In the 1930s, sitting in his backbench seat in Parliament, Winston Churchill warned his colleagues that a darkness was descending. Germany was rearming and becoming dangerous. The need for leadership was crucial. Such discernment had been ingrained in Churchill from his youth. As a student, he had memorized these lines from Milliken’s “Death and His Brother Sleep”—
“Who is in charge of the clattering train?
The axles creak and the couplings strain;
And the pace is hot, and the points are near,
And sleep has deadened the driver’s ear;
And the signals flash through the night in vain,
For death is in charge of the clattering train”
The poem must have haunted Churchill. Now a political leader, he saw an eroding empire that had fallen asleep, a clattering train with no one at the controls. Meanwhile, the threat of a ferocious onslaught was at hand. Others saw it differently, viewing Churchill as an “alarmist distraction.” In the minds of his colleagues, other threats dominated the times. They preferred to deal with the lesser issues.
For Churchill, this was anything but leadership. In his book, The Gathering Storm, he wrote, “Statesmen are not called upon only to settle easy questions. It’s where the balance quivers and the proportions are veiled in mist, that the opportunity for world-saving decisions presents itself.” It’s what made him so defiant during the blitz.
The language strikes me as odd. What is he saying? At the same time, as with Milliken’s poem, I find them mesmerizing. They draw me in. When one signs up to lead, Churchill is telling us that a leader’s great strength is perspective. One will face moments when one must balance one set of truths with another. On one side of the scale are costs; on the other are benefits. In the middle, they quiver, shake and tremble. Choices shift with the moments, and at each juncture, a leader must weigh them out and decide.
For a war-weary Europe, there were enormous costs to confronting Hitler. It would be WWI all over again. But then, on balance, Churchill could also see the benefits. As it turned out, refusing to confront Hitler emboldened him to become even more aggressive, leading to a second world war that inflicted death and trauma on millions. We now know that had Hitler been met head-on at the Rhine, his generals would have backed down and Hitler and his movement would have collapsed.
Unfortunately, high-level choices are rarely clear. The proportions are veiled in mist. It’s another way of saying that the outcomes are not so evident. Leaders face decisions with endpoints that are often shrouded in fog. But these are the moments that those who truly lead step up. They move into the fog and risk. They realize that waiting for absolute clarity often misses the opportunity. One is reminded of the Marines and their 70% rule: Decisive action based on 70% information is better than a slow decision based on complete information. Slow decisions that wait for the mist to clear often reflect opportunities that are missed.
Reflecting on my years as a pastor, I think of moments in the life of the church when the balance quivered, and the proportions were veiled in mist. I had to wrestle with benefits and costs, with endpoints that were too vague to stand as promises. Do we add another service and generate growth at the expense of losing community? Am I willing to upset the status quo and the comfortability of congregants with change that will be anything but placid? Do we build a new sanctuary and risk going into serious debt? Do I preach this, believing it represents the heart of God, yet knowing it might lead to congregational division and loss? Do I release this person from staff responsibilities, knowing it will create a firestorm, yet open the door to new possibilities for ministry?
It is in the great decisions—ones whose consequences are often shrouded in mystery—that leaders potentially “save the world.” Like Churchill, they are unafraid of delivering the hard truths. They exercise the necessary tactical skills and strategic vision. Could it be this is the inspiring, long-range leadership we lack?