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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Great Expectations

As I read the Scriptures, leadership transitions catch my attention. That interest led me to the handoff from Elijah to Elisha. Elisha was an answer to Elijah’s prayer of despair in 1 Kings 19. He stuck to his mentor like glue in his final days. And he boldly asked to inherit Elijah’s mantle as he prepared to end his ministry. But the protege was quite a different character than the mentor.

To tell you the truth, while Elijah is one of my favorite characters in the Bible, I hadn’t spent much time on Elisha… until Scripture Union asked me to write a series of devotionals on this eccentric prophet for theStory. They’ve been publishing them throughout this week, with a handful more coming at the end of the month.

In spite of the crazy miracles Elijah performs, like fire from the sky, he seems much more accessible as a character. Indeed, Hebrews says Elijah was a man, just like me. He was deeply emotional, rising to accomplish great feats and crashing afterwards. Elisha, on the other hand, seems like such a bizarre figure. His miracles seem over the top and without much of a point: floating ax heads and curing food poisoning and raising the dead to life.

2 Kings 5 is an exception. In the story of Naaman’s healing by Elisha, a first read gives the impression that Elisha is cantankerous, reluctantly healing an enemy after denying him the fundamentals of respect and hospitality. But digging deeper, I begin to appreciate that Elisha fully understands the politics involved, desires a far deeper healing than Naaman anticipates, sets aside prejudices to cross cultures and shapes the circumstances to facilitate learning. In fact, because we can identify with the characters and motivations throughout this story, it still serves up learning opportunities today.

It seems to me that most of the issues in this story stem from false expectations. In this post, let’s look at the expectations around power and greatness.

Naaman is a man of discipline familiar with proper protocol in the corridors of power. His king must talk to Israel’s king, and he wouldn’t dare to suggest a solution to a man of such abilities as the king of Israel. However, the king of Israel misses the point, forgetting all the resources he has at his disposal. Instead, he feels the weight of expectations when he reads the King of Syria’s reference letter. “That Syrian king believes I can cure this man of leprosy! Does he think I’m God with power over life and death? He must be trying to pick a fight with me” (v7, CEV). Elisha hears that the king tore his robes (or perhaps heard the robes tear—see 2 Kings 6:12) and offers to take responsibility. His goal is that the Syrian will know that there is a prophet in Israel. Clearly, Israel’s king needed the reminder as well.

Then Elisha dashes Naaman’s expectations of the prophet himself and the methods he will use to heal. For a great man like Naaman, it follows that he will get healed by a great man like Elisha. His expectations sound like he’s been reading Harry Potter. But the lesson he learns is pure VeggieTales: little people can do big things, too. It’s a little slave girl who first commends Elisha to Naaman. Then, when Naaman is prepared to throw up his hands, his servants convince him to follow to the prophet’s simplistic healing routine. As my Bible notes point out, in order to be healed, he must become as a little child.

And here is where my own expectations are surprised. I expect to find faith, humility and servant leadership among the prophets and leaders of Israel, not from a Syrian visitor. Clearly, Naaman is a leader who’s revered by his staff. Even Jewish slaves, who by rights could hold grudges, seek his best. Naaman proves to be a leader who (eventually) listens to the “little people” around him. I once heard someone say that it’s the leader’s job to define who the heroes are. The heroes in this story are the overlooked and unnamed, not the great men.

In her devotional for theStory, Annabel Robinson notes this passage is “about God’s power, about ordinary people in divinely strategic positions, about humility and obedience, as God reveals his kingdom by loving and healing the outsider, the enemy, the Gentile.” And the Syrian.

Check out her post, The Upside-Down-Kingdom, and my subsequent devotionals on this unique prophet:

[This post republished from my President’s blog on Wycliffe.ca]

Getting the best from your team

Have you noticed that there’s a shortage of good stories about CEOs that don’t fall into the stereotype of wealthy-fat-cat-who-dodges-taxes-and-treads-on-the-poor? Where are the stories about a corporate or organizational president who wants to do what’s right but runs into constant ethical grey areas, and faces struggles with public perception, morasses with no good outcome and dark nights of the soul—not to mention overcoming his or her own personal weaknesses? The current TV series most benevolent to CEOs is Undercover Boss, in which the big boss risks embarrassment and ridicule as he or she attempts to step into the shoes of an average employee within their own company.

I think my hunger for good president stories led me to dust off The West Wing, the long-running TV series from the 2000s that focused on the staff serving with the president of the United States. The episode I watched last night depicted a White House mired in a controversy that was in large part caused by a president who was less than forthcoming with his own staff, let alone the public. It causes the president’s staff an enormous amount of extra work and personal expense, as they each have to hire their own lawyers. They begin to crack under the stress, and it becomes clear that the core problem is not overwork or personal cost: as loyal as the staff are to their president, they haven’t forgiven the president for not bringing them into the loop earlier. By the end of the episode, the staff entertain a number of possible steps their leader could take to repair the damage.

