What happens when leaders must communicate facts that are hard to take? Nitin Nohria reflects on Winston Churchill’s devastating defeat at Gallipoli, which resulted in over 100,000 Allied casualties during World War I.
“The campaign was a total fiasco for British military leadership,” he notes. “When it was over, Churchill took complete responsibility. A setback like that could have been paralyzing, but he was able to move forward to lead his country to victory in World War II.”
Nohria says the lesson is that Churchill and other great leaders are pragmatists who can deal with difficult realities but still have the optimism and courage to act. “Enduring setbacks while maintaining the ability to show others the way to go forward is a true test of leadership,” he asserts.
Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com, has said that one of the key elements of being a good business leader is the capacity to tell the hard truths. “Leaders struggle with this problem all the time,” says David Thomas.
“From a leadership point of view, you always want to move toward telling the hard truths and helping people cope with the realities of change. But as a manager, you might be more inclined to minimise the complexity of a situation so things can run smoothly for as long as possible. It’s often a judgment call.”