How Great Leaders Inspire Courage in Crisis
01 / 17 / 20

How Great Leaders Inspire Courage in Crisis

It was June 18, 1940. France had fallen to Nazi Germany in less than six weeks. And now Hitler eyed an invasion of Great Britain.

That afternoon, Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered his pivotal “Finest Hour” speech to the House of Commons.

Germany had steamrolled over the mighty French military so quickly that you can imagine the fear British leaders must have felt. Their nation—and Western Civilization—faced a grave existential threat from a powerful enemy.

Will Britain have the collective will to withstand the fast and furious Blitzkrieg air raids that would undoubtedly come their way? Or, will their defenses get so overwhelmed that they'll have no choice but to surrender?

In his speech, Churchill made it clear that surrender was not an option and presented an amazingly bold vision that would inspire Parliament and the British people to stand firm in the face of terror:

“Let us, therefore, brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”

We know how the story ends. It was, indeed, Britain's finest hour. They stood up to the "fury and might" of the enemy. And the Allies would defeat the Nazis, for good, five years later.

In business, we don’t typically face monumental life-and-death crises as Churchill did. But there’s a lot we can still learn from the Prime Minister on how to boldly and effectively confront existential threats to our companies, such as market disruption, negative publicity, a plummeting stock price, or anything that could put us out of business.

So, how can we more effectively face our fears and lead with decisiveness in times of crisis?

Follow Churchill’s example of practicing the virtue of Courage—the cornerstone of the Great 8 leadership virtues from my book “The Great 8: A New Paradigm for Leadership.”

In this article, we’ll break down three lessons from Churchill’s “Finest Hour” speech that give us insight into how we can stare down our biggest fears and inspire Courage in our teams.

(For an overview of all eight leadership virtues, see “The Great 8” Process.)

Courage vs. Fear

But before we dig into Churchill’s speech, let’s take a moment to define Courage and set the context for where it fits among the other seven Great 8 leadership virtues.

When it comes to a definition of Courage, I think Nelson Mandela put it best:

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear."

In other words, Courage is not an emotion (like Fear); it’s a practice—an act of will. Courage is what we demonstrate when we feel scared about taking a bold action but do it anyway.

As with strength training, the more we practice Courage in the face of Fear, the stronger (and bolder) we’ll become, which will build us up to handle even bigger crises down the road.

And Courage is critical to our leadership effectiveness because it’s the prerequisite for putting into practice Humility, Empathy, Acceptance, and all the other Great 8 leadership virtues.

As Maya Angelou put so poignantly, “Courage is the most important of all the virtues because, without courage, you can't practice any other virtue consistently.”

C.S. Lewis viewed it as the common thread that connects all the virtues: “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.”

The Application: Building Your Courage Muscle

How, then, do you put Courage into practice in real-world business situations?

At Legacy Advisory Partners, we’re often brought in by leadership teams to help them work through significant business challenges. We’ve found that Churchill’s “Finest Hour” speech offers a powerful framework for helping those clients build their Courage muscles to make tough decisions and take bold action.

For example, suppose your business is facing a steep decline in sales from market disruption. You'll need to make a big shift in business strategy that, in the short term, might lead to painful job cuts, restructurings, and uncomfortably high investment in new product development.

Or, perhaps, one of your biggest clients has been acting abusively toward your employees, creating a toxic work environment for them. You’ve discussed it with the client, but little has changed. Now, you must decide: Should you fire the client but put the company in jeopardy? Or do you hope the situation resolves itself and compromise your values in the process?

How do you build the Courage you need to act boldly when encountering existential threats to your company?

Let’s break down Churchill’s speech for some insight.

Facing the (Brutal) Facts

Churchill didn’t sugar-coat the situation. Nor did he try to project a fake attitude of strength and confidence. He was candid about Britain’s vulnerability in facing the grave threat posed by the Nazis.

“What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us.”

As leaders, we’re often afraid to let our people know the facts about a potential crisis because we don’t want to “freak them out.” Sure, you need to use discretion in exactly how you articulate the problem, but you can’t sugar-coat it. The reality is that, in most cases, your team already knows something is wrong. It’s the elephant in the room. They’re looking to you to be brutally honest with them, even if it’s not the message they want to hear.

Counting the Cost of Inaction

Churchill laid out the stakes, essentially saying, "We have too much at stake to NOT stand up to the Nazis."

“Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.”

The lesson: If you want to get yourself—and your team—over the fear of bold action, consider the stakes. When you realize that you stand to lose more if you don’t act, you’ll be emboldened to make the courageous—and, often, the right—decision for your company.

Envisioning Your Legacy

As Churchill closed his speech, he took himself and his audience through a powerful thought exercise: “If we follow through and don’t give up, no matter the costs, imagine what your legacy will be.”

“Let us, therefore, brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”

When we’re gripped by fear, we tend to obsess with the worst-case scenario. We think, “If I fire this abusive client, we’ll lose all that business and have to let good people go.”

Perhaps. But what about the potential upside of making the hard decision? What would that look like?

Your employees would see a strong leader who has their back—someone they can believe in and willingly follow no matter the dangers that lie ahead.

Now, you have a more enthusiastic team that works hard together to not only replace the lost revenue but also put the company on a faster growth trajectory.

And that tough decision could very well prove to be your company’s “finest hour.”

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About the Author:  J. David Harper, Jr. serves as CEO and principal of Legacy Advisory Partners, an Atlanta, Georgia-based firm that provides total retirement plan advisory services that give clients a greater competitive advantage to attract and retain top talent. David is also the author of the book “The Great 8: A New Paradigm for Leadership” that teaches business leaders how they can tap into eight timeless “virtues” to expand their influence and achieve sustainable success for their organizations.