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.

Advertisements

Leading as an art director

I’m a graphic designer. Non-practicing, I’ll grant you, but a designer nonetheless. There are no former graphic designers, just as there are no ex-alcoholics. I’m a designer, and I always will be. It’s how I see the world. It’s the way I think. It’s the way I operate, no matter what my specific job responsibilities are at the time. Let’s take non-profit leadership, for instance.

I lead as an art director. I paint a picture for my team of a preferred future or the direction I think we should go, and then I invite them to bring their best to help make it happen. Because people are creative, with experiences and vantage points I’ll never have, the result is almost always better than I ever imagined. Of course, the more diverse those vantage points are, the stronger the result will be.

The leader’s job is to inspire and motivate, but not to hold his idea too tightly. The ideal is to achieve buy-in and then let go. Of course, buy-in requires that a team has been given significant opportunity to speak into and even sway the direction we’re going. The more the team gets excited about the idea and brings their best, the more alternatives and improvements they will propose, and the more momentum the concept will gain.

The key for the leader is to decide ahead of time what the non-negotiables are going to be. What is the deadline? What elements must be included? Just as a kite will not stay in the air if it is not held in tension with the ground, creativity is impossible if there are no parameters. A graphic designer cannot get the first mark on a page if there aren’t some ridiculous tensions that generate sparks: the name of the company, the fact the client only likes green, the minuscule budget and the unreasonable deadline. The designer might grumble at the constraints, but now she has some material to work with.

Leading as an art director means there will be compromise. Any gathering of creative people will include passion, tension and rabbit trails. If the project is drifting too far from the intent, does the team need firm direction or is it okay to let them run with it for a while? Is the drift in fact an improvement over the original idea? Perhaps my dream was too small, and the team is seeing new opportunities to expand the idea. Perhaps the new direction is in fact the creative foundation for another project. 3M has made a killing, when the proposed solutions didn’t solve the immediate problem, by allowing employees to persist in the belief that they’ve solved something (they just don’t know what yet) until it becomes viable. Consider the history of the sticky note.

In some cases, the idea just doesn’t work. The leader must then have the courage to shut it down. If the project fails or leads to bad results, there are a few possible reasons:

  • I failed to adequately describe my vision.
  • I didn’t fully pass the baton. I didn’t achieve the buy-in I was shooting for, or I held onto control unnecessarily.
  • I didn’t pull in a diverse enough team to add their strengths.
  • It wasn’t worth doing, or it failed. Some ideas just aren’t robust enough to stand on their own. Others are risks that may or may not survive.

A few years ago I heard an old leader muse that most leadership books try to boil down a leader’s experience into a formula that won’t work for anyone else’s context, and wouldn’t even work if that leader tried to apply his own formula again. Perhaps that’s why I’ve found it so difficult to articulate my instinctive leadership style. Multiple times I’ve tried to put thoughts to keyboard and then given up. I’m still not satisfied that I captured the essence of the way I lead.

So perhaps this methodology is best left as a blog post fleshed out just enough to paint a picture, and allowing readers and leaders to bring their own creativity to the practice and make it even better.

Invictus: a study in leadership

Invictus movie posterI really enjoyed watching Invictus this week. If you haven’t seen the film, it chronicles the first days and months of Nelson Mandela’s rise to leadership in South Africa. Rest assured it is not a sports movie as much as a leadership movie. It portrays several forms of leadership and one leader’s attempts to influence another leader to bring about a desired result.

I was fascinated first by Mandela’s use of symbols. He seemed to bet his presidency on a decision — against the advice of his chief of staff — to focus on rugby as a symbol that would accomplish his desire to bring a divided nation together. It’s true that sports are one of the few things that can create unlikely alliances. Sports success not only unites; it inspires and ignites dreams.

The biggest challenge Mandela takes on in his use of symbols was one of prejudice. Rugby was seen as a white sport, and the Springboks a symbol of everything black South Africans fought against. If the whites cheered for it, the blacks cheered against it. Mandela took a major risk in attempting to reclaim a national symbol. Most leadership gurus would fall on the side of his chief of staff; the associations of most symbols are too powerful to redefine.

Let me try to suggest a parallel. I don’t think we appreciate how crazy it is that the cross has become a piece of jewelry. In the first century, the cross symbolized everything that was hated about the Romans. How many redefinitions has that symbol gone through in the two millennia since Christ stole it from his captors? Of course, that’s 2,000 years. Mandela redefines the rugby team in less than a year. Can you think of another symbol that changed meaning so quickly?

Symbols are a powerful tool for leaders to use to advance their cause. That’s a topic worth another post down the road.

The second thing that struck me was that Mandela staked his influence over the rugby team on someone other than the coach. In fact, I can’t recall the coach appearing in the film. Instead, Mandela challenges the captain of the team. As a player, François Pienaar has the greater influence over the resolve of the team.

