Leadership Study Guide for The Darkest Hour

Darkest-Hour-One-Sheet-600x888I may have to go back and update some of my previous posts on best leadership movies, because The Darkest Hour just bumped the others off the the top spot. It doesn’t require special ability to note leadership lessons in Churchill’s life, so not much is original here, but perhaps the questions in this blog post can be a tool to be intentional about drawing out some of those lessons. In the spirit of Invictus, my most popular post, I offer The Darkest Hour study guide. It’s designed for personal or group reflection after watching the movie.

We learn the most about Churchill from his wife, Clementine. Their interactions as a couple reveal the truth about Churchill as a man much more three-dimensional than the legend most have come to know. Consider these questions about the Churchills and then reflect on how they apply to you.

  • Consider the various scenes in which Clementine appears. How does she view him—realistically or with rose-colored glasses? What specific traits does she appreciate about him?
  • What does she appeal to in Winston to get him to do what others can’t?

The takeaway quote is this one: “These inner battles have actually trained you for this very moment. You are strong because you are imperfect, you are wise because you have doubts.”

  • How do your doubts, weaknesses and imperfections give your leadership strength?

Later the king asks, “Are you not afraid?” Churchill admits, “Most terribly.”

  • Do followers expect their leaders to be fearless, or is that an unattainable standard leaders expect of themselves?
  • In what ways does the “fearless leader” myth hold back potential leaders?
  • How much should a leader let on about his/her own doubts? What are the risks and benefits?

From biographies, we know that one of the first things Churchill does as Prime Minister is to get a realistic assessment of the state of the war. In the film, his War Room depicts the dire state of the British forces. And yet he portrays to the public something very different.

  • What steps does Churchill take to get brutally honest information for himself?
  • What is the challenge in communicating to the public the state of the war? Do you agree or disagree with his choice to lie to the public? Why?
  • What is the line between optimism and inspiration versus honesty? What might have happened had he done it differently?
  • Clementine makes an interesting point about truth: “The truth will have its time.” In the film, when is the time for truth? Are the people ready by then?

The early days of Churchill’s time in office are extremely fragile, requiring great courage.

  • What is his relationship with the king? How does that relationship change over time, and what factors account for the change?
  • Why does he surround himself with a War Cabinet of rivals? What power do Chamberlain and Halifax utilize against him?
  • How does Churchill find the leverage to break the opposition and gain the political ground to lead effectively?
  • What would courageous leadership look like in your context—with superiors, with rivals and colleagues, and with direct reports?

Churchill struggles with whether his leadership position requires him to consider all possibilities, including entering into negotiations.

  • When does focus and principled leadership become myopic and stubborn to the point of blindness? Is it an abdication of leadership to cave on the one point that got you into your position? Why do you think Churchill concludes, “Those who never change their mind never change anything”?
  • What is the difference between leading others with a clear vision and looking at the people around you, asking their opinions and seeking out the voice of the people? Is that simply following, or is that also a form of leadership?
  • Which factor/whose support most influences his decision to never surrender? The king’s or the people?
  • In what ways does Churchill manipulate the various voices to influence the War Cabinet?

There are a lot of other directions you could take in a film discussion, from exploring the shifting nature of Churchill’s reliance on his secretary… to assessing the tradeoffs that come with leadership… to evaluating Chamberlain’s leadership from the back row. If you come up with any other questions or topics of discussion, post them here so we can all benefit.

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Wartime leadership: a case study from Nehemiah

Having examined the defensive positioning and offensive weaponry of our warfare in previous blog posts, I want to return to my main point. How do we as leaders respond to these attacks, these schemes, these tactics? What does wartime leadership look like, when others are depending on us and looking to our lead? How can we assist our followers and our organizations in fighting back appropriately?

I think it’s appropriate to look at Nehemiah as a case study. The first half of the book of Nehemiah lays out the man’s extensive work to rebuild a wall to protect a city long-term, while at the same time using his builders as armed guards to keep watch against local enemies. The attack never came. Nehemiah was successful, and through his visionary servant leadership, the wall was completed in 52 days.

But as I read through the book recently, it struck me that the attack did come. It wasn’t one large military force coming at the gates or besieging the walls; it was a thousand darts that came from unexpected places. This is my partial list:

This list is much more devastating and effective than sticks and stones. It’s amazing how fear of shame, derision and jeering can keep the mightiest leader firmly in his chair. Nehemiah could have held onto his position in Persia and considered himself there “for such a time as this.” But his calling was different than Esther’s. By challenging the status quo and stepping up to lead the change himself, Nehemiah put his own reputation on the line. He risked not only his position and his safety from outside attack; he risked internal attack if his followers gave way. For an interesting parallel, consider what Moses put up with as he led over a million men, women and children through the wilderness.

