Winston Churchill was a British statesman, orator, army officer, and writer. He was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1940 to 1945 during the Second World War, and again from 1951 to 1955. He is widely regarded as one of the best leaders in British History having rallied the British people during World War II and led his country from the brink of defeat to victory. So what can we learn from his leadership?
Speak Truth to Power
There is no doubting that Churchill was an independent thinker. He consistently had the courage to not only hold views that were unpopular, but to openly speak them without fear. During the 1930s, when Churchill was not in power, he recognized the threat posed by Nazi Germany. The conventional view was that Europe had entered an extended period of peace following World War 1. It was a compelling idea, and the people and politicians of the time really wanted it to be true. This was reflected in the policy adopted by UK of appeasement toward Germany, and it was popular with the people of England. Appeasement culminated in the Munich Agreement, which allowed Nazi Germany to annex the Sudetenland and essentially all of Czechoslovakia. This was celebrated as a huge success to avert a larger war and was referred to as “peace in our time”. Churchill publicly shared a very different view:
“I will therefore begin by saying the most unpopular and unwelcome thing. I will begin by saying what everyone would like to ignore or forget but which must nevertheless be stated, namely that we have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat.”
Churchill saw Hitler for who he was, and as he watched Germany invest heavily in its military, Churchill called for Britain to do the same. He was vilified in the press, other politicians called him a warmonger and the people said he was out of touch. He saw things differently and spoke out against it, even though politically it was the wrong thing to do. The rest as they say, is history.
Treat everyone with respect, even your enemies
Part of Churchill’s legacy is that of someone who was very direct and abrasive and difficult to get along with. He was ruthlessly candid and made high demands of those around him, which has helped to reinforce this perception. But the truth is that despite his direct style, staff were devoted to him because he always looked after them. He was demanding, but never spiteful. If he upset someone, he would apologise. If they did a good job, he would praise them. He always looked out for his team. His personal secretary Elizabeth Layton said:
“We of his personal staff were completely devoted to him, even though he was inclined to be impatient and demanding. He was somebody who drew our loyalty and our deep respect and affection … The negative side was only on the surface. Underneath he was a very caring person.”
He would speak harsh truths, but never be disrespectful. Even when dealing with enemies, he would always be respectful. After the Japanese attacked Hong Kong and Singapore, leading to Britain declaring war on Japan he sent a letter to the Japanese Ambassador and signed off with the words, “I have the honour to be, with high consideration, Sir, Your obedient servant.”
Follow your conscience
Churchill ultimately understood that as we encounter the twists and turns of life, there are some principles and ideas that demand the ultimate sacrifice. And he understood that everyone is engaged in a moral struggle that will eventually define their life. He said:
“The only guide to a man is his conscience; the only shield to his memory is the rectitude and sincerity of his actions. It is very imprudent to walk through life without this shield, because we are so often mocked by the failure of our hopes and the upsetting of our calculations: but with this shield, however the fates may play, we march always in the ranks of honour.”
“You must look very deep into the heart of man, and then you will not find the answer unless you look with the eye of the spirit. Then it is that you learn that human beings are not dominated by material things, but by the ideas for which they are willing to give their lives or their life’s work”.
This is an important reminded in the modern world. So many people seem to be focused on material gain. They want a better salary, a more important job title, a bigger house. But when all is said and done, it is not your possessions that define you, but what you stood for.
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