  • Does he need to commend their hard work and give them some time off?
  • Does he need to apologize and spend some time getting them on the same page again?
  • Does he need to lay out a bold vision for the future that stirs their hearts to get over their personal pain?

President Bartlet does apologize to them as a group, but it feels cursory. Then he moves to inspiration and paints a vision for what they’re going to accomplish in the years ahead – something new and noble and big. Then he says, “Break’s over.” In other words, rather than lighten their load, he increases their capacity to give even more.

Vision does that. It makes a load feel a little bit lighter and in fact reveals that the load-bearer has unknown additional capacity. In her book, Multipliers, Liz Wiseman offers research that says a manager who diminishes staff will only draw out about 45% of their staff’s capacity, while a multiplier will get closer to 90%. But a significant sample in her research suggested the staff actually gave more than 100%. In other words, the leader drew out of them capacity they didn’t even know they had.

I recently read a chapter of Mistakes Leaders Make, in which Dave Kraft says leaders sometimes sacrifice vision for busyness. After all, many who find themselves in leadership positions were promoted because of competence. They love to do the work themselves while their teams struggle because they don’t have the one thing the leader alone can provide: vision. He arrives at one of the best differentiating statements about leadership and management I’ve ever heard:

Biblical leadership is concerned with the future, while management is concerned with the present.

To back up his point, Kraft cites Marcus Buckingham: “What defines a leader is his preoccupation with the future. He is a leader if, and only if, he is able to rally others to the better future he sees.” Kraft concludes, “True leadership is always forward thinking and forward moving.”

So how does an average, life-size leader practice “visioning,” without the benefit of Hollywood script writers and triumphant background music?

Take time to dream. Kraft says visioning is not just one thing a leader does; rather, “a leader’s primary responsibility is to hear from God.” And for most of us, it won’t happen without hard work. A leader has to “set aside time for retreating to dream, think, plan, and pray.” Kraft’s point:

Biblical leadership requires taking time to be in God’s presence often enough to hear from him what he wants to do in the future in your church, ministry or group.

Unlock ability in people. Wiseman says multipliers identify talent, know what they’re capable of, invest in them and create space for them to thrive. In short, they inspire people to offer their best. But they don’t stop there.

Demand their best work. Multipliers follow inspiration with high expectations. They delegate ownership and then hold their staff accountable to the high standard they know they’re capable of. Wiseman says that while the best leader’s desks appear level, in reality they have a distinct slant, where accountability slides back to the person sitting on the other side of the desk. Responsibility is never delegated upward.

It’s the beginning of a new year. I always rebel against the idea of resolutions, but I realize that my practice of reflection at the new year more often than not leads me to set areas of improvement. Let’s just call a resolution a resolution. Here are three areas I want to improve in 2014:

1. Visioning. I think my team needs to hear more vision, and they need to be equipped to share vision and plan for the future with their own teams.

2. Accountability for high expectations. I need to throw greater challenges to my team and hold them accountable. I need to constantly move things off my plate so that I have space for visioning and follow-up.

3. Storytelling. Since storytelling is such an essential tool for conveying vision, I want to invest in my abilities to tell effective stories that inspire, challenge and emote rather than simply conveying information.

How about you? What steps do you need to take to improve your ability to share vision and draw the best out of your team?

By the way, I think President Bartlet went a bit light on his apology. There’s incredible power in apology, and I think he missed an opportunity.

Jesus attended funerals

Last Sunday, I had an epiphany as we read the story about Jairus’ daughter in Luke 8. That’s the story of a desperate father who asks Jesus to heal his daughter. As Jesus heads to his home, he gets interrupted by a woman who touches the edge of his robe. The father’s worst fears are realized: he receives news after this delay that his daughter died. Jesus isn’t dissuaded; he says she’s only sleeping and raises her from the dead.

That’s when the obvious occurred to me: all the stories we read about Jesus can’t possibly include everyone who died in his three years of ministry.

Of course, we know from John 21:25 that the gospels are a synopsis of Jesus’ life; we don’t have everything written down. But, given the much shorter life expectancy of Jesus’ day, in three years there had to be a lot of funerals. We know that Jesus was selective about those he healed. John 5 is a remarkable passage where Jesus tiptoes through a crowd of sick people — excuse me… pardon me… sorry about that — to heal one person and then — sorry… excuse me… didn’t mean to — tiptoes back out. I can only conclude that Jesus also chose not to bring some back to life.

