When life gets tough it’s easy to feel like giving up. That was true for so many during the long and painful Great War of 1914-18. Like every war, some soldiers got wounded and could no longer fight, and a few found it all too much and deserted. But most kept going. They persevered, encouraged by friends, family and those around them. Leaders in particular, at home and on the front-line, played a crucial role encouraging everyone to keep going, needing themselves to display a robustness and resilience so that the war could be won. This grit-like quality was evident in so many in our nation one hundred years ago, and it’s a quality that many of us could do with rediscovering today.
Angela Lee Duckworth’s excellently researched book entitled Grit, published in 2016 is all about this quality of resilience. It’s subtitled ‘The Power of Passion and Perseverance.’ She shows how there are always forces at work, both real and perceived, that encourage us to give up, but most of the time there’s great benefit in persevering. Grit is a quality that my maternal grandfather had and it helped him as entered the trenches serving King and country during the final two years of the First World War, once he’d come of age. I remember Grandpa well as he went on to live to a good age but he rarely talked about life in the trenches. I suspect he wanted to forget all about it. But once he did tell me something that I’ll never forget. He was at our house one day and we were having a snack of baked beans on toast and I noticed that he didn’t eat the beans. When I asked why he told me that during his final year in the trenches, food supplies ran low, all except for baked beans. So for almost a year they ate little else but baked beans. When he came home he vowed that he’d never eat a baked bean again – and he never did!
The First World War brought many trials to many people. And yet the British people keep going. In fact the war seemed to grow resilience in people. British industry became centred around the war-effort aid by hard-working factory workers, many of whom were women. Week after week, people worked long hours. Soldiers served for long spells at the front. Everyone needed much encouragement, and the key people to give it were leaders. Military leaders. Political leaders. Leaders of industry and commerce. Leaders in the church, both nationally and locally. And whilst they did this imperfectly, many did it well. They rallied the troops, and did their best to raise morale at home. This was no easy thing when the death toll was so high and rising day by day.
One hundred years ago, as today, leaders were fallible and made mistakes. Leadership decisions and motives were sometimes misunderstood. Leaders were targetted for blame and criticism. After the war was won, much of this was forgotten, but during the war, and especially on difficult days, being a leader in the First World War was not easy. This is all the more so in today’s connected, digital world, where news (whether real, partially real or fake) spreads across the world in seconds. As such, the pressure on leaders and the need for resilient leadership is perhaps greater today than ever. That’s why leaders would do well to embrace the biblical wisdom of James 1:12 which says: ‘Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial.’ Correspondingly, leaders need as much support as we can give them, which is why the Bible is right when (in Hebrews 13:17) people are urged to make the work of leaders ‘a joy not a burden.’
For all these reasons and more, a key leadership lesson from Armistice 100 is that war requires, and produces resilient people and resilient leaders. And today’s world is no different. We need people and leaders with a thick skin (to persevere under trial) and, I would add, a soft heart (to preserve from bitterness).
If you’re a leader, have you been tempted to give up recently when you know you need to keep going? In what areas do you need to develop resilience?