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Dunkirk and Leadership: Making Hard Decisions as a Leader

Updated: Sep 24, 2020

Facing nearly certain loss of the war, how did the allies help 400,000 people escape a potential massacre?

Some of Britain’s leaders were considering negotiating some sort of peace agreement with Hitler at the very moment Nazi forces were overcoming every barrier to overrunning continental Europe. The bet of a lifetime had been that the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) could combine with the great strength of the French army and successfully oppose the Germans.

Values in Action

Suddenly, fate moved Winston Churchill to replace Chamberlain as leader of the forces opposing Hitler. Churchill positioned Hitler as not only the enemy but as evil. The contrast in values with Chamberlain could not have been more clear. With Churchill there would be no negotiating, no equivocating, no backing away from the fight. As he saw it, free people everywhere depended upon the absolute defeat of evil, not accommodating it.

In a series of now-immortal speeches, Churchill conveyed his values to the British people. His “Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat” speech left no doubt in anyone’s mind how this fight had to end. The nation joined him to fight evil to the bitter end.

Leaders in all organizations understand the amazing power of values to move people to action. Sharing values that are meaningful to people can lead to actions that overcome the odds. Squashing behaviors of values that contradict the desired values is critical to sustaining the positive actions generated by the desired values.

People have to understand in very real terms what behaviors are expected and which ones will not be tolerated.

The Power of Belief

Leaders understand that whatever someone believes with great conviction becomes their reality. And that people act in accordance with their reality. This is how belief becomes action.

When British civilians learned of the need for every available boat to head to Dunkirk to help save the BEF (plus the French and Belgians), they responded heroically. They didn’t stop to count the cost, to fully assess the risk. They moved. They knew it was right, it was essential, it was something they could do to preserve good and fight evil. Their reality included the belief that they could and should take action – no matter the risk. Many paid for their belief with their lives. But Dunkirk became the greatest escape in history because ordinary people took action.

Leaders understand how to create and sustain beliefs that are essential for the success of the organization. They know that people will attempt to see if contradictory beliefs will be allowed. They stop these contradictory beliefs immediately, before they gain traction and can begin disabling the desired beliefs. They communicate the picture of why certain beliefs are critical and the clear outcomes those beliefs will generate.

Among many reasons Dunkirk was so amazing was that leadership arose from all directions: the political leaders; the Navy; the RAF; the besieged troops on the beach; and the ordinary citizens who risked their lives to save others. There are wonderful leadership stories that can inspire us forever – why not make a movie about them?

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