Leadership Lessons from Winston Churchill

Paul Johnson’s epilogue to Churchill is the best part of the book. In a few short pages he describes what made Winston Churchill such a great leader and a man who took Britain through some of the darkest years in her history. First, though he lists Churchill’s accomplishments, which are impressive.

In his ninety years, Churchill had spent fifty-five years as member of Parliament, thirty one years as a minister, and nearly nine years as prime minister. He had been present at or fought in fifteen battles, and had been awarded fourteen campaign medals, some with multiple clasps.  He had been a prominent figure in the First World War, and a dominant one in the Second. He had published nearly 10  million words, more than most professional writers in their lifetime, and painted over five hundred canvases, more than most professional painters. He had reconstructed a stately home and created a splendid garden with three lakes, which he had caused to be dug himself. He had built a cottage and a garden wall. He was a fellow of the Royal Society, an Elder Brother at Trinity House, a Lord Warden of Cinque Ports, a Royal Academician, a university chancellor, a Nobel Prizeman [for Literature], a Knight of the Garter, a Companion of Honour, and a member of the Order of Merit. Scores of towns made him an honorary citizen, dozens of universities awarded him honorary degrees, and thirteen countries gave him medals. He hunted big game and won a score of races. How many bottles of champagne he consumed is not recorded, but it may be close to twenty thousand. He had a large and much-loved family, and countless friends. 

So Winston Churchill led a full life, and few people are ever likely to equal it-its amplitude, variety and success on so many fronts.

Johnson doesn’t mention in this section, but Churchill also gave many of the most memorable speeches in the history of Britain.  But what were the keys to Churchill’s success. Johnson lists five lessons we can learn from Churchill’s life.

1.  Always aim high. Johnson mentions his failure at school, yet his persistence in learning the English language, which gave him the ability to write well and give great speeches.

In 1940 [Churchill] aimed not only high but at the highest-to rescue a stricken country in danger of being demoralized, to put it firmly on its feet again, and to carry it to salvation and victory. He did not always meet his elevated targets, but by aiming high the always achieved something worthwhile. 

2.  There is no substitute for hard work.

He worked hart at everything to the best of his ability: Parliament, administration, geopolitics and geostrategy, writing books, painting, creating an idyllic house and garden, seeing things and if possible doing things for himself. Mistakes he made constantly, but there was never anything shoddy or idle about his work. He put tremendous energy into everything, and was able to to this because…he conserved and husbanded his energy too. There is an extraordinary paradox about his white, apparently flabby body and the amount of muscle power he put into life, always. 

3. “He did not allow mistakes, disaster-personal or national-accidents, illnesses, unpopularity, and criticism get him down.” Johnson considers this his most important trait. Johnson writes about many of Churchill’s humiliations, defeats, and periods of unpopularity. Churchill did not allow those things to discourage or keep him down for long.

He scrambled to his feet and worked his way back. He had courage, the most important of all virtues, and its companion, fortitude. These strengths are inborn but they can also be cultivated, and Churchill worked on them all his life. In a sense his whole career was  an exercise in how courage can be displayed, reinforced, guarded and doled out carefully, heightened and concentrated, conveyed to others. 

4. Here I will quote from Johnson:

Churchill wasted an extraordinarily small amount of his time and emotional energy on the meannesses of life: recrimination, shifting blame to others, malice, revenge seeking, dirty tricks, spreading rumors, harboring grudges, waging vendettas. Having fought hard, he washed his hands and went on to the next contest. It is one reason for his success. There is nothing more draining and exhausting than hatred. And malice is bad for judgment. Churchill love to forgive and  make up. His treatment of Baldwin and Chamberlain after he became prime minister is an object lesson in sublime magnanimity. Nothing gave him more pleasure than to replace enmity with friendship, not least with the Germans.

5. “The absence of hatred left plenty of room for joy in Churchill’s life.”  Churchill despite embarrassing failures and blunders and despite living in a time when Britain’s existence was in question never failed to have a joke or a quote. He also love to sing, though not in tune. “He wept easily. But his tears soon dried, as strength came flooding back.”

Many of us now 70 years removed from the end of the Second World War forget what a pivotal time that was in the history of the world. Not all was done well. Some things that were done should not have been. And some things should have been done that were not. However, great leaders like Churchill, are lifted up by God to perform an important work in the world. He uses them and gives them gifts that we can learn from. When World War II ended Churchill was seventy years old. God had used him to preserve Britain. Any of us who lead can be students of this man and learn from his mistakes and successes.