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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Joseph: Returning to roots

When Joseph’s first son is born, he names him with honesty: “God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household” (Gen 41:51). Whether Joseph is referring to a recovery from homesickness or from bitterness, it’s easier to just forget his family and the betrayal he endured. But God isn’t willing to let it go; he intends to bring it all back again as his family re-enters the picture. God does this to bring Joseph to full healing and complete the good work in him. He also does it to fulfill the dream he had given him so many years before; his family must bow before him.

Returning to our roots is the true test of change. Joseph never returns to Canaan while his father is alive, but his family comes to him. When we head home for the holidays, or go to a class reunion or spend time around old friends, it creates all kinds of tensions in us. Those who know us well today may start seeing different behaviours and mannerisms that they don’t recognize. But it’s also true that those who knew us well before may not recognize the person we have become. Clearly Joseph is a different man today than the boy his brothers knew. How will he handle those tensions?

I won’t spend a lot of time examining the details of Genesis 42-45 because I want to keep the focus on Joseph’s development and leadership. But there are some things worth noting.

The tests
Joseph needs to know some things about his brothers, so he engineers a series of tests—somewhat like an extreme behavioral interview.

  • First, Joseph tests for honesty (Gen 42:16) and discovers that the brothers are not completely honest with him—or themselves—that one brother “is no more.” It seems to have become a shorthand way of referring to him that dodges personal responsibility. His test produces a brutally honest discussion among the men (42:21-23) that’s marked by guilt and blame.
  • Second, Joseph reproduces his own imprisonment—the entire group for three days and then Simeon for months. Twenty years later, Joseph is the first thing on their minds when they re-emerge (Gen 42:21). The fact that they would attribute current misfortune to their actions against Joseph is a testament to the remarkable staying power of guilt.
  • Third, Joseph tests their integrity by returning their money (Gen 42:25) and hiding his cup in their sacks (44:1-2). They respond with a sense of self-centred victimization (42:28).
  • Fourth, Joseph overwhelms them with kindness (Gen 43:16-25), which produces fear.
  • Finally, Joseph singles out their younger brother—first with special favor (Gen 43:34) and then an opportunity to blame and abandon Benjamin (44:9-17) as they had Joseph. Rather than responding to a chosen younger brother with envy, the ten brothers now respond with fierce protection.

Dr. Leong Tien Fock says the hoops he makes his brothers jump through have a purpose.

The accusations, tricks and torment could be interpreted as payback, but each move has a purpose; Joseph carefully exposes his brothers’ motivations, challenges their memories, and tests their character. Joseph used his political skills to test his brothers and the authenticity of their repentance and sorrow. He created conditions to draw out character and sacrifice, prompted confession and reproduced the favouritism before he revealed himself. “For ‘only by recreating something of the original situation—the brothers again in control of the life and death of a son of Rachel—can Yosef be sure that they have changed’ (Fox 1983: 202; cited in Waltke 2001: 566).”

These tests eventually reveal the weight of guilt carried by the brothers, the deep conviction of Reuben and the transformation in Judah’s character. It’s their response to favouritism that moves the needle for Joseph. He can hold back no longer, and he reveals himself.

The reunion is also a test
At first, the brothers are speechless and dismayed (Gen 45:3). Joseph suggests they are distressed or angry with themselves (45:5), but he’s never been all that great at emotional intelligence. It is Benjamin, his blood brother, who recognizes him and embraces him, breaking the ice for the others. When Joseph kisses them and weeps over them, their hearts finally open to him (45:15). As God tested Joseph and forced him to deal with his bitterness, now he does the same for the brothers.

As Fretheim (1994: 630) puts it, ‘the brothers need to pass through an ordeal in order to bring their memories and guilt to the surface, where it can be dealt with adequately, before reconciliation can truly take place, and hence safeguard the future of the family.’” (Tien Fock)

But the brothers have reason for skepticism themselves. They once saw firsthand Joseph’s pride and unskilled attempts at leading with few followers. Now imbued with power, he has real capacity for abuse. Just as he was gauging their character from behind his Egyptian disguise, they are now no doubt watching him. They don’t have the benefit of constructing a behavioral interview, but they can closely observe his character over time. No doubt they watch how he interacts with Pharaoh (Gen 46:31-47:12). They watch how he manages the crisis and responds to the desperate Egyptians (47:13-26). Clearly they still have suspicions by chapter 50 when their father passes away. They reason that perhaps Joseph has been restraining himself, putting on an act for his father while he lived.

