Dunkirk Spirit is the extraordinary effort that teams have to muster to accomplish strategic imperatives while overcoming the effects of poor planning, coordination, communication, or unforeseen developments that require an urgent response. It’s a reference to the heroic effort of civilian sailors during the Battle of Dunkirk, now dramatized in the movie Dunkirk.
Every team needs to channel their Dunkirk Spirit every once in a while. Many of our teams have been in Dunkirk Spirit mode since the start of the pandemic. Too many teams in the startup world live in continual Dunkirk Spirit, which is a major reason why it has a long trail of anxious, burnt-out, and jaded workers.
Unless it’s one of those unforeseen external developments, leaders should see their team needing to channel Dunkirk Spirit as a negative reflection on the team’s leaders. Resigning that it’s “just the way it is” absolves leaders of the responsibility to make work work better for everyone, not just leaders, shareholders, investors, or whoever else is perfectly fine with strip-mining the life force out of people while telling themselves it’s okay because the workers were compensated or signed up for it.
Few of us want our work lives to be a constant fire drill. Or for things to be continually just on the cusp of falling apart. Or to wonder if we’re going to be able to make it through to the next milestone while knowing there’s more of the same on the other side of the milestone.
Here’s what you as a leader can do to pay off the debt of Dunkirk Spirit:
- Praise the heroic effort of your team while acknowledging that requiring it was a fall-down on your part. Stop normalizing the work people need to do to clean up what’s often your mess. (Unforeseen developments are accepted here, however.)
- Create a recovery plan rather than a mere compensation plan. People can’t buy back the time they missed with their families and in their life. People can’t buy back their burnout. Pay them back in kind.
- Fix the problems leading to the team needing to channel Dunkirk Spirit. This often amounts to honest and candid looks into what you’re doing to create the scenario.
It’s pretty simple: work as hard to pay off the Dunkirk Spirit debt after the push is done as your team worked to get through the push.