Saturday, July 26, 2014

Five Days In London

Do you ever run across difficult people?  That's a rhetorical question because the answer is, of course you do.  Hopefully not too many. I recently took a continuing education course that included exercises in conflict resolution...exercises which, quite frankly, worked in theory but in the real world, forgedaboudit.  Rather than making me frustrated, the real world experience made me ponder the "why" of conflict.  There is always a why; and, if we don't answer that question resolution never happens, the conflict festers, and people hold onto resentment.  The "why" is also the nexus to leadership.

In the most extreme cases, as we can unhappily see every day in the news, "why" can lead to violence, subjugation, and hatred that can last for decades, generations, eons, forever... last so long that the participants can no longer remember the why.  Sometimes the why is a misreading of religious beliefs.  Sometimes the why is a grab for land, power and the wealth that power brings.  But in a more prosaic setting, the why can simply represent a person who feels powerless and unappreciated, or is unhappy with life and envious of someone else.  People are such complicated creatures.  Perhaps that is why dogs are universally loved.

The course also attempted to teach management and leadership skills.  It was this part of the course with which I took greatest issue.  I do not believe leadership can be easily taught, unless perhaps from a very early age.  One may desire the trappings of leadership, including having a loud voice and big presence, and whatever percs come with the job, but still be clueless when it comes to successfully getting people to follow.  Others can lead effortlessly.  I think they are pretty much born to it, although there are certainly exceptions.

Along this vein (yes, I am going to segue into a book) I have been reading Five Days In London:  May 1940 by historian John Lukacs.  May 24 to May 28, 1940 were perhaps the darkest and most crucial days of World War II. They were undoubtedly the most decisive days of the war upon which not only the fate and future of Britain, Europe and the world teetered, but the course of the 20th century itself.

Hitler was winning the war; Churchill was new to the job, having risen to the office of Prime Minister on May 10 following the resignation of Neville Chamberlain.  Out of the gate he did not exactly inspire confidence.  Many people in his own party thought Churchill to be impetuous and hot-headed; those in the opposing party reviled him.  And although a child of the aristocracy, born to wealth and privilege, he could act in a way which made him appear coarse to his peers.

During those urgent five days in May 1940, Churchill's War Cabinet debated whether to negotiate with Hitler or continue to fight on, despite the gloomy outlook.  Hitler was never closer to achieving his goals than during the hours of those days.  And his goals were nothing less than mastery over all of Europe and the annihilation of any group he considered unworthy of existence.  Luckily, he was up against Churchill who never vacillated in his determination that Britain would never give up, regardless of a defeat at Dunkirk, regardless of the fall of Calais.

There are always debates over who should be given the distinction of "Most Important Personage" of an age.  At the end of the year in 1999, Charles Krauthammer wrote:  "It is just a parlor game, but since it only plays once every hundred years, it is hard to resist. Person of the Century? Time magazine offered Albert Einstein, an interesting and solid choice. Unfortunately, it is wrong. The only possible answer is Winston Churchill."  Krauthammer makes the argument that without Churchill being in the right place at the right time, Britain would have capitulated.  It is hard to argue with his reasoning. And equally hard to dispute that we would be looking at the world through a much different prism today without him.


On June 4, 1940 Churchill spoke to the House of Commons:
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, 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....
Yeah.  I'd follow that leader.  He knew and understood his "why."  He was passionate about his why and the why was the source of his strength.

Difficult people?  I would say that Churchill went toe to toe with the worst.   Leadership?  He didn't need a "how to" manual.  And as for conflict resolution, it was a long, hard road but he helped make it happen.  I don't know if we grow that type of leader anymore.  Perhaps he or she is out there waiting to be tested.  Waiting for the right place and right time.  Perhaps there is another giant in the wings, ready for the exact moment when the world needs one.  Perhaps the time is now.  We can only hope.





18 comments:

  1. Hmm. I do think that it's good to try to cultivate some skills associated with leadership (NOT the loud voice), but you're probably right that it can't be taught. As for the book, it sounds fascinating. And the man could write a speech.

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  2. Tinky, I agree. Mediating conflict can be learned using various strategies, but leadership skills are more difficult to acquire. So much depends on where the leader is leading and whether it's a good place to go. I have developed a new appreciation for Winston Churchill. He certainly wasn't a perfect person; he had his faults. But he was the leader the world needed at the exact time it needed him.

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  3. Yes interesting that great leaders like Churchill also had times of failure in their lives. I heard an adaption of the diaries of his wife on the radio last year, absolutely fascinating.

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    1. Vintage (Nicola), yes. We often think of Churchill as a giant among men. The really interesting bit was that he was just a man...not a superman. But he was a man determined to see his "why" through to the end.

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  4. Sounds like a perfect choice for my sister-in-law, who loves Winston Churchill. And I'd be interested to read it as well. The conflict resolution course sounds good as well. I like to think that with my law and psychology backgrounds I have a good handle on this, but in practice it doesn't make for any less conflict!

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    1. Pete, I'm not so sure about conflict resolution courses. They are great in theory. People are so complex, however, that I think they are limited. I think, however, that your courses were much more n depth than the one I took. Churchill was (is) a great study, a complex man, I'd like to learn more about what made him tick!

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  5. I think good leadership can be taught to a certain degree. What can't be taught is greatness, something that requires the right person in the right place at the right time. It sounds like a really good book you read!

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    1. Stef, Greatness is definitely a rare commodity. Churchill was a man destined for his place in history. The book is excellent.

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  6. I had many thoughts about leadership after reading this post, but I have been repeatedly failing to put them into words. So I will instead just say that Krauthammer's point is a solid one. I can get behind that.

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    1. Jenny, I know. Earlier this year I read Things That Matter by Charles Krauthammer. What a great book! And I agree with him and with you. Churchill was certainly the Man of the Century.

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  7. Grad, your post got me thinking about who would be the nominees for "woman of the century". Here's the list from TIME http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/completelist/0,29569,2029774,00.html Interesting. Inevitably they've gone with politicians but I'm pleased that Virginia Woolf made the list. Anyway, that's a discussion for another day!

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  8. Pete, thanks for the link. It WAS very interesting, you're right. I would agree with Sandra Day O'Connor, Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher as being "powerful". Others, I'm not sure about. Although I love Julia Child, and think she should be up there as the most influential in a particular arena, I don't think she would have thought of herself as "powerful." Others, although not "powerful" per se, were catalysts for change: Rosa Parks, Rachel Carson, Jane Adams, Mother Teresa. Others I'm scratching my head over: Madonna? Martha Stewart? Not so much. (Although I do have a plaque in my kitchen that reads: Martha Stewart Does Not Live Here. As if there was any doubt.)

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  9. Interesting post. I think leadership is like writing - a good deal depends on talent and inspiration, but there are still some techniques that can be taught and learnt. Great leaders, like great writers, don't need instruction, but classes can at least help average ones become good, and bad ones become average.

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  10. Andrew, I can't say I disagree with you to the extent that the leader "in training" has the "soul" to lead. Which I guess was what I was trying to say. Churchill saw, really saw, his goal. His "why." He didn't need a course on how to lead others to see the same goal. Do we have such a leader today? I don't know.

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  11. Oh, and Andrew, I've downloaded your latest book, A Virtual Love, to my Kindle. Am looking forward to reading it! Keep writing, please.

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    1. Mas Rooy, the best we can do is learn from history. There is truly nothing new. It is our best defense.

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