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: under armor

In my last post, I named four strategies we can deploy as wartime leaders. There’s one more.

5. Wear the right clothing
When you heard “clothing,” many of you immediately jumped to Ephesians 6:10-20, which unpacks the armor of our warfare as believers, the outerwear believers are exhorted to put on before standing “against the schemes of the devil.”

The remarkable thing about that list of armor is that almost every piece can be used ineffectively. We’ve all seen Christians wildly swinging their swords and using Scripture in a way that causes “friendly fire.” We’ve seen people use truth as a hammer instead of a belt. Others put on the breastplate of self righteousness, hide behind their shields of faith or misunderstand their helmet of salvation. Confident in the fact that their own eternal salvation is secure, their helmet narrows their vision, makes them hard-headed or prevents them from asking if salvation has relevance to this life.

How can we Christians misuse our armor this way? Because we go out to war commando-style. We forget to put on our underwear.

Before we grab our armor, shield and sword, Paul recommends some additional clothing in Colossians, some traits that we should put on first. Think of these as the Under Armor of the believer (with apologies to the company, I think the idea translates pretty well).

I think Eugene Peterson’s rendering captures the essence of these verses:

So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it. (‭Colossians‬ ‭3‬:‭12-14‬)

Be honest: we think of compassion, humility and love as “soft skills” for peaceful, “kumbaya” community. This list of clothing doesn’t read like preparation for warfare, does it? So let’s look a little deeper. We’ll see that these characteristics have very real application to wartime leadership.

First, the Colossians list maximizes the effectiveness of each piece of armor. Look again at the list in Ephesians 6. The Bible is full of verses that pair “soft skills” with each piece of armor. A sampling:

  • Proverbs 21:21 pairs righteousness with kindness. He who pursues the two together will find life and honour in addition to righteousness.
  • Psalm 45:4 matches truth with meekness and righteousness. A victorious king puts on his armour and sword, and defends the causes of truth, meekness/humility and righteousness.
  • In Ephesians 4:15, Paul pairs truth with love within the context of growing up.
  • In Philippians 2:12, Paul speaks of the process of learning to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Other translations use words like reverence, awe, humility and sensitivity.
  • In 2 Timothy 2:15 Paul urges his protege to become an approved worker, “rightly handling the word of truth.” The context is maturity, hard work and discipline, drawing from the metaphors of a soldier, an athlete and a farmer.

Second, the traits in Colossians provide incredible defensive protection on their own merits. Knights knew the best way to prepare for flaming arrows was to cover their shields with dampened hides before they went to war. That’s the image Paul had in mind when he said faith is a shield that can extinguish the flaming arrows of the evil one (Eph 6:16). Character traits like compassion, humility, gentleness and patience are equally effective at dousing the flames of accusation, violence and rage. As Solomon pointed out, “A soft answer turns away wrath” (Prov 15:1).

There’s another application. Many of the attacks on the believer come from within and behind. Our own spirits are waging war within us (Gal 5:17; Rom 7:15-8:11). Unity and community are constantly breaking down. The clothing in Colossians 3 is our best response to the everyday situations of tension, misunderstanding, abrasive personalities, false motivations, jealousy and narcissism. Leaders in particular are vulnerable, because a large part of leadership is dealing with personnel and personality issues.

Third, the Colossians characteristics prove to be our most effective offensive weapons. In my last post, I mentioned the immense power in forgiveness to disarm our most fervent attackers. Proverbs 25:21-22 associates kindness and compassion with an image of surprising violence: feeding a hungry enemy is like heaping burning coals on his head. In Romans 12:19-20, Paul picks up that image and sets it in the context of forgiveness and allowing God to mete out vengeance and wrath. “‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” Rather, our job as sons and daughters of God is to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matt 5:44-46).

Bottom line: our flesh wants to fight back in kind, but we cannot win God’s victories without using God’s weaponry and methodology. It’s counter-intuitive, and it’s counter-cultural. In Jesus’ upside-down kingdom, meekness trumps power, humility can defeat hostility and death can equal victory. Recently, as I read A Wind in the House of Islam, I noted what the research showed about movements to Christ. People are drawn to the Lord when other religions model violence. But people move just as quickly away from Christianity when Christians (or “Christian nations”) respond with violence. It’s only in responding with compassion, kindness, meekness, forgiveness and love that the kingdom of God expands. Those are the weapons of our warfare.