So how did Nehemiah circumvent, undermine and defy the attacks of his enemies? We can learn an awful lot from his example. Here are a few key lessons.

1. God awareness
Nehemiah was constantly aware of God’s role in his success. When the king granted his request, he knew it was the result of prayer, because “the good hand of my God was upon me” (2:8). When it came time for Nehemiah to get everyone on board his vision to rebuild the walls, his punch line was his testimony: “I told them of the hand of my God that had been upon me for good, and also of the words that the king had spoken to me” (2:18). They were convinced. Of course, when the wall was finished in a remarkable 52 days, he claimed no credit. Instead, Nehemiah said it was obvious even to their enemies “that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God” (6:16).

Nehemiah constantly pointed his followers back to the Lord, inspiring them with God’s greatness (4:14), encouraging them that God would fight for them (4:20), challenging them with the fear of God (5:9), and decisively dealing with sin as treachery against God (13:27). It seems clear that the courage he consistently demonstrated came from his constant awareness of God’s presence and a sense that he would be held accountable as a leader. That same courage is available to us. It starts with the same awareness.

2. Never get undressed
In the busiest, most stressful part of the project, the threat of attack imminent, Nehemiah decreed that everyone must stay in Jerusalem for the night as a guard for the city. Then he noted that they kept their weapons within reach, and “none of us took off our clothes” (4:23). If you haven’t had time to read my last blog post on the right clothing, now’s a good time to read that. When we realize that we are at war, we don’t ever let our guard down. We continue to protect ourselves and our families with truth, righteousness, readiness through the gospel of peace, faith, salvation and the Word of God. We don’t ever take off compassion, kindness, meekness, patience, forgiveness and love.

Have you seen the scene in Saving Private Ryan where, in the thick of battle, a bullet clangs off a soldier’s helmet? He takes off his helmet to marvel at the dent, only to fall to another shot? If we take off our armor even for a moment, we are incredibly vulnerable.

3. Practice prayer rhythms
Nehemiah’s prayer life certainly included prayer and fasting marathons during times of waiting (ch 1), but his day-to-day management was stabilized by a prayer reflex that helped him handle difficult situations:

  • When he was almost paralyzed by fear before the king, he sent up a quick prayer to God (2:4).
  • He took out on God his rage at his enemies, rather than letting the people see it (4:4-5).
  • When he heard of new plots, his response was twofold: prayer and setting a guard (4:9).
  • His sentence prayer at the end of chapter 5 suggests that his generosity in sharing his table wasn’t without personal cost of some kind.
  • When he exposed plots against himself, he took strength from the Lord (6:9) and trusted God to pay his enemies back (6:14).
  • I believe it was this rhythm of prayer that allowed him to see and understand the plot against him in 6:10-13. Discernment comes from time spent with the Lord.

It’s in that communing, that constant awareness of the Lord that you learn to hear His voice for encouragement, wisdom and venting.

4. Face the problems head-on
Sitcoms have overdone a common storyline: someone who needs to have a difficult conversation, but they constantly avoid it and choose the easy path until the problem blows up to comic proportions. I find those storylines incredibly frustrating. Leadership is about tackling the tough issues head-on. That’s what Nehemiah did in chapter 5 when class warfare raised its ugly head. When he discovered the rich were making profit out of the desperation of the poor, Nehemiah wasted no time bringing this exploitation to light and challenging the rich (5:6-7). By using his own example, deliberately choosing not to assert his rights, he managed to do it in a way that brought them on board, to the point that they closed the matter with a worship service together!

In chapter 13, he took on another problem with similar forthrightness, but with a different approach. This time he evicted a resident of the temple, confronted officials, warned and threatened merchants, and then cursed, beat and pulled out the hair of Jews who knowingly committed sin. There’s a progression of increasing anger, frustration and violence, punctuated by frequent prayers for God to remember him for these deeds. His constant refrain reveals his motives: the fear of God trumped fear of people.

As Jesus said, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28). Ultimately, Nehemiah had one audience, and he never let the fear of man hold him back from what he needed to do. As David put it, “In God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me?” (Ps 56:11)

Here’s the bottom line: anyone doing “a great work” (6:3) is going to face attack, and we can learn a lot from the way Nehemiah approached his mission. If you’re in the middle of a swarm of fiery darts, don’t give up. It’s not about you; it’s about God from start to finish.

For it is God who is at work within you, giving you the will and the power to achieve his purpose. (Phil 2:13)