A femal healthcare professional holding a banner that reads "Together we do it."

Winston Churchill had three directives, which were essentially leadership lessons for his team during some of the most horrific events of the early parts of World War II. They are mentioned in an NPR interview with Eric Larson about his book, The Splendid and the Vile. Churchill’s three lessons grabbed my attention, in part because of their relevance to the work I’m doing now with teams and leaders, and also as a reflection on how to live and respond in these strange, unpredictable, and challenging times.

The 3 lessons are:

1. Don’t sugar coat. People are dying in cities and countries, around the world. Often people are dying alone, without the usual care and closeness that we might hope for around death. We don’t know how this pandemic will unfold. We don’t know how long we will be “social distancing.” Some estimates are between two and eight months. 

The economy is upside down, with millions of people out of work and a worldwide recession unfolding. I could go on, but you get the picture. Things are bad. Let’s not pretend they aren’t.

2. Practice cautious optimism. There are many reasons to be hopeful. There are ways that people are opening, slowing down, going deeper within, and taking care of each other. There are the daily heroic acts of health care workers, the people keeping the food and energy supplies going, and on and on, with many people risking their lives to serve. We humans are amazingly resilient.

We will make it through this time, and hopefully learn some important and valuable lessons. Maybe there will be some positive changes at many different levels – in our health care systems, in reducing inequality, and in engaging with solutions for climate change.

3. Engage with purpose and meaning. We are all in this together. This virus is the great leveler. Difficult, painful situations have a way of focusing the mind and the heart on what really matters: people helping and supporting one another.

During times like this, we can experience the possibility of transforming suffering into awakening, through our selflessness and the realization of just how impermanent and fleeting everything is. It’s one thing to say that “life is short” but how might we embody and live with the sense of great appreciation for our lives, and all life?

What can each of us do? 

We can look at what is happening as fully and directly as possible, without sugarcoating.

We can look for silver linings, for possibilities, with cautious optimism.

We can pay attention to the wide and deep container of purpose and meaning, in our own lives, in our families, in our organizations, and on a global level.

One of my favorite dialogues these days is a conversation from the 13th century in China where Zen teacher Dogen asked the head cook of a monastery:

What is practice? (Which I translate as, “What does it mean to be a full, awake human being?”)

The head cook responded, “Nothing in the universe is hidden.”  

These three lessons from Winston Churchill are a way to practice not hiding anything – whether it’s pain, possibility, or meaning.