History has proven time and again that the success of an organization depends on the quality of its leadership. A leader’s job is to win. That goal is accomplished by anticipating the requirements for victory, articulating the objectives and game plan, and inspiring the necessary sacrifices from the team.  

Few can teach us more about leadership than Winston Churchill. Like most great leaders he experienced the ups and downs of life that prepared him for the challenges he assumed when called upon to lead. He was no one-trick pony. His résumé, as they say in Britain, is chock-a-block with qualifications that made him the right man at the right time to make the needed life-or-death decisions.

Churchill’s Biography

During his 90-year life, he spent 55 years as a member of Parliament, 31 years as a cabinet minister, and nearly 9 years over two terms as prime minister. Following graduation from military college in 1895, he served a five-year tour of duty with the regular army then won election to Parliament at age 26. In 1911 as First Lord of the Admiralty, he led the modernization of the navy and advocated for the use of airplanes in combat. Responsible for the failed invasion at Gallipoli in 1915 during World War I, he lost his position in the cabinet, re-joined the army, and saw combat on the Western Front. For five years until 1929 he served as Chancellor of the Exchequer and was partially blamed for economic policies that led to world recession. He later regarded those decisions as the greatest mistakes of his life. Churchill chose not to stand for re-election to Parliament as the world entered the Great Depression. Out of government service he concentrated on calling for Britain to re-arm for war.

In May 1940 Winston Churchill was asked to be prime minister of Great Britain. The German army had opened World War 2 by invading Poland in September 1939. Their invasion of France was imminent. Under his direction the miraculous evacuation from Dunkirk rescued the remnants of the British army from Europe. Just weeks later deadly combat in the skies over England marked the beginning of the Battle of Britain. Invasion by sea was certain to follow. With many calling for a negotiated peace, he chose to fight it out in the face of poor odds. Drawing on his experiences as a soldier and in government, he shouldered the heaviest challenge of his career: survival of his homeland. He rallied his country with some of history’s greatest speeches. In the end Britain and its allies prevailed.

His biographer Paul Johnson wrote that Churchill “led a full life, and few people are likely to equal it. But all can learn from it…”

A Leader’s Job Description

When the word leader is mentioned, many think of General George Patton and his forceful style. In reality leaders are more often regular people who understand the necessities of their position and act decisively. Yes, many famous leaders are naturally charismatic and inspirational. But a great leader can be flashy, humble, or any persona in between. For every Patton during World War 2 there were dozens of quietly effective generals who performed solidly.

More important than a leader’s style are the core competencies and qualifications that comprise a leadership mind-set:

  • Must have strategic vision – A great leader thinks with imagination, beyond the here and now, past the edge of the radarscope. His most important job is to anticipate crisis and make his organization ready to deal with it. In the 1930’s Churchill warned about the threat of German rearmament and called for the re-invention of British combat capabilities. He said, “Let our advance worrying become our advance thinking and planning.
  • Must tolerate chaos – Leaders understand that order and control are not as important as getting it almost right. Disorder is caused by speed, and speed is often key. Given his combat experience Churchill understood that fast action like the ad hoc evacuation of Dunkirk was of immense value. He said, “Difficulties mastered are opportunities won.”
  • Must take risks – To a leader the dilemma of choosing between a perilous yet potentially rewarding opportunity and the status quo is easy. They understand the consequences that accrue when only safe decisions are made. Churchill ordered risky missions like the attack on Gallipoli that ended tragically. He said, “There is always much to be said for not attempting more than you can do and for making a certainty of what you try. But this principle, like others in life and war, has its exceptions.”
  • Must accept failure – Bold action ends in failure more often than success.  And being willing to fail includes a readiness to pull the plug on an idea that’s not working. Churchill said, “In war as in life, it is often necessary when some scheme has failed, to take up the best alternative and work for it with all your might
  • Must be trustworthy – Strict integrity is a must – the truth matters. Employees want to see their company do what it says and be honest. People won’t follow a leader they don’t trust. He said, “You have enemies? Good. It means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.
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  • Must drive change – To a leader doing things “the way it’s always been done” equals inertia. A leader knows that his organization must change faster than its competitors or lose the battle. Churchill changed the sentiment of Britain from wanting a negotiated peace to waging total war. He said, “To improve is to change, so to be perfect is to change often,”
  • Must communicate – Leaders must ask what needs to be done and then ensure that everyone follows the necessary game plan. Churchill’s eloquent speeches delivered by radio in the time before television inspired the buy-in of the British people to fight to the end. An example, “We shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches…we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

The bottom line

The ultimate test of leadership is clear-cut: did the leader guide and inspire the performance necessary to achieve the desired objectives? Did Churchill save Britain from defeat in World War 2? Historians still argue that question. Clearly the war was won by the sweat, blood, and tears of millions. But there is no doubt Churchill’s leadership provided a primary catalyst for victory.