Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Churchill, the energy crisis, and inspiring action. What a day!

Three things happened to me yesterday that made me think about great leaders. Or more specifically, what it takes to inspire action when it’s needed.

Firstly I found myself sitting in the sunshine next to London’s Churchill Museum and the Cabinet War Rooms. I’ve never visited and couldn’t yesterday because I was too late. With half an hour to spare I simply watched the world go about its business. Tourists, civil servants taking a quick smoking-break and security guards watching over H M Treasury are an eclectic lot. But it was Churchill’s achievements that occupied my mind: how he galvanised not just the government and the military, but the whole country into doing what was necessary to win the war.

Musings on Churchill were not reducing CO2 emissions, however, which was the focus of the debate I was due to attend across the road at the Institute of Mechanical Engineers.

Livewire Isabel Dedring from the Mayor’s office kicked off the evening stressing the importance of reducing emissions, and the leading role that London sees itself playing. She went through the variety of initiatives that were needed from managing waste, insulating homes and making City Hall more environmentally acceptable. Despite massive political will from this clearly capable lady and her boss, progress appears to be agonisingly slow. The difficulty of convincing people to make the simplest changes like insulating their lofts, even though grants are available and it will save them money, is indicative of how big a mountain there is to climb. But Boris with his electric car, and Isabel with her brains, are clearly a team to watch.

My evening ended with Churchill, though. Driving home I was listening to Dr Peter Sandman talking about panic and the swine flu pandemic. He talked about how leaders often get it wrong when trying to avert panic. Denying the problem, or pacifying people can create panic instead of action.

He also talked about Churchill and how he got the tone just right. He did not say: “don’t worry – its all going to be fine – I’ve got it under control.” Whilst that might have averted panic it would certainly not have inspired action. What he did was send out a message of deep concern. He managed to convey the severity of the situation whilst inspiring confidence in this plans. He also made it clear that everyone’s efforts would be needed.

The UK is putting some of their best scientific, engineering and political brains to work on the problems of CO2 emissions and global warming, yet many of us routinely leave lights on and don’t think about our energy usage.

What struck me was that the principals of inspiring action are common: whether you are trying to win a war, lower CO2 emissions, survive the recession, change a business’s strategy, or inspire a project team. The difficulty is that they are not that prevalent.


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