Returning to second place
Joseph clearly provides for his brothers and saves their lives (Gen 50:20). He takes the role of leader in the family for a period of time, giving orders to his brothers and bringing back his father. But Rev. Bernard Bouissieres points out that, “When his father shows up again in his life, Joseph treats him as number one and submits to him.” While his father submits in accordance with Joseph’s dream, Jacob is clearly the patriarch, and Joseph is no longer in charge. In fact, Jacob commandeers Joseph’s boys as his own, and they will replace Joseph in the twelve tribes from this day on. Of course, this act of adoption has another meaning: it officially installs Joseph—firstborn son of Jacob’s favourite wife—as his legal firstborn (1 Chr 5:1-2). Joseph gets the double portion of the inheritance and the place of honour.

But in this clan, being firstborn never implies primary leadership. Joseph soon slides into the second chair again. There is no doubt that Judah is leading the clan at this point. Rev. Bernard notes that when it comes time for their father to bestow blessings, Judah receives the prime blessing (Gen 49:8-12) while Joseph receives second-best (49:22-26).

These two half brothers are an interesting contrast. A showdown of sorts takes place in Genesis 44:18-34, when Judah gives an emotional plea to his yet-to-be-revealed brother. While Joseph holds political power, Judah’s integrity, vulnerability and unselfish sacrifice gives him immense personal authority. In laying down his life for his brother, he wins over his father, earns the respect of his brothers and foreshadows the Messiah who will descend from his bloodline. Joseph blinks first.

Why does Judah emerge as leader of the nation of Israel instead of Joseph? While Judah went into self-imposed exile and repented of his sins in chapter 38, I don’t think Joseph ever repents of his own culpability in stoking his brothers’ jealousy. Joseph’s tone in Genesis 50 strikes me as mildly paternal and self righteous. The result is that Judah becomes spiritual leader of the clan and gets the spiritual blessing while Joseph earns lingering mistrust.

Concluding well
As the account of Joseph ends, he leaves his brothers with God’s vision of the future. “God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up from this place” (Gen 50:25). The nation’s sojourn in Egypt will be temporary, and God will lead them to their own land.

Upon his death, Joseph is honored both in Egypt and Israel for his leadership and character. The Egyptians embalm him and entomb him as a hero. 400 years later, Israel remembers their promise to him. Exodus 13:19 tells how, even in Moses’ rush to leave the land of Israel’s captivity, he demands the bones of Joseph. Remarkably, the Israelites carry his sarcophagus with them for 40 years and eventually bury him in Jacob’s land in Shechem (Josh 24:32).

Shaped by his circuitous and painful path to leadership, Joseph’s character was radically challenged and reworked so God could use him for his purposes. One of those purposes is foreboding; he uses this man who has seen the dark side of favouritism so many times to create those conditions at a national level and lay the foundation for Exodus 1. As Bob Deffinbaugh says, “the prosperity of Israel at this time paved the way for her future persecution.” Psalm 105:24-25 looks back on this time of disparity and notes that it is God’s intent:

The Lord made his people very fruitful;
he made them too numerous for their foes,
whose hearts he turned to hate his people,
to conspire against his servants.

This nation-within-a-nation will become a threat once a new Pharaoh takes the throne, “to whom Joseph meant nothing” (Ex 1:8).

Throughout his life, Joseph bore the mantle of second chair leadership well, and we can learn much from his example. But his greatest lesson to us might be the fact that he was a vessel available to help accomplish God’s purposes. After all, every Christian leader should be a follower first.


Joseph series:

Pure ambition

James 3 continues, saying godly ambition must be pure and sincere. Other versions use some helpful synonyms. Ambition must integrate as part of a holy life. It must be honest, without hypocrisy. The Message says it’s not two-faced.

What does pure ambition look like? Purity means it’s in its original, uncorrupted state. Dave Harvey says that we’re all wired to pursue glory. In the first days of creation, we existed in perfect relationship with our Creator, seeking his glory alone. If God was lifted up, we had everything we needed. But we perverted our original design, turning our focus to ourselves. (I say “we” because I’m convinced today we would do the same thing as our pansy ancestors Adam and Eve.) It’s impossible to make something pure that has been corrupted. Think about snow. Once its dirty, there’s no making it white and powdery again. Or salt. As Jesus said, how can you make unsalty salt salty again? So even when we attempt great things for God’s glory, we should suspect ourselves. Our motives are seldom as pure as we want them to be. We just can’t have pure ambition on our own.

Ambition should be sincere and honest. I come from an organization that loves the leader who stands up and says, “I never wanted this job, but since you chose me, I’ll do the best I can.” We love humility and, conversely, we suspect signs of ambition. In contrast, I have a healthy suspicion of platitudes. I admit I love the ideal of an unsought promotion and of a leader emerging from the rough. It makes a great story. But two problems stick in my mind. If a leader really has no ambition and never sought a position, then he has never prepared himself for higher levels of leadership. Who’s to say the reluctant leader is a lifelong learner or takes leadership responsibility seriously if they didn’t want the job? On the other hand, if a leader is saying that deceitfully, then I have bigger issues. False humility may well be the tip of the iceberg, a sign of darker things lying below public view.

In contrast, godly ambition is never two-faced. I heard a story that Abraham Lincoln was once charged with being two-faced. He responded, “If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?” It’s far better for a leader to admit their ambition… and shift it toward the cause. Better to be open about ambition. When it’s on the table, there’s a certain amount of accountability, because leadership is a private matter lived out in public, as the authors of The 52nd Floor put it. Ambitious leaders need help to keep their aspirations pointed in the right direction.

Moses is a great example for us. In Exodus 2, we eavesdrop on a dialog that exposes Moses’ real fear of leadership. He is as reluctant a leader as you’ll find. But it’s not from pure motives; it’s fear based on his failure in Exodus 1, when his unharnessed, misguided ambition led to murder. The second time, he needs convincing that God is in the call and will give him everything he needs to lead. The next couple of books in the Old Testament portray a leader with mature ambition, deeply concerned with God’s glory. Multiple times Moses appeals to God to make his Name great or to act on behalf of Israel “for the sake of your Name.” Sure, he still struggles with the purity of his ambition, getting angry with Israel, breaking priceless handwritten tablets and smacking rocks with his staff, but Moses’ name becomes great only as he pursues God’s Name with his whole heart and allows God to show his great power rather than trying on his own effort to save Israel.

In this world, our leaders may never achieve pure ambition, but the pursuit of it is an admirable trait.

Romans 12 – self awareness

3 Because of the privilege and authority God has given me, I give each of you this warning: Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us.

It happens every year. A young lady shows up on American Idol, sings her heart out… and the judges cringe. When someone informs her that she’s bad, she appears genuinely shocked.* Why? Because her entire life, she’s been told that she can sing. She has never received honest feedback until Simon Cowell.

* Go with me here. I know it’s all rigged.

Do you have a Simon Cowell in your life? Okay, bad example. Do you have someone in your life who has the privilege and authority in your life to tell you the truth? Paul had the ability to say this to the Roman church because of his role as spiritual father and apostle. Perhaps for you it’s a pastor or mentor or Proverbs-worthy friend, but you need people to give you an honest assessment, particularly as you move up in leadership.

What if you’re not really as good a leader as you think you are? This is a tough question, so take a minute to think about it.

I’ve read many times that when a superstar executive is plucked from a team by headhunters to fill a new leadership position in another company, they can’t reach the same success in the new setting. Why? It’s the drumbeat I’ve been saying for some time now: leadership is contextual. You are likely only as good as the team you’re surrounded by and the ideal match of your abilities to the challenges and opportunities you’re facing. Before you take credit for things that God has given you, read Daniel 4 as a warning from King Nebuchadnezzar.

I believe self-management is the first requirement of leadership. The Bible is clear that if you can’t lead yourself, you can’t lead others. The first step, then, is to know yourself. Know what you’re good at and what you’re not. Leaders have as few blindspots as possible and know their weaknesses well so they can lead to their strengths and staff to their weaknesses. But it’s true that the higher you move up in leadership, the more difficult it is to keep from living in a coccoon. There’s no one to tell you the truth, and it’s difficult to stop believing your own press.

The sticking point in these verses to me is that line, “measuring yourself by the faith God has given us.” What does that mean? For starters, if faith is the assurance of things unseen, then our plum line is not anything readily apparent to us. It’s not the media or our kiss-up friends. Our plum line is how God sees us. He’s the one who can see our insecurities and our coping mechanisms. He’s the one who sees past our false bravado. He’s the one who sees how our “courageous decision” was really just a guess, and this time it worked. He knows all that… and more.

Yet he also knows our full operating potential, because he’s the manufacturer. I think God believes in us. When we consider others better than ourselves and are quick to give credit to others for the success we enjoy, I think we’ll uncover a lot of the potential he built in.

Matthew Henry has a great admonition to sum up my last two posts (and this is a nice counterpoint to my recent posts on ambition):

We must not say, I am nothing, therefore I will sit still, and do nothing; but, I am nothing in myself, and therefore I will lay out myself to the utmost, in the strength of the grace of Christ.