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Leadership In the Time of Plague:

Learning from Winston Churchill

By Shlomo Maital

Destruction During the 1940 London Blitz

Erik Larson. The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz. Crown, 2020. 546 pages.

 In days of crisis, people everywhere look to leadership. Many of our leaders have alas fallen short. Perhaps they each should read Erik Larson’s new book, The Splendid and the Vile, about the leadership of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, during the terrifying days of the blitz, when the German Luftwaffe bombed London daily, for 57 days and nights, including a huge daylight raid on Sept. 15, 1940.

   The damage was enormous.   Historians note: “More than 40,000 civilians were killed by Luftwaffe bombing during the war, almost half of them in the capital [London], where more than a million houses were destroyed or damaged. A million houses!

   What did Churchill do to show leadership?

     (Luftwaffe head Hermann Goring was ordered by Hitler to begin bombing London, on Sept. 6/7. The goal was to terrify London citizens and draw the sparse Royal Air Force into a battle, where, outnumbered, RAF plans would be destroyed, leaving Britain open for invasion).

     First, he was there. He regularly went out to sites that had been bombed, spoke to those who had lost their homes, and showed empathy.

     Second, he condensed his message to two simple qualities; Truth. Defiance. Truth, to recognize the desperate situation. He told the people the truth – how the RAF was far outnumbered. Defiance, to spark the British people’s morale and fighting spirit. Churchill regularly watched the bombing at night from the roof of 10 Downing St., exposed and unafraid.

     Churchill understood his people. British anti-aircraft guns were silent in early September, because the nighttime raids meant you could not see the Nazi bombers. No point in wasting ammunition. But Churchill understood – he ordered the anti-aircraft guns to fire anyway – and the Londoners cheered and were cheered and buoyed.

       Enemy bombers are a different enemy than a silent killer virus. But leadership remains similar. Truth. Defiance. Tell the truth – something some leaders fail to do, such as the criminal behavior of the President of Brazil. Defiance — Fierce determination to defeat the virus, by telling people what to do and how to do it, even if it means sacrifice. The WHO made an enormous error in the early stages, saying that wearing masks was not needed. This turns out to be wrong – Researchers show that even home-made cloth masks (of the kind my wife zapped together in no time, with a handkerchief and two elastic bands) can do a lot of good, protecting others from infection from those who are asymptomatic. [Great Leader Trump refuses to wear a mask, seeing it as a sign of weakness… I wonder, would Churchill have worn a mask, had he led Britain today?].






 What We Learn from Claudio Abbado

By Shlomo  Maital  


Claudio Abbado

   The great Italian conductor Claudio Abbado died on Monday, age 80.  He passed away at his home in Bologna, Italy.  He had been ill for years.

    We can learn a great deal from this fine man.  Star orchestra conductors often have egos the size of Texas and personalities that combine General Patton and Genghis Khan.  Not Abbado. 

     Abbado used to say,  “Many bad things in the world could be avoided if only people would listen to each other.”  He told this to his musicians:  Listen to each other.  Play as you like, he told them,  clashing violently with the Herbert von Karajan ‘my-way-or-highway’ approach; don’t just wait for me. 

    This combination of respect, empowerment, respect for his musicians, and teaching them respect for one another,  led to crisp, brilliant, lyrical performances.  He broke the rule that great orchestras, like the Berlin Philharmonic, are utterly disciplined, like elite army units.  He got the best out of his orchestras, like La Scala, by getting his musicians to like and respect him, and motivating them to work hard to make extraordinarily beautiful music.    This is true leadership.

     Abbado was an innovator. He encouraged avant garde music.  He performed Manzoni’s “Atomtod”, at the Salzburg Festival – entirely in the dark!

      He once explained his awkwardness in taking curtain calls, citing a conductor, Knappertsbusch, who refused curtain calls entirely.   Abbado said,  “it still embarrasses me to take bows. I’m not a showman.”   In an age when famed conductors are primarily showmen,  Abbado was rare.  He broke the rules. We can learn much from his leadership style.


Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital