What Winston Churchill Taught Me About Leadership
It was quite curious.
They were both British Conservatives. They were both addressing the House of Commons (and their country). They were both mobilizing a nation against wicked Nazi aggression.
And yet their speeches were so different.
This is when I realized Winston Churchill could teach me a great deal about leadership.
Let me explain.
Seventy-seven years ago this week, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain stood wearily before the House. With shoulders visibly heavy with the burden of undeniable Nazi might, Chamberlain gazed at his stern and expectant colleagues. What, they wondered, would the representative of His Majesty’s Government have to say in response to the vicious Nazi invasion of Poland? Forty-eight hours had passed since the initial Nazi onslaught, while valiant Poland, assured by treaty of immediate Anglo-French assistance, was ruthlessly overrun. Forty-eight hours with little more than an impatient warning from the British Empire to Hitler’s minions to evacuate Poland forthwith.
Oh, there was a speech on September 1, 1939, the day of the invasion, which started strong, but before long devolved to a lawyerly discussion of white papers and a tedious recapitulation earnestly persuading that England’s peacekeeping efforts were beyond reproach. Even as his concluding remarks gathered inspiration and girded its listeners with calls to “set our teeth and enter upon this struggle”, the Prime Minister felt it necessary to remind – yet again – that England sought to avoid it and that “we shall enter it with a clear conscience.”
Understandably, many might excuse Chamberlain’s tone as “realistic and cautious”. After all, hardly a generation had passed since the blood-soaked Battles of Verdun, the Marne and the Somme had consumed the flower of British youth. And a decade of economic depression had made many of the Empire’s citizens hungry for little more than a cottage with a garden, some bread on the table and children safely accounted for. There is rational reason behind the cheers and accolades heaped on the Prime Minister who (less than one year before) declared, “Peace for our time” as he surrendered Czechoslovakia to the ravenous Nazi wolf. It reassured many anxious fathers and mothers to hear their leader dismiss European conflict when he said, “How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is, that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here, because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.”
On September 3rd, the day the British ultimatum passed without response from the Germans who were to busy digesting their Polish spoils, Prime Minister Chamberlain offered (in part) this declaration of war to the House of Commons,
This is a sad day for all of us, and to none is it sadder than to me. Everything that I have worked for, everything that I have hoped for, everything that I believed in during my public life, has crashed into ruins. There is only one thing left for me to do; that is, to devote what strength and powers I have to forwarding the victory of the cause for which we have to sacrifice so much. I cannot tell what part I may be allowed to play myself; I trust I may live to see the day when Hitlerism has been destroyed and a liberated Europe has been reestablished.
And this (in part), via radio, to the British people,
You can imagine what a bitter blow it is to me that all my long struggle to win peace has failed. Yet I cannot believe that there is anything more or anything different that I could have done and that would have been more successful.
But Winston Churchill felt otherwise.
Having spent the better part of a decade in the political wilderness, Winston Churchill was prepared. An indomitable figure who had risen to the Chancellorship in the late 1920s, but was denied ministerial positions throughout the 1930s, Churchill felt unencumbered as he ceaselessly spoke the truth about the rising Nazi menace. As the pitiless domestic persecution of Hitler’s political enemies proceeded and as the Rhineland was reoccupied, Austria annexed and Czechoslovakia sacrificed, Churchill ominously warned,
“An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.”
Now, Churchill was no stranger to the death tolls inflicted by war, by the empty chairs and empty tables in the houses that speckled the London streets and English countrysides. But he also recognized that, in this case, the alternative to war wasn’t necessarily peace, but slavery. As he would articulate later,
“[If we were to be defeated, Germany] would give no mercy; we should be reduced to the status of vassals and slaves forever. It would be far better that the civilization of Western Europe with all of its achievements should come to a tragic but splendid end than that [England] should linger on, stripped of all that made life worth living.”
And when war was finally declared by Great Britain on Germany on September 3rd, 1939, Prime Minister Chamberlain knew that Churchill must rise. Chamberlain asked Churchill to assume the military helm of the war effort as First Lord of the Admiralty, the same position Churchill was unceremoniously removed from after a costly debacle in the First World War. As news spread, the Winston had returned, exuberant signals were conveyed from one naval ship to the next,
Winston is back!
And so he was.
Within hours of assuming his new mantle of command, Churchill would rouse the spirits of the hungry House of Commons (in part),
We must not underrate the gravity of the task which lies before us or the temerity of the ordeal, to which we shall not be found unequal. We must expect many disappointments, and many unpleasant surprises, but we may be sure that the task which we have freely accepted is one not beyond the compass and the strength of the British Empire and the French Republic. The Prime Minister said it was a sad day, and that is indeed true, but at the present time there is another note which may be present, and that is a feeling of thankfulness that, if these great trials were to come upon our Island, there is a generation of Britons here now ready to prove itself not unworthy of the days of yore and not unworthy of those great men, the fathers of our land, who laid the foundations of our laws and shaped the greatness of our country.
