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3 Great military speeches to inspire you as a leader


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Theresa Civantos Barber - published on 07/05/20

In history we find the secrets of great leadership, in both victory and defeat.

The world sorely needs great leaders, whether in the workplace, in the public square, or in the home. History offers compelling lessons and examples of what such wise governance could look like.

These three historic speeches offer a blueprint for what a great leader might say to inspire his team to give their best effort and get through hard times.

1Remind your team of who they are.

One of the earliest great speeches on record is the Funeral Oration delivered by Pericles, an eminent Athenian politician, at the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian War. He made the speech at a public funeral held annually for the war dead.

Instead of speaking only of the men who had died, Pericles chose to describe the history of Athens itself, specifically what made it distinct from other city-states. He recalled the efforts with which Athenian ancestors had built up the city:

I will speak first of our ancestors, for it is right and seemly that now, when we are lamenting the dead, a tribute should be paid to their memory. There has never been a time when they did not inhabit this land, which by their valor they will have handed down from generation to generation, and we have received from them a free state. But if they were worthy of praise, still more were our fathers, who added to their inheritance, and after many a struggle transmitted to us their sons this great empire. And we ourselves assembled here today, who are still most of us in the vigor of life, have carried the work of improvement further, and have richly endowed our city with all things, so that she is sufficient for herself both in peace and war.

Then he extolled Athens’ reputation and fame compared to its neighbors, making clear that such a magnificent city was worth every sacrifice:

Our form of government does not enter into rivalry with the institutions of others. Our government does not copy our neighbors’, but is an example to them… For we have compelled every land and every sea to open a path for our valor, and have everywhere planted eternal memorials of our friendship and of our enmity. Such is the city for whose sake these men nobly fought and died; they could not bear the thought that she might be taken from them; and every one of us who survive should gladly toil on her behalf.

After making the case at length for the glory and power of Athens, he assured his audience, “So died these men as becomes Athenians. You, their survivors, must determine to have as unfaltering a resolution in the field, though you may pray that it may have a happier outcome.” His statement that these men were “worthy of Athens” carried enormous weight, given all he had said before.

Pericles exalted the history and identity of Athens to remind his listeners of who they were and what set them apart. The pride and honor of their heritage would inspire them to continue the war with renewed vigor.

This is a valuable strategy for modern-day leaders: Remind your team of their great achievements of the past. List all the reasons they have to be proud of their efforts. Recalling past accomplishments is one way to spur them on to future triumph.

2Describe your vision for great things to come

The year was 1415, and the English army was badly outnumbered when it collided with French forces at Agincourt, France, during the Hundred Years’ War. But the English king, Henry V, delivered a rousing speech that inspired his soldiers to achieve a decisive victory on October 25, the feast of St. Crispin. The exact words of King Henry V’s speech have been lost to history, but Shakespeare captured its themes and spirit in his play Henry V, in a passage known as the St. Crispin’s Day Speech.

This address is exemplary for so many reasons, such as its focus on brotherhood, honor, and pride. It’s also a wonderful example of a simple but powerful leadership tactic: getting through a difficult period by describing in detail the glorious things to come.

Rather than enumerate the terrible odds facing his army, King Henry V vividly outlines how the battle’s veterans will remember this day for the rest of their lives:

He that outlives this day, and comes safe home, Will stand a tip-toe when this day is named,And rouse him at the name of Crispian. He that shall live this day, and see old age, Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbors, And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.” Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars, And say “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.” Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,But he’ll remember, with advantages, What feats he did that day.

He promises that not only the soldiers themselves but their neighbors, the rest of the country, and indeed all the world will remember their valor on this day:

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by, From this day to the ending of the world, But we in it shall be rememberèd— We few, we happy few, we band of brothers … And gentlemen in England now a-bed Shall think themselves accursed they were not here, And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

“We happy few” is a stroke of rhetorical genius; his soldiers know that being comparatively “few” in number will be their weakness in the coming battle, but Henry V turns it around and presents it as a strength, since “few” warriors means more glory for each of them. 

Henry V describes in great detail the glory to be won in the coming battle, glory that will attend each soldier forever. His words reveal a strategy for modern-day leaders: Paint a verbal picture of the coming reward for the hard work and difficult times. Having that vision of the future to look forward to can make all the difference.

3Acknowledge the worst-case scenario and address it directly.

Most people don’t want to talk about really scary possibilities. They want to plan for the safest options and pretend the worst can’t happen. But leaders are not silent about hard things. Instead, they acknowledge the most fearsome dangers, face them head-on, and outline a plan for overcoming them.

That’s what Winston Churchill did on June 4, 1940, when he addressed the British House of Commons after the Battle of Dunkirk, during the Second World War. The nation was in a euphoric mood. A week before, the Allied Forces had been perilously trapped at the Dunkirk port in France and all seemed lost, but every possible seafaring vessel (including small civilian fishing boats!) had come to their aid and carried over 338,000 troops to safety on British soil.

Despite the immense relief following the successful evacuation, the Allied Forces were in a disastrous situation. They’d had to abandon not only enormous amounts of military equipment but also literally the continent of Europe; the German army had beaten them back to the shores of the British isle, costing the lives of tens of thousands of soldiers. Nobody wanted to admit it, but the grim prospect of a German invasion was looking more and more likely.

Winston Churchill addressed that terrifying possibility directly in his speech that day. He not only acknowledged that the nation’s worst fear could happen, but he told the British people that they would meet that fear, if it came, with their characteristic indomitable courage:

I have, myself, full confidence that … we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our Island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone … Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

His bold response would rouse any heart to courage! Churchill outlined this response to a German invasion of Britain, but the strategy can work for any leader. For your team, what’s the worst-case scenario, the fear no one wants to talk about?What would be the ideal response to it that you would want to see?

Clearly lay out this plan before it ever becomes necessary. Knowing that you have a carefully considered and courageous plan in place for even the worst-case scenario inspires your team to imitate that fearlessness and go forth with confidence.

These are only a small fraction of the countless bold and noble speeches recorded in history’s pages. Winston Churchill once said, “Study history, study history. In history lie all the secrets of statecraft.” In history, too, lie all the secrets of great leadership—of commanding and supporting a team, in both victory and defeat. No better manual or guide book can be found.


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