Coronavirus: Leaders not the only ones facing tough decisions

At the start of the second world war, Winston Churchill and his cabinet had to make a lot of big decisions. As you would expect.

Decisions which would have grave consequences for many people. They did it with imperfect information and conflicting demands from different parties.

One such decision was what to do with the French navy’s fleet of battleships.

The French had already surrendered to the Germans. The French had some of the most advanced and powerful battleships in the world.

If the Germans got hold of them they would use them against the English. Most likely to disrupt the flow of supplies across the Atlantic ocean.

Winston Churchill gave the French 3 options. 

1. They could fight alongside the British fleet against the Germans. 

2. They could sail to a neutral port such as the USA where they would remain for the rest of the war 

3. They could scuttle the ships where they were.

The French refused to do either of those things. The Germans were negotiating a surrender agreement with the French. 

Hitler telling the French that they could keep the ships in dock until after the war. Knowing what we all know now, that situation was highly unlikely.

Winston couldn’t think of any other option but to sink the French ships. He requested permission from the war cabinet. 

But they refused. France were their allies after all.

But the French continued to refuse to cooperate. Winston had to make a choice and his allegiance was with the British people.

The war cabinet eventually agreed and gave the authorisation to sink the French fleet.

The French Battleships were harboured in Mers el Kebir in Algeria. The British sent a fleet from Gilbultor and blocked the French ships in the harbour and offered the French the three options again. 

When the French refused to acknowledge the Britsh opened fire sinking the unprepared French ships. 1,300 French sailors were killed.

The French have never forgiven the British for this act.

Winston described the decision as, the one he was most ashamed of.

The next day Churchill went to the house of lords to explain why he made the terrible decision. He unexpectedly received a standing ovation. 

But the decision had another benefit. The USA had been reluctant to get into the war and help the allies. They saw the British and the European allies as weak and not committed enough. They didn’t want to join a losing effort.

The Americans were expecting the British to fall into German occupation in short order.

But the decision to sink the French ships showed the rest of the world that the British were not going to lie down and they were committed.

Shortly after, the Americans entered the war.

Global leaders like Prime ministers and Presidents are making very hard decisions at the moment. Trying to decide the value of people’s lives. At the same time trying to understand the value of another person’s job. 

At what point does one become more important than the other?

These leaders have to make decisions with imperfect information while under time pressure and all the while having their judgements scrutinised and critiqued by us in the sidelines.

It’s a hard job.

We’re all leaders of something and we’re all trying to decide whats the best course of action for our businesses or families or anything we have responsibility for.

I’m normally quite optimistic. But I’m making plans based on the assumption we are heading into a long economic depression, similar to the great depression of the 1930s.  

What do I know? I may well be wrong. We’ll all know in 24 months time, what decisions we should have made today. 

Which doesn’t make it any easier now.

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