How do you lead yourself, family, team, and/or organization in a time of crisis or adversity?  It’s been said that true leadership is tested in difficult times.  In support of the same notion, an African Proverb states, “Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors.”  Like most people in this difficult and uncertain time, I’ve become more curious about those leaders who’ve demonstrated great leadership through tremendous adversities.   What was it about these leaders and what did they do that was significantly different?

Winston Churchill
By no means was Churchill a flawless leader, in fact, some historians report him to be “fundamentally flawed.”  A quarter of a century before becoming Britain’s prime minister and boldly leading his country in World War II, he had suffered a tragic defeat at Gallipoli due to incompetency and hesitation by his military commanders.   Subsequently, he became quite depressed but channeled this depression through painting as a coping mechanism.

Fate would have it that he would have another opportunity to demonstrate great leadership during World War II.  When Churchill took over as the prime minister, Britain had military and domestic crises.  Britain and the western world were facing a growing threat from Hitler’s Nazi Germany.  Churchill had inherited a crisis and yet his initial warnings about Hitler’s menace fell on deaf ears.  Bold, brave, and tireless in his resolve to take on the might of Nazi Germany, he inspired a nervous and hesitant Britain through his sheer energy and force of personality to defy stark odds and provide extraordinary leadership.  Regardless of his huge mistakes in his long political life, at this crucial time he became the leader that his country and the world needed.  He was effective when it mattered the most, and the entire world’s history would have been different if he hadn’t come to power in Britain in 1940.  What were some of the qualities that made him successful?

Communication:  In his communication, he was open, honest, and realistic. These qualities earned him the respect of his cabinet members and trust of his people.  Churchill’s speeches and broadcasts carried a message of determination and defiance around the globe.

Defiance: It’s his boldness, courage, tirelessness, and resolve to challenge the mighty Germany that inspired and influenced his countrymen to never give up.  Churchill’s declarations such as “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat,” and, “….. we shall never surrender,” exhibited his commitment to the mission.  These declarations provided strength and hope to the British that made them believe their leader was fighting alongside them.

Experience: His previous flaws in wartime leadership were a preparation for the moment as he now emerged as one of the best leaders in history.  He was patriotic, action oriented, a student who learned from his previous mistakes, a historian, and war veteran with great energy and high levels of concentration.  All the faculties he possessed were harnessed in preparation for a crisis.


Martin Luther King
Martin Luther King had no ambition to become the leader of a movement.  When Rosa Parks was arrested, King was young and he imagined he would become a professor.  The boycott that followed Rosa Parks arrest was not King’s idea.  In actual fact, when he was informed about the plan, he did not immediately endorse it.  After some reflection, though, he offered a room in the basement of his church for the organizers to meet.  By the end of the meeting, he had been elected the group’s leader.   In this case, the Movement was active and ready – it needed a true transformational leader.

To elaborate on Martin Luther King’s leadership paradigm, especially in times of crisis, let’s refer to one of his quotes, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.  For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.  And you never be what you ought to be until I’m what I ought to be.”  In this sentiment, we can trace the premise of his leadership style:

  • Collaboration
  • Connectedness
  • Mutuality
  • Interdependence
  • Progress

From these approaches, we can surmise that an effective leader encourages teams, organizations, or even families to support each other and find mutually beneficial solutions in times of adversity.

Mission: Because King’s mission was meaningful, noble, and tangible it made it easier for others to rally around and support.  As a leader, you can inspire others to follow when they have a clear understanding of the purpose and stakes involved in your mission.

Both Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King functioned in precarious times, and much more was at risk if radical measures were not engaged.  Feeble leadership was not an option.  Typically, these types of unprecedented adversities are infrequent, but the transformation that is achieved as result of the crisis is usually leads to creativity and innovation.  Crises tend to significantly disrupt our lives and paradigms, almost forcing us to embrace and quickly adapt to the inevitable change.  Great leaders anticipate these crises within systems, step in to make a difference through their leadership, and drive positive advancement.


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