It gets worse that that. We know Jesus went to weddings. The only one that got recorded involved a miracle, but Jesus likely went to many weddings. He no doubt went to funerals as well. Can you imagine Jesus sitting in a funeral? All eyes had to be on him. The expectations were palpable. But he only chose three to raise from the dead.

A couple of leadership principles come to mind. First, know your mission and don’t get distracted by the huge need. This is certainly true for nonprofits. Jesus could have easily been overwhelmed by those who needed healing. Several times, he rejected miracles as a means of drawing a crowd for his message. Neither healings, raisings nor crowds were his main point as he set out with determination to launch a kingdom.

Going a little further, Jesus didn’t let others define his mission. He certainly left some people very disappointed and disillusioned.

I also recall a leadership principle I heard from Andy Stanley: Do for one what you wish you could do for everyone. Rather than get paralyzed by the need and decide out of fairness to not do anything for anyone, it’s better to choose a couple of opportunities to get involved. I read recently on CNN how Steve Jobs periodically sat at the help desk and answered phone calls and emails. In a few cases he intervened. In many others, his replies were very terse. But he made an impact on those he engaged with.

If the God-man had to place limits on his scope and ministry, how much more should we? It’s refreshing to me to realize that Jesus could attend a funeral and grieve with the family without having to intervene and try to solve the problem.

Transformation

As I mull over Jesus’ death and resurrection this Good Friday, I’ve been thinking about Peter’s transformation. I would put the change in his life up against Paul’s for scale of impact of the gospel.

Peter is the kind of guy who thinks out loud, who says what everyone else is thinking. He acts first and thinks later. He’s an uneducated fisherman who learned his trade from his father. For me, the following events sum up his nature.

When he sees Jesus walking on water, he makes the jump of logic that if Jesus can defy rules of nature, he should be able to as well. What incredible, uninformed passion he shows as he climbs out of the boat and tests the surface tension of the undulating waters! It’s amazing to me that, in front of the eleven disciples who never left the boat, Jesus remarks on his lack of faith.

No other chapter sums up Peter’s complexity better than Matthew 16. When Jesus asks who the disciples believe he is, Peter declares his conviction that Jesus is the Messiah and the son of God. It’s on this confession that Jesus will build his church. Yet, a few verses later, Peter reprimands Jesus for talking about his upcoming death, and Jesus puts him in his place: “Get behind me, Satan.” Now, that’s a rebuke! I picture Peter like a dog. When he goes in the wrong direction, you give him a smack or yank on his leash. He sits there stunned for a minute, then shakes it off and sets off again in a different direction. He doesn’t take rebukes personally.

John 13 shows that he’s a long way from getting it. He refuses to let Jesus do such a menial job as wash his feet. Then he pledges loyalty, denying that he would ever deny Jesus. Couple this with his swordwork at the olive grove a few chapters later, and you begin to see that it’s an issue of expectations. I think Peter believes Jesus is preparing to lead an earthly insurrection. Servanthood, arrest and death don’t fit his view of Jesus’ destiny and goals.

Then there’s the lowpoint. While the other disciples flee, Peter sticks around and follows from a distance, only to try to protect himself from the same fate by distancing himself and then flatly lying about his connections to Jesus. His anguish over his denial turns to flight. He heads back home to comfort, the life that comes naturally to him, trying to move on from his failure. He goes back to fishing.

So, when Jesus steps out of the picture, his successor is not at all ready. Is this really the man you want to turn the church over to? Jesus puts a lot of stock in the fact that Peter will rebound from the harsh lessons he learned out of betraying his rabbi and disappointing himself. Jesus turns Peter’s focus from a spiral of dispair with a brief and direct conversation on the beach. Then he’s gone, and Peter is on his own.

Along comes Acts, and Peter is a different man. His hotheaded, impulsive, speak-first ways have morphed into a boldness with a lot of maturity. Maybe you could call the upper room his coccoon. The first words from Peter include a number of quotes from Scripture. I believe he spent the silent days after Jesus left, immersing himself in the Scriptures and in prayer — the qualities the apostles will become known for.

From there, we see a Peter in full command of himself and his followers. He preaches to thousands. He looks lame beggars in the eye and heals them. He faces down Pharisees and Jewish leaders, who can only marvel at his transformation, noting only that he had been with Jesus. Sure, he does some things wrong. I think some of his early decisions are a bit suspect, and Paul later calls him on some hypocrisy. But no one can deny Acts portrays a different Peter than the gospels depicted.

In Leading With a Limp, Dan Allender says that a leader cannot have true humility without being humiliated. And he can’t be truly successful without acknowledging his brokenness. Peter became the leader of the early church because he went through such a deep valley. He came out motivated, compelled by grace and love to follow this Jesus who had done so much for such an undeserving failure.

That’s what Easter is all about.