Mandela’s conversations with Pienaar are alone worth seeing the movie again. The bi-generational leadership model they employ is celebrated at the end, when each thanks the other for service to the nation. I think what struck me was their two very different styles and roles. Mandela has to lead a nation. His influence comes from incredible personal authority burnished from 27 years in prison. His job is to inspire, make tough choices and sacrifice for the good of the country. He does that in several cases by challenging his people — black South Africans — in essence to do to whites what they wish the whites would have done to them.

On the other hand, Pienaar begins with very little personal authority, seemingly barely surviving a purge of team leadership. In some ways, he is a symbol of the Springboks’ losing ways and racist heritage. Inspired by Mandela, he determines to bring change. He prods and challenges the team to break their self-made molds. He puts in the effort, comes up with the strategy and forces the team to dig as deep as he himself does. He also uses symbol. There’s a great moment when he hands out cans of beer that nobody likes and forcefully associates the taste with losing. At times, like Mandela, he looks very lonely in his leadership. By sheer determination, he carries his team to victory, but then shares the credit 43 million ways.

By the end of the movie, Pienaar shares the stage as equals with Mandela. I’m intrigued by his journey — how a young leader can build a reputation and gain the personal authority needed to influence a nation. The movie’s worth watching, and probably watching again. Give me your thoughts. What stood out for you?

Found objects

My sculpture class at Georgia State introduced me to some of the more creative artists at the school. One lady in particular was a practitioner of performance art. One day she piled sand on the floor “just so” in preparation for her presentation, only to find at show time a forklift sitting atop her sculpture. After a stern lecture on art appreciation, the offending construction worker removed his equipment, and the performance went on, complete with wooden railroad ties and votive candles. Part of her performance was the credit given to her generous sources, who seldom knew of their contributions to the art world: unwitting restaurants and construction sites were generous benefactors. Another time she incorporated a beautifully-carved fireplace facade. It’s amazing the art you can create when you steal beauty from other people.

While I have major issues with the particular way she applied the use of “found objects,” over time I’ve become a practitioner myself. There’s some real value in one artist building on another’s ideas. I’m not talking about plagiarizing or stealing your competitors’ ideas; in fact, the best companies and the most creative sorts ignore their competitors completely. Instead, I suggest stealing from other arenas. Let me explain the principle and follow with a well-known example.

An old mentor in my early days as a graphic designer told me not to read design magazines. Instead, read books or magazines about my interests. You will copy what you expose yourself to, and if all you see is other designers’ work, you’ll end up doing cheap imitations. His inspiration was manhole covers. He found ways to use the old European ironwork to inspire his work in paper, paint and wood. So, whatever your industry, don’t read the trade publications. Instead, expose yourself to the broader world around you.

In The Age of the Unthinkable, Joshua Ramo tells the story of Shigeru Miyamoto, who borrowed a chip from an automobile airbag to create the Wii. He “‘mashed up’ two seemingly unrelated things — an accelerometer and a video game — to create something new.” The Wii singlehandedly transformed the gaming industry, not just in a technological way but by changing the mindset of gaming. No longer was the world divided cleanly into gamers — overwhelmingly male, couch-potato types — and nongamers. Now some of the fastest-growing markets were female and elderly. Wii Fit ridiculously turned all of the stereotypes on their heads.

Mashups capture a sense of creativity that passes established borders, that combines a sort of deep, curious yearning… with a hands-on, practical tinkerer’s spirit. But when these two are wedded, innovation becomes inevitable.

Mashups can be game changers, but it takes a visionary to find the usefulness of one industry to transform another. Leaders don’t imitate. Whatever problem you’re facing, perhaps you need to lift your eyes. Look outside your industry to see how you might apply someone else’s solution to your own problem.

How women lead

Without wading into the politics of it, I want to ask a simple question: does anyone else think Elena Kagan would make a better executive than a judiciary? Everything I’m hearing about her qualifications is focused on her leadership abilities rather than her ability to be fair and unprejudiced.

I found this recent Harvard Business Review blog that uses Kagan’s nomination as a springboard to make some excellent points about the challenges and obstacles to women taking leadership roles. Emily Harburg reinforces my suggestion about Kagan’s abilities, along the way making some very important and nuanced observations about the leadership strengths women bring to executive positions. She does a good job of articulating some of the issues friends of mine have struggled with. These are issues that organizations like Wycliffe need to pay attention to.

Harburg also points out the unique characteristics women bring to leadership. Women are ideally suited for leadership in today’s collaborative environment. Many are good at “transformational leadership,” a style that empowers, mentors and inspires their followers. I’m grateful for some of the amazing women God has placed on the Wycliffe USA board, and it’s been my privilege to work with two of them closely over the last year and see the way they lead. I read somewhere recently that some studies in Europe show that companies are more successful with women in key positions of leadership, including the board. I agree: we need women in leadership!

I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially those from my female readers.