(February 20, 2018)
There are few times you can point to a pivotal period in world history and say, unequivocally, that the leadership of one person tipped the balance in a positive direction.
Winston Churchill’s appointment as prime minister of Great Britain in 1940 was such a moment. As Gary Oldman so brilliantly portrays him in Darkest Hour (and he has my vote for a Best Actor Oscar this year, to match his Golden Globe), Churchill’s stubborn refusal to surrender to either the backrooms of the Conservative party or to the Nazi war machine set an example for political leadership that is, unfortunately, all too rare.
Though it was their darkest hour, it was his brightest, taking a job he would never have been offered in less desperate circumstances because he did not fit the mould that the institutions of his time expected of a leader in his party or in British society.
He drank too much, smoked pungent cigars and was saddled with a record of disastrous choices in the previous war (such as the invasion of the Dardanelles and Gallipoli) as First Sea Lord. He had inherited little money, made most of his income from writing and generated (or cultivated) a reputation for blunt conversation that meant perpetual damage control for his long-suffering spouse or for his hosts.
In defence of the British Empire, he had been a thug, wielding imperial authority to suppress colonial independence movements that would require more decades of struggle to succeed.
He was, literally, the political embodiment of the iconic British bulldog, having set his teeth in a problem and refusing to let go, no matter how good or persuasive the opposing argument.
Those very qualities turned the tide of the Second World War and, with Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin, Churchill shaped the postwar world we inherited, for good or ill.
Tossed out of office almost the moment the war ended, he returned in 1951 for Great Britain’s next war in Korea, and then suffered a serious stroke in 1953 — the same year he received the Nobel Prize for literature.
The bulldog refused to let go, of course, so he recovered and continued his work for another decade. The earliest memory I have of television is not Bugs Bunny, but watching his extraordinary state funeral in 1965, when he was given a send-off normally reserved for a king.
For Churchill, words mattered.
He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle, when there was nothing else left that could be done. For his political foes, in Britain and abroad, his combination of words, delivery and public image were devastating — Churchillian, in fact.
But for the rest of the world, his words could be as inspirational as his analysis was incisive. Seventy-two years ago, his speech at Westminster College in 1946 framed the Cold War in a similar fashion, calling out the Soviet Union for “the iron curtain” that had fallen across Europe.
Today, there are no literary prizes given for politicians’ speeches, written by others and read poorly from a TelePrompTer. Analysts are left with nothing to say afterward, because the politicians have offered so little. Audience response is dutiful or added in studio. Image, not substance, is all that matters in the obligatory 15-second sound bite.
Political leadership has become an oxymoron, a poor joke on democratic institutions that seem to have a death wish instead of a vision for a better future. Competence is feared, honesty avoided and real answers to current problems — such as the questions dodged in parliamentary sessions — are best left to someone else, tomorrow.
The same things happened just before Churchill finally got the job. The other politicians focused on aspiration, what they wanted to happen, instead of focusing on inspiration, bringing the country together in ways that would make something happen.
His most important speeches were never recorded, just reported. Yet the tides of war changed in that moment, because of who he was, what he said and how he said it.
Today, we have lost our way.
Trying (unsuccessfully) to avoid the problems of patriarchy, we look for facilitators instead of leaders, focusing on process instead of outcome, ensuring all voices are heard, whether or not they have something useful to say. Everyone gets a ribbon.
Leadership at any level is a perilous choice for someone to make. To make things worse, the ones who seek it out these days seem the least likely to be the leaders we need.
Yet we are at war, with the planet and with ourselves, for a future in which all the defenceless children of Earth will have to live.
We need more leaders like Winston Churchill. For all his flaws, he identified the real enemy, what needed to be done to stop it, and how. Words, by themselves, were not enough — but that was the right place to start.
We must hold those in leadership accountable for their words as well as for their actions, expecting inspiration instead of aspiration, demanding a vision for what we all can do together that goes beyond winning the next election.
If they have a dream, we need to hear it and be inspired to share it. Otherwise, like Neville Chamberlain, they need to step aside before it is too late.