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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A Renaissance Man

[re-posted from my ministry blog, teameyre.wordpress.com]

Thomas Jefferson is a fascinating character to me. I used to swallow everything he did wholesale: his beliefs about freedom, life and liberty, his inventive mind and his bent toward states’ rights. He was quite a Renaissance Man. When Becky and I went to the diplomatic reception rooms in the State Department last week, I didn’t expect to find my mind drawn to Thomas Jefferson in particular.

Thomas Jefferson painting at the State DepartmentThis image is interesting to me because, in an era of puffy-cheeked portraits, Jefferson looks a little gaunt. While George Washington took his dentures out for photos, requiring that the artist fill the cheeks back out again with cotton balls, Jefferson seems to have his own teeth. The artist also seems to have wanted to draw a connection between Jefferson and the ancient Greeks, perhaps suggesting esteem for a man he clearly put in the same category as Plato and Aristotle.

There’s also a Da Vinci feel to it, a connection I agree with. Jefferson was absolutely brilliant. And tall. At 6′ 1″, he was a head above his colleagues. As a result, he suffered from a bad back. So he drew up plans for an adjustable-height desk. The double hinge on his creation is remarkable. I could use one of these myself.

Jefferson's adjustable-height deskSo here’s a man whose day job is President, yet he can’t contain the ideas popping into his head regarding botany, architecture (the Jefferson memorial, for instance) and furniture design. As a leader whose primary strength is ideation, I can definitely admire a man like that! On my last flight, I sketched out designs for an expandable round conference room table. Perhaps I can find time to put my weekend warrior skills to work and build a prototype.

Yet Jefferson had clear blind spots. Let me give you a few. In writing the Declaration of Independence, he borrowed heavily from the big three rights hailed by the French: life, liberty and land. He and his subcommittee wanted a clean break from the land-owning aristocracies of Europe, but I’m not sure “pursuit of happiness” resulted in any improvements in the resulting culture.

I also fault his viewpoint on God and the world he observed. He couldn’t get past his logical mind to conclude that there might be such thing as mystery. A few years ago I read an account of Lewis and Clark’s exploration and lost a lot of respect for Jefferson, because of his flat viewpoint of the fantastic discoveries they made. Everything had to be explained. The fact that he made his own edited version of the Bible to explain away or remove the miracles sums it up for me. Sure, he was a product of his times, but he epitomizes the dangers of belief in the supremacy of mankind — our creations and our brilliance.

Jefferson was a complicated man. In laying out the pursuit of happiness as an inalienable right, he showed a clear naive optimism in the goodness of man. And yet, in laying out a form of government, he and his colleagues demonstrated a clear understanding that greed and the raw pursuit of power would corrupt any government. Eschewing pure democracy as a form of evil, they instead set up a republic, built on the idea of checks and balances. I may not like some of the opinions expressed by our senators and representatives, and I might despise the extreme polarizing ugliness we’re seeing during the debt standoff, but as I sat in the gallery of the Senate chamber last week, I could see the brilliance built into our system that keeps egos and fringe elements in check. We can thank Jefferson for a lot of the thought that went into the U.S. government.

Romans 12 – vision and hope

Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying.

How does a leader maintain perspective in chaos and crisis? With everyone’s eyes on her, the leader has to keep her calm and her optimism. We expect it of our leaders. They are our barometer and our plumline. Leaders cannot panic, and they cannot show their despair. So what does she do if she fears the same things that panic her followers? She has a choice to either fake quiet confidence or find some bedrock of her own.

I want to suggest three ways to do that, inspired by Paul’s words above. I’ll cover the first one here and follow with the others. The most important thing is that a leader has to know where to find hope for herself. David penned Psalm 121 for pilgrims climbing the long, steep, dry mountainous road toward Jerusalem. He recognizes that his hope doesn’t come from the strength of mountains or the literal and figurative strength of the city Jerusalem.

I lift up my eyes to the hills—
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the LORD,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will not slumber…

“Our confident hope” means that the leader takes confidence in nothing but the faithfulness of God and the work of Christ. God is the one who doesn’t change, the great Creator who never sleeps. Christ is the one who took the foolish things of this world and appointed them over the wise. There’s no reason any of us should be leaders except for the fact that Jesus redeemed us from our brokenness and gave us hope.

Starting from that point means a leader can strengthen her inner core, find confidence and even rejoice in spite of chaos and crisis around her. Circumstances don’t sway someone who has a strong foundation. And setbacks don’t derail someone with a strong vision that goes beyond their organization or even their tenure in office. And a leader who doesn’t lose hope inspires those whose eyes are watching her.

Moses was one of those kinds of leaders. His foundation was firmly set on a personal relationship with God and his eyes fixed on the vision of “a land flowing with milk and honey.” Over and over, Moses’ response to adversity was to go to God for help. He spent hours with God and was transformed by the experience. He dumped his complaints before God and urged Him to defend His name. In return, God was his avenger, speaking on his behalf and even striking down some who publicly spoke against him. Moses’ help came from the Maker of heaven and earth.

I’ve just finished reading Leading With a Limp, by Dan Allender. He says hope comes most out of situations of despair and disillusionment, when a leader’s optimism and idealism “suffer a mortal injury.” When the leader realizes that she can’t do everything or that she can’t solve this one problem, she hits the wall and her own limitations become clear. That’s where the God whose “strength is made perfect in weakness” can do His best work. God alone is our hope, and we realize it most when all of our other idols are exposed. That’s the best position to lead from.

As my friend Paul Edwards said once, “We gaze at Christ and glance at the waves around us.”

Clarification: What’s a young leader?

I appreciate Russ’s comment that there are established leaders who feel the same way. So this is a good time to clarify what I mean by “young.” I need to come up with a term, as Bob Webber did with “younger evangelical,” to use every time I’m referring to a certain kind of leader.

My definition of young comes from Douglas MacArthur:

You are as young as your optimism and as old as your fears.

Speaking as one who is more “ger” than “young,” I admit that many of my observations are of people younger than me, but I aspire to be a “young leader.”

Any of you have a better term for me to use? I’m open to suggestions.