“We cut the coal.” Famous words from Winston Churchill spoken to coal miners who were leaving the coal pits in droves to volunteer for military service in World War II. While volunteering to fight was certainly noble, Churchill recognized how devastating it would be to the war effort if too many miners were leaving. So much of the industry necessary to the war effort used coal, not to mention the need to keep home fires burning.
Coal miners at the time were pretty low on the totem pole socially and were not that well respected; in addition, they had to endure brutal working conditions that were dangerous and physically demanding. The thought of military service was actually a welcome relief to many so Churchill knew he had to do something to keep as many of the men working as possible.
In knowing that many of these men felt undervalued and that they received little credit for the great work they did, Churchill decided to inspire them to the contrary. He wanted them to understand their significance and that without the coal they provided the war would actually be more difficult to win, and that the best thing they could do for Britain would be to keep working in the mines.
Standing in Westminster Central Hall speaking to the Conference of Delegates of Coal Owners and Miners, Churchill looked into the eyes of the coal-stained faces of these men who sat in silence and awe and said, ‘We will be victorious! We will preserve our freedom and years from now when our freedom is secure, and years from now when peace reigns, your children and your children’s children will come and they will say to you, “What did you do to win freedom in the great war?”, and one will say: “I was a fighter pilot”, another will say: “I was in the Submarine Service”, another “I marched with the Eighth Army”, a fourth will say: “None of you could have lived without the convoys and the Merchant seamen”, and you, in your turn, will say, with equal pride and with equal right: “WE CUT THE COAL”’
What’s the lesson for us today? Churchill wanted to help these undervalued workers understand that their efforts had purpose and that they were valuable assets to the British war effort.
You see, people have a primal need to participate in activities that give them a sense of purpose. Most of us are hungry to make some difference to someone and leave a legacy. Churchill was able to show these coal miners that they, each and every one of them, were an integral part of battle plan of Great Britain. He encouraged them to believe that there was a great purpose in their cutting of the coal.
In the work world today, so many people go into the workplace feeling undervalued and that their work doesn’t really matter except to bring home a paycheck. How can you, as a leader, help the people around you realize that they are valuable and that the “coal” they cut is necessary? Not everyone has a role that is glamorous but everyone has a role that is necessary whether it is designing the next great product or sweeping the shop floor. Today, go and find someone that is largely unheralded and unseen and let them know they matter and that their efforts are needed.