In the middle of a very dark winter for us all we could probably do with a bit of inspiration, a bit of light for Christmas. Recently I was reading about a couple of leaders from our country’s past, Nelson and Churchill, who were pretty good in the inspiration department.
Now, I’m a group analytic psychotherapist. That means I offer therapy via the medium of small groups. And group analysis stresses that if you want to get a job done then harness the power of the group. Not only will you get better results than by trying to go it alone but the group itself will become stronger, more mature and more independent. Nelson and Churchill knew all this instinctively without knowing anything about group analysis. But it’s something anyone can learn. Involvement can be inspirational.
‘We pull together’, wrote Nelson when describing how he ran his fleet. He had an unusual habit for the 1790s and early 1800s of consulting his officers frequently and sharing with them all his thinking. He was enormously caring of them too, demanding loyalty but repaying it generously, for example seeking promotion for them and tending to all kinds of practical needs years even after they had left his service. Remarkably, he was just the same with the lowliest of seamen on his ships. He told them he’d always be there for them and he was.
The breath of inspiration
The result was devastating victories in battle after battle. His men were drilled rigorously of course but they wanted to please him and to be like him and they fought like a finely engineered machine. The word ‘inspiration’ literally means ‘to breathe into’ and Nelson had the rarest of abilities – the capacity to breathe his personal heroism into hundreds of other people. You didn’t want to be an enemy force up against Nelson. When the battle of Trafalgar loomed, he knew weeks before that the larger combined French and Spanish fleet was going to lose. So did the enemy commander.
Nelson’s team approach, then – the group approach – got the best out of people and they loved him for it. Listen to this, written in Italy by Nelson’s barge crew when he was about to return to England:
‘My Lord, it is with extreme grief that we find you are about to leave us. We have been with you (though not in the same ship) in every engagement your Lordship has been in … and most humbly beg of your Lordship to permit us to go to England as your boat’s crew, in any ship or vessel, or in any way that may seem pleasing to your Lordship.’
Winston Churchill didn’t just get fleets to work together; he used his team skills to inspire and galvanize an entire nation. You only have to look at the famous contemporary cartoon by Low to see that. A vast crowd of people rolling their sleeves up with Churchill at their head and a caption that reads, ‘All behind you, Winston’.
Consultation and kindness
Churchill inspired people, no matter how bad the situation was, with his courage, optimism, humour and determination. Brilliant oratory through radio broadcasts was part of it and so, again, was consultation. Leaders of councils, committees and boards reported directly to him on his Chiefs of Staff committee. He constantly visited military posts and installations boosting morale and questioning and supporting commanders.
He could show kindness to very junior colleagues, including his typists. Yes, sometimes he could be a bear with a sore head but afterwards he’d say, ‘Don’t mind me. It’s not you. It’s the war’. And the warmth generated could be physical. On one occasion he found two typists working in a cold room. ‘Oh, you poor things’, he exclaimed. ‘It’s just as well I came in. He proceeded to light a fire for them, piling logs on himself.
As with Nelson, the effect was that Churchill got people to give their all and to excel in their tasks.
Nelson and Churchill each played a major role in saving Britain from invasion. They were born 116 years apart. On that timescale the next truly great inspirational British leader was due to come along in 1990. So we’re waiting for this thirty-year-old to reveal her or himself. And help us pull together.
In the meantime perhaps, in the Covid gloom, we can remember the hope expressed in a famous passage associated with the festive season and which has inspired many generations: ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it’.
I wish you a peaceful Christmas.
© Brian Shand 2020
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