When we think of World War II leaders, we think of men like FDR, Charles de Gaulle, Dwight Eisenhower, and Joseph Stalin. World War II Britain, specifically, brings to mind the strong, bold leadership of Winston Churchill.
Too often overlooked, however, is King George VI, Britain’s head of state. As the symbol of the nation, the head of state is a very different responsibility than the chief executive. Heads of state set the standard on what it means to be a citizen of that nation. They provide an example of who we should be, rather than who we are. The culture of a nation rises and falls with the standards put forward by its head of state.
The British people most certainly rose to the standards of King George VI. In fact, it is hard to see how Britain would have been victorious in World War II without the humble, servant example set by King George VI.
The British people learned what truly mattered in a head of state: that charisma isn’t nearly as valuable as character.
King George VI came into power in an improbable way. He was not the direct heir to the throne of King George V. His older brother, King Edward VIII, was. Yet King Edward VIII did not hold the throne for even a full year before he abdicated it. For Edward wanted to marry an American woman who already had a husband. As king and the head of the Church of England, to marry an already married woman compromised his role. Rather than sacrifice his lustful desires, Edward abdicated the throne and married the woman. His brother, Prince Albert, took the throne in his place and was crowned King George VI.
King George VI did not have a smooth start. His brother was very much beloved by the British people and many wanted his return. George VI also suffered from a severe speech impediment that limited his public communication, a major problem when you serve as the head of state.
Yet the people of Britain drastically changed their feelings toward King George VI after war broke out in Europe and the Nazis threatened to invade Britain. For the British people learned what truly mattered in a head of state: that charisma isn’t nearly as valuable as character.
King George VI was a man that led by his faith in Jesus Christ and Christ’s example of being a humble servant: “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:5-8)
King George VI was keenly aware of who he was and who God is, and that knowledge led him to unprecedented – and absolutely essential – humility. For King George VI was the first British king to visit the United States of America since the War for Independence in 1776. He knew that an alliance with America was important to ensure that freedom would survive the fascist expansion in central Europe. George VI would not let pride get in the way, but rather he and his wife humbly came and visited with U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt at his residence in New York. They shared a humble meal of hot dogs and discussed the dire international situation.
During the bombing of London, King George VI was encouraged to stay in Canada for his own safety. Yet the king refused to leave Buckingham Palace. He did not believe it was right to leave his people. Even though the palace was bombed nine times, the king never left. He knew that if he left, it would send a message that there was no hope, that the war was lost. Rather the king and his wife decided to set an example that declared London was worth fighting for, and he joined his people in the streets, helping them after the bombings. Even when the Allies had major military setbacks in 1942, the king called for multiple national days of prayer.
During this dark, difficult hour, a well known phrase was born, “Keep Calm and Carry On.” The phrase encapsulated the spirit of the British king, and the people followed. In Britain’s darkest hour, the people joined their king in keeping calm and carrying on.
The recently popularized signs carrying the “Keep Calm and Carry On” slogan were originally printed with the purpose of being posted if the Nazis did in fact invade Britain. King George VI wanted it to be his last message to the people, a message that in essence said, “In this dark hour, do not conform to the ways of the darkness. Rather persevere. Persevere in the most difficult of times. My people, keep calm and carry on.”
Thankfully those signs never had to be used. One of the primary reasons was the British people never gave up. Unlike some of their European counterparts, the British were willing to sacrifice anything, even their lives. King George VI led by example, risking his own life every day as he stayed with this people.
Leadership is not found in fame, power, glory, charisma, glamor, or wealth. Rather a good leader is a person of high character.
Furthermore, King George VI wanted to make sure he communicated that he valued the service and sacrifice of the men a and women in uniform. He frequently visited the troops, even in some hostile areas, to show his appreciation. He founded a new award called the George Cross to clearly communicate how much in debt the nation was to the men and women’s bravery during the war.
But perhaps the greatest thing the king did for the British people was show that he valued them. Motivated by his Savior, the king did not use his authority to lord over his people. Rather the king was humble and he served, his example sparking a spirit of service throughout the British Empire. This spirit made it possible to survive one of the darkest hours the nation ever encountered. The people kept strong and followed their head of state, their king.
When remembering King George VI, we must remember that leadership is not found in fame, power, glory, charisma, glamor, or wealth. Rather a good leader is a person of high character. King George VI is an excellent example of how God often uses ordinary people to do extraordinary things. Great Britain owes much of their nation’s survival to this humble, ordinary servant of the Lord’s. King George VI showed what it truly means to be a head of state, and the example he gave should be the expectation all nations have for their heads of state. After all, it is God’s expectation.