When my editor asked me for a list of books that entrepreneurs should read during a pandemic, I admit I was at a bit of a loss. You see, it's not enough for a book to provide food for thought in difficult times; you also want a book that provides some escape from the day-to-day coping with those difficult times.
Unfortunately, most business books--even business "thrillers" like Bad Blood--seem hopeless irrelvant. And a book about how great CEOs dealt with, say, "disruptive innovation," well..., those books were--let's be honest here--always a bit of snooze even back when they meant something.
Fortunately, there is one recently-published book that truly rises to the occasion: The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson -- an entirely gripping, deeply-human, description of the private lives of Winston Churchill and his family during the first year of of World War II, also known as the Blitzkreig.
The Splendid and the Vile retells, from a personal perspective, the inspiring true story of how Churchill led Great Britain in the face of a truly existential threat. It provides a perspective on today, too, because World War II actually did result in the equivalent of 183 million people today, which is roughly the highest estimate of potential worldwide deaths from the coronavirus.
The Splendid and the Vile is more than that, though. By describing how Churchill handled the challenge of putting Britain on a war-time footing, Larson reveals four of Churchill's techniques for managing an organization in the midst of a crisis when everyone is justifiably frightened for their lives.
Here's what Churchill did:
1. He empowered "czars" to trample the silos.
Churchill immediately recognized that the British government was structured to take advantage of a far-flung empire. It was not structured to move quickly, adapt to threats, and to prepare for a likely invasion.
Rather than trying to work within the system (pointless) or restructure the system (time-consuming), Churchill appointed people who had a history of running roughshod over people to get things done.
This strategy literally saved Great Britain, because one of these "czars" commandeered Britain's aircraft manufacturing and supply chains to build the fighter planes that won the Battle of Britain.
2. He intervened personally to force prioritization.
A crisis tends to make it difficult for people to prioritize. To cut through this tendency, Churchill made it clear that directives from his own office had to be obeyed immediately. Larson writes:
"Churchill began adding red adhesive labels exhorting 'ACTION THIS DAY' to any minute or directive requiring an immediate response. These labels, wrote secretary Martin, 'were treated with respect: it was known that such demands from the summit could not be ignored.'"
Please note that this was more than just marking something "high priority." Stating it was to be handled by the end of the day ensured that it wouldn't get bumped by other "proirities."
3. He defined and demanded brevity in communications.
Churchill knew that people in government and business (both of which were crucial to the war effort) tend to communicate in long documents because such documents are very easy to write.
Unfortunately, long documents are time-consuming to read and digest, so they essentially save the writer time and effort by pushing the time and effort onto everyone else. (I might add that PowerPoint presentations are even worse.) Churcill refused to tolerate this:
"[He] was particularly insistent that ministers compose memoranda with brevity and limit their length to one page or less. 'It is slothful not to compress your thoughts,' he said."
Notice that Churchill was very specific. He didn't give a vague instruction like "be brief." He locked it down to "one page or less." Today, he'd probably say "one screen or less," which is a good guideline for emails, regardless of when they're written.
4. He told the truth but offered hope.
Churchill never sugar-coated the news. He told people exactly what was going on--even when the news was bad--but then offered them the hope they need to "soldier on." Early on, for example, Churchill didn't pretend that England might not be invaded.
"Churchill set a pattern that he would follow throughout the war, offering a sober appraisal of facts, tempered with reason for optimism... [This] terrified some listeners, but Churchill's apparent candor--at least on the threat of invasion, if not the true state of the French army--encouraged others."
Today's pandemic crisis requires enterpreneurs to have that same level of candor when dealing with their employees, customers and investors. Stakeholders need to know what's really going on inside their company, even if it's bad news. But they also need a reason to hope. It's a difficult balance but, as Churchill showed, it is a balance that's possible to achieve.