Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”
Churchill closed his address to the House of Commons with these bold words on June 18, 1940. If ever a country needed a “finest hour” it was then. During the previous April, while the Allies dithered, Germany invaded Denmark and Norway. A month later, the German blitzkrieg raged across Western Europe easily swallowing the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France. On May 10th, with the failed policies of Neville Chamberlain obvious to all, King George VI asked Churchill to form a new government. Though he had returned to public service for a second stint as First Lord of the Admiralty less than a year earlier, he assumed the mantle of leadership effortlessly and with inspirational confidence.
His first order of business was the rescue of 350,000 British troops stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk. In quick order, a vast flotilla of both military and private vessels evacuated the weary soldiers. Over the beaches, the RAF, foreshadowing their determination in an upcoming fight, bravely maintained air superiority in the face of a skilled and determined Luftwaffe. It was a finest hour, but of course, as Churchill acknowledged, there was more to come.
Four days before his speech to the House of Commons, Paris fell to the Germans and a dancing Hitler made plans for the French surrender. He was also making other plans. In a blitzkrieg-like effort code-named Sea Lion, the Germans expected to invade the British Isles later that summer. The land invasion would follow immediately after the Luftwaffe gained air superiority. That effort began on July 10th and would come to be known as the Battle of Britain. When it was over, the British had lost a thousand planes to the German’s 3,000 losses. The civilian population bore the brunt of the campaign—23,000 were dead and another 32,000 were wounded. But this was their finest hour and the British people emerged energized and determined to win. On September 17, Hitler abandoned Operation Sea Lion.
At some level, most folks believe that there will be a finest hour for every catastrophe. There’s an expectation that when the chips are down, everyone will somehow rise to the occasion and find a way of working things out—or at least they’ll bravely muddle through. It’s almost axiomatic that adversity brings out the best in us all and that it’s a trait we can count on without fail. Folks have come to believe this because it’s often the case.
But there’s no magic here. There’s no inner turbo-charger that takes our normal capabilities and somehow makes them better. Crisis simply forces us to make better use of the resources we already possess. So why wait? If you’re a leader, prepare your folks when things are calm and deal with your problems while they’re still small. Don’t surrender to indecisiveness and hope that your troops will cover for poor preparation on your part. Instead, make every hour your finest hour—you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish before the flood waters rise!