It was January 1939, and Winston Churchill was perhaps the most hated man in all of Britain.
After almost five years of speaking against the growing threat of the Nazi German regime, his grave concerns about their treatment of the Jewish people, their desires for war and domination of Europe and consequently the need for England to re-arm quickly, both the Parliament and the British people were sick of Winston Churchill.
Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister, had just returned from Munich as a hero for successfully negotiating with Hitler the peaceful integration of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia into Germany.
Chamberlain’s actions in signing the Munich Agreement were trumpeted as ‘PEACE’ throughout the newspapers, and it was celebrated throughout the country as “Peace for our time!”
And yet, in the face of this, in front of a hostile Parliament House which barracked him loudly throughout his speech, Churchill stood up and gave one of the greatest speeches of his life:
“I will begin by saying what everybody would like to ignore or forget but which must nevertheless be stated, namely, that we have suffered a total and unmitigated defeat…
The utmost my Right Honourable friend the Prime Minister has been able to secure by all his immense exertions, the utmost he has been able to gain has been that the German dictator, instead of snatching his victuals from the table, has been content to have them served to him course by course…
There can never be friendship between the British democracy and the Nazi power, that power which spurns Christian ethics, which cheers its onward course by barbarous paganism, which vaunts the spirit of aggression and conquest, which derives strength and perverted pleasure from persecution, and uses as we have seen, with pitiless brutality the threat of murderous force.”
Churchill was denounced as a warmonger, and with a general election looming, moves were made to remove him from the Conservative Party and deselect him from his seat, in the hope that he would not be re-elected.
As Andrew Roberts writes, in Walking With Destiny:
“Almost any other politician, faced with a revolt on such as scale in his constituency within a few months of a general election, would have made compromises or tones down his speeches to head off a potentially disastrous outcome.”
Instead, after a critical vote had been taken against Churchill for reselection in one of the branches, placing Churchill on the very precipice of being deselected, Churchill returned to the branch and defiantly said of his speech and stance against the Munich Agreement:
“I do not withdraw a single word.”
Churchill then went further to say:
“What is the use of Parliament if it is not the place where true statements can be brought before the people?
What is the use of sending Members to the House of Commons just to say popular things of the moment, and merely endeavour to give satisfaction to the Government Whips by cheering loudly every Ministerial platitude, and by walking through the Lobbies oblivious of the criticisms they hear?”
The Courage to Have Unpopular Opinions
It can often be difficult to be ourselves and to share what we really think and believe.
Because we are hard-wired to belong, we often can fear what other people think, and how they will perceive us. It can mean that we compromise who we are.
I know there have been times when I have held back sharing an opinion, or I have gone along with a particular course of action that I didn’t feel comfortable about due to a fear of how I would be perceived if I said anything.
The irony is, of course, that by trying to connect and belong more safely, it makes it more challenging to connect with other people authentically.
As a leader, your responsibility is not to be liked, but to do what you believe is the best thing for the benefit of your team and community.
This means that it’s critical to be an effective leader to have the courage to be oneself, and if required to hold and communicate what may be unpopular opinions.
While it might seem counter-intuitive, it’s precisely your ability to hold unpopular opinions that over the long term will build trust with your team and community.
It can be incredibly difficult, however, to have the courage to have unpopular opinions.
How did Churchill have the courage to have unpopular opinions?
Andrew Roberts, in Walking with Destiny, writes:
“By the dawn of 1939, Churchill had narrowed down the number of people – never very considerable – whose opinion he gave a damn about. This was a pre-requisite for continuing on his way in the face of so many who opposed him.
He cared more for the approval of the shades of his father and his friends, both alive and dead, than for what he had contemptuously described as ‘currents of opinion, however swift and violent they may be.’”
Brene Brown, in Dare to Lead, also recommends that a powerful way to have the courage to be ourselves is to get clear on whose opinions matter.
She recommends the following exercise to identify your ‘Square Squad’:
Get a one-inch by one-inch (2.5cm x 2.5cm) piece of paper and write down the names of the people whose opinion of you matter. It needs to be small because it forces you to edit.
The people on your list should be the people who love you not despite your vulnerability and imperfections, but because of them.
Whose opinions matter to you?
It pays to take the time to think and write down who opinions matter to you before finding yourself having any unpopular opinions.
Otherwise, it can be incredibly difficult to withstand as Churchill described them the “swift and violent currents of opinion” that can come down upon you.
It gives you greater confidence to live authentically as yourself.
In thinking through this exercise myself, I also found it incredibly helpful when identifying my ‘Square Squad’ for each individual to specify on which topics and areas of life, their opinion mattered.
Courage Pays Off in the Long Term
At dawn the next morning after standing behind his stance on the Munich Agreement and risking de-selection, Germany invaded the rump of Czechoslovakia.
After over five years of an outspoken stance against Nazi Germany, the tide of popular opinion against Churchill began to shift, so much so, that by May 1940, Churchill became Prime Minister of Britain.
Because of Churchill’s willingness to hold a deeply unpopular opinion for over five years, he was one of the only senior political figures in the entire of Britain who had opposed appeasement, and not been duped by the Nazi threat. It was this very fact that meant that the British people trusted Churchill to lead them through what would be the most difficult times in their entire history.
While Churchill throughout his life held unpopular opinions which, despite his immense talents had meant that up until 1940 he had been consistently passed over for Ministerial positions in the Cabinet, and the role of Prime Minister, it was ultimately his courage to be unapologetically himself and to stand up for what he believed in that enabled him to be one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century.
What do you need to be more courageous about?
Is there something in your life you need to be more courageous about?
Whose opinions actually matter to you? Who is in your ‘square squad’?