind fuzzy, ambiguous language. He demanded the truth and shared it with his audience. In fact, most of the speeches that included his most optimistic phrases also included detailed discussion of grim facts.
In his first speech as Prime Minister, Churchill said: "We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering." According to Fears, Churchill would probably tell today's business leaders: "Your employees are robust. They can take the truth if you give it to them. But if you sugarcoat the facts, they won't believe another word."
Walk the factory floor and listen. After the German invasion of France, 400,000 British and French soldiers were trapped in the town of Dunkirk in northern France. A large evacuation of troops across the English Channel seemed futile to Churchill's own military officers. Churchill listened to his top brass but also called on soldiers in battle. Based on the soldiers' resolve, Churchill decided to stay and fight. By doing so, England was able to evacuate 365,000 soldiers in nine days. No longer would there be talk of a British surrender. Listen to your rank and file. Show your employees and customers that you care about their opinions.
Radiate confidence. According to Fears, during the German blitz when fighters bombed London and other cities relentlessly, Churchill insisted that people in his office smile and remain upbeat. Churchill became famous for walking the streets after the city had withstood yet another attack, his fingers raised in a victory sign.
What is your demeanor in the workplace today? If Churchill could radiate confidence in the face of attack, the rest of us can remain upbeat despite today's economy.
Never give in. In a speech at his former boarding school on Oct. 29, 1941, Churchill delivered a phrase as relevant today as it was then: "Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy."
There are times, like today, when people need to hear this kind of message. As an inspiring leader, you must deliver the message of hope with your deepest conviction. It will help improve the morale of everyone in the workplace.
Always keep the big picture in mind. "These are not dark days; these are great days. The greatest days our country has ever lived." Churchill spoke those words in 1941, four years before the German surrender. Churchill saw brighter days in the middle of gloom. Fears says Churchill would advise today's leaders, "Don't despair and give up when things seem at their depths." He'd temper this advice with, "Don't become arrogant when things look as though they can only go higher."
Churchill reminds us anything is possible when you fill the hearts and minds of your employees with encouragement. The future is too bright to communicate anything less than relentless optimism.