This is not a question of fighting for Danzig or fighting for Poland. We are fighting to save the whole world from the pestilence of Nazi tyranny and in defense of all that is most sacred to man. This is no war of domination or imperial aggrandizement or material gain; no war to shut any country out of its sunlight and means of progress. It is a war, viewed in its inherent quality, to establish, on impregnable rocks, the rights of the individual, and it is a war to establish and revive the stature of man…
As one Churchill scholar, James Humes, observed, “While Chamberlain was wringing his hands, Churchill was shaking his fist.” Within eight months, Chamberlain would be ousted and Churchill would be elected Prime Minister of Great Britain. Through his clarity of vision, his unbending courage and his ennobling, yet piercing rhetoric, Churchill would cobble together the least likely of alliances and midwife the destruction of history’s most powerful enemy.
But how? How could two conservative British leaders opposed to the Nazi scourge have such different speeches, such different styles, such different outcomes?
To answer this, one has to explore truly who Winston Churchill was and, quite simply, who Neville Chamberlain wasn’t.
First, Churchill was a man of failure. In spite of the elections won, positions held, books written and awards earned, Churchill failed a lot (sometimes magnificently) because he tried a lot. As a matter of fact, one scholar has reasoned that had Churchill died in 1939 before rising to his position as First Lord of the Admiralty (and subsequently Prime Minister), he would have been a footnote in history. And a failed one at that.
Second, Churchill was a man of recovery. He was tenacious, dogged, resilient. He just wouldn’t quit. The story of Churchill leaving the Conservatives to become a Liberal only to leave the Liberals to become a Conservative again is extraordinary especially given the fact that the Conservatives invited him back in. Why? Because they realized he was too great a threat when he ran as “a Party of One” and nearly defeated a Conservative in a solid Tory constituency. Whether truly attributable or apocryphal, Churchill’s line is fitting that, “Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.” Whether it was climbing back from great political falls or struggling with the approval he could never gain from his father, Churchill would maintain his enthusiasm. He was not to be denied.
Third, Churchill knew what he believed in. It is not to say that he didn’t shave a little here or even blatantly reverse course there, but he was convinced that there was Right and Wrong, and that Right was worth fighting for. He understand the role and danger of both unchecked idealism and dispassionate pragmatism. And he never wandered far from the vital need to preserve civilization that is rooted in human dignity and freedom. Was he a King’s imperialist? Absolutely. But, rightly or wrongly and with its imperfections, his imperialistic notion was rooted primarily in what he considered the civilizing and liberating influences of English common law and culture upon peoples who had yet to encounter and flourish under it.
Finally, Churchill felt called. After Churchill had died and his son (and soon Martin Gilbert) was collecting data on his father’s life, a schoolmate of Churchill’s volunteered a story from their shared teenage youth in a headmaster’s basement. As they discussed their respective futures, Churchill spoke of dreams he had in which the English island would be under attack in an onslaught unparalleled in history. As the schoolmate listened wide-eyed to Churchill’s preposterous dream, the young Winston confided that London would be under terrible threat and it would rest upon Churchill to deliver it. Though the dreams were vague upon further questioning, the certainty remained: England would be under great attack and Churchill would save it. When Churchill began building the case for action against the rising Nazi state and ultimately accepted the Prime Ministership, he seemed to almost anticipate that there would be a Battle of Britain, a Blitz of London, harrowing evacuations of Dunkirk and setbacks in the alliances. But what was clear, was that England must not quit, England would win and he would be indispensable to that end. And his speeches calling citizens to greatness (“If the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.'”), to courage (“We shall not flag or fail.”) and tenacity (“If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”) spoke to the certainty of success. And it was a certainty informed by prophetic childhood dreams. It was a certainty informed by calling.
Two British Conservative leaders, both opposed to Hitler, were drastically different. Drastically. And the clear difference if one would have served the fullness of war instead of the other is quite simply chilling.
So what did Winston Churchill – this distant British figure who has been dead for over fifty years – teach me about leadership?
That if leadership is misguided or derelict, uninspired or plainly discouraging, it is important that we become leaders. That if the wilderness is encroaching, it is even more important that we make our voices heard. That it is vital upon failing (yes, we will fail) to get back up. That it is essential when asked our beliefs, that we can thoughtfully, eloquently and confidently articulate them. And that we hear the call to discern Right from Wrong and remember that Right is always worth fighting for.
Yes. That seems about right.
“Come then, let us go forward together…There is not a week, nor a day, nor an hour to lose.”
– Winston Churchill
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons