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In his brilliant new book, The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson chronicles Winston Churchill’s first year as Prime Minister of England, and details a fascinating account of how Churchill’s approach to deputies determined the course of World War II. In short, Churchill sought out a strong-willed man he knew would disagree with him. And that choice — to seek out an honest “no” versus a false “yes” — made all the difference in the war, and provides valuable insight to leaders about the value of truth telling. A culture of open and honest dissent will take you much farther than one where people are disincentivized to speak up.
Churchill came to office in May of 1940 at the darkest hour for the kingdom, with the Germans poised to launch short-range bombers from France and Belgium to pummel the defenseless Brits. Churchill knew that aircraft production was paramount to Britain’s survival. He could have found any number of people from the aircraft industry within the defense ministry to oversee it’s rebuilding. But he knew the system was mired in bureaucracy, and that he could be an intimidating force.
So rather than find someone who might unwittingly agree with him too much, Churchill took the opposite approach: He looked for a pugnacious, disputatious critic outside the conventional channels. On his very first day in office, he created a brand new cabinet position — the Ministry of Aircraft Production — and chose Max Aitken, aka Lord Beaverbrook, to run it.
Beaverbrook had no experience in aircraft production. But he had experience in running a business and Churchill knew he’d be a gadfly, a contrarian or worse — which is exactly what he wanted!
Beaverbrook, in turn, surrounded himself with equally unconventional deputies. He chose industry leaders who also lacked aircraft manufacturing expertise. But he intentionally chose strong-willed people he knew would disagree with both the enmeshed bureaucracy and himself. In short order, Beaverbrook was able to quickly replenish the British Air Force while the Germans decided to forego a full scale attack. That delay helped the Allies win the war.
You need honest answers about what ails you
As this story demonstrates, critics are invaluable — whether you’re leading a country, running a business, or simply trying to get ahead in your career. Consider this: Without a forthright diagnosis from your doctor or the proper screening for diseases that can fly under the radar, how do you figure out what’s making you sick, and how to treat it in time? The most dangerous diseases, like advanced colon cancer, have a low survival rate — not necessarily because they’re inherently more dangerous than other cancerous tumors, but because without proper screening, they often go undetected. So by the time the cancer is detected, it’s already metastasized.
This medical metaphor can be applied to other areas of our lives, too. When those in our professional and personal circles withhold honest feedback, we have no clear insight into what’s ailing us. In many cases, if we focus on curing that ailment, we can have a miraculous recovery. But without our attention, a flaw can easily “metastasize” into career mediocrity or worse — perpetual underemployment, underachievement, or full-on unemployment.
Over 80 years ago, in January 1939, Churchill told the New Statesman: “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body; it calls attention to the development of an unhealthy state of things. If it is heeded in time, danger may be averted; if it is suppressed, a fatal distemper may develop.”
My book Don’t Take Yes for an Answer (Harper Business 2020) speaks to the professional perils of living in a YES echo chamber. If you joined the workforce any time within the last thirty years, you have probably rarely gotten the criticism you need, and you have likely grown accustomed to getting more praise than you deserve. Too often mixed messaging or flat-out omissions have replaced direct dialogue and tough conversations in the workplace and in nearly every space we inhabit. We got here because society decided that it was more helpful and motivating to highlight people’s strengths than to illuminate their failings or flaws — that hearing “yes” in any form was more beneficial to an honest “no.” That philosophy assumes that people were too weak to hear the truth. But we’re not as soft as proponents of the self-esteem movement would like to think we are. We’re resilient! We can handle the truth.
To build a culture of resilience, encourage truth-telling
And as Churchill demonstrated, the truth — even if it’s a bitter pill to swallow — makes all the difference. Churchill’s truth-telling didn’t just exist within his government. His honest and often somber oratory was credited with keeping the British spirits high during the relentless air raids they suffered in this first year in office. As Larson recounts in his book, one traveling salesman noted in his diary at the height of the bombing: “The spirit of the people seems to be moving from passive to active and rather than cower in shelters they prefer to be up and doing. Incendiaries seem to be tackled as though they were fireworks and tackling fires in top rooms with stirrup pumps is just part of the evening’s work. One leader was telling me his chief trouble is to prevent people taking risks. Everyone wants to ‘bag a bomb.’”
When someone credited Churchill with giving the British people courage, he demurred, saying, “I never gave them courage, I was able to focus theirs.”
Over 44,000 Brits (29,000 in London alone) were killed and more than double that injured in the first nine months of Churchill’s tenure. But their spirit was never broken. Philharmonic concerts played during the day, while people sheltered at night. Life went on with some degree of normalcy because Churchill correctly assessed that people could handle the truth. They harnessed his brutal honesty and belief in them into the necessary courage to endure. You can harness that same spirit of truth-telling in your life and work, too.