Leadership lessons from Churchill

Winston Churchill had incredible energy.  Most of us know him as a great leader who managed to overcome Hitler but there was much more to him.  Over his long political career, Churchill held almost every major position in government, including being Prime Minister twice.  He was a prolific writer who wrote more words than Shakespeare and Dickins combined.  It wasn’t just quantity though, he also collected the Nobel prize for literature.  He then dabbled in art and created more than 500 paintings, one of which recently sold for over $1m.

All of these stats come from a new book on his life, Churchill, written by Boris Johnson, former major of London and now the Foreign Minister of Great Britain.

What lessons from Churchill’s life are there for a CA(SA)?

  1. Dream Big and take action. We are often told to “Dream Big” because of course very little on a large scale is achieved otherwise.  Taking action is the hard part though.  It seems to me that Churchill was a doer who had a bias towards action.  Did you know for instance that after seeing the deadlock of trench warfare, he invented tanks*?  He made many mistakes but that never stopped him from trying again.  If you already have big dreams, are you taking the next action required to make them a reality?
  2. Get those closest to you to provide feedback. In the book there was an incredible letter from his wife.  She basically tells him that someone has approached her with news that he is acting harshly towards others.  This is during World War II, he is lacking sleep, under huge strain and apparently that has resulted in him being very impatient.  She mentions all of this but then reminds him of the importance of creating an environment where others feel that they can share their views.  Being harsh means others will be afraid to offer an alternative view.  The letter is written with great sensitivity, truth in love.  Do you have someone close enough in your life giving you that level of feedback?
  3. Don’t take failure personally. One of my heroes, Tim Keller, has used a great phrase a few times.  “Don’t let success go to your head.  Don’t let failure go to your heart.”  The call to humility we all understand but what is his advice for failure?  It essentially boils down to not letting failure penetrate your sense of identity – you might have failed, but you are not a failure.  Churchill made poor decisions in war that cost thousands of lives, he lost the general election that took place just after WWII  but he remained buoyant and would return as Prime Minister years later.  I have written about bouncing back from failure here.  When you fail, how quickly do you bounce back?
  4. Have firm principles and a kind heart. Churchill thought deeply about major issues and was one of the first to warn about the Nazi regime.  He had clear principles that governed his decisions.  This level of certainty can make a person proud and cold towards others who don’t see the world as they do.  Churchill however showed great kindness to others, especially those on the fringes of society.  He helped to establish the welfare system in Great Britain for example.  Getting ahead isn’t just about having the best ideas, it’s also about caring for those you lead.  Are you kind towards the people in your life?

Churchill was by no means a perfect man but I am grateful for his life and the lessons we can learn from it.  History has a lot more examples we can learn from, who are the leaders that inspire you?

*  Do you know why they are called tanks?  The army was worried that the workers building them might leak valuable information to the enemy so they told them that they were building a new type of water tank.  The name has stuck ever since then!

Paul Maughan

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