In these times of profound uncertainty, triggered by the war against the pandemic, one comment keeps coming up in my world: “Where’s Winston Churchill now that we need him?”
Churchill has always fascinated me. How did he become such an extraordinary wartime leader, taking the helm of an island nation just as France, presumed to be the strongest European power, collapsed quickly, leaving Britain to face the German juggernaut alone, until the Soviet Union entered the war on the Allied side 13 months later?
Churchill’s leadership traits are not just lessons of the past, but for time immemorial, including, unquestionably, now.
Apropos, about 15 years ago, I was invited to give a lecture to the students at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School. I chose as my topic “Leadership,” largely because I believed it was then (and may still be) an undervalued theme in our university classrooms. I focused principally on Churchill (and President Harry Truman, another favorite of mine). If given the chance today, I would still focus on the very same examples of Churchill and Truman.
Having read countless books and essays by Churchill and others about his wartime years, including, most recently, Erik Larson’s acclaimed “The Splendid and the Vile,” regarding Churchill’s first year in 10 Downing Street, 1940-1, here are my top ten leadership takeaways:
First, Churchill had enormous credibility. He had been proved right about Hitler and the nature of the Third Reich in his “wilderness years” in the 1930s. Appeasement as a strategy was not only a sign of weakness, but an invitation for war. He said it again and again, unpopular, indeed ridiculed, as it was in many elite British circles, from Whitehall to the BBC. They simply couldn’t grasp the full extent of Hitler’s evil intent and viewed Churchill as overly infatuated with war, while, in reality, he had read Hitler remarkably accurately.
Second, he was personally fearless and led by example. He had been in war. He was battle-tested. And during the Battle of Britain, when the German bombers flew over London to wreak havoc and spread terror, he went not to the bunkers, but to the rooftops. He exuded a fighting spirit, an indomitable will, and infinite courage — and it proved contagious in Britain.
Third, he was extraordinarily eloquent in a way that touched nearly all. As has been said, he mobilized the English language as an essential tool of war. Some of those phrases — “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”; “We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be”; “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”; “This was their finest hour”; “Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be, for without victory, there is no survival”; “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning”; — resonate inspirationally to this very day.
Fourth, his speeches combined realism and hope. They were sober and somber, not sugarcoated. Yet, at the same time, they always offered a glimmer of better days ahead, a path to victory. He struck just the right tone for the British public, acknowledging the immense challenges, while believing to his core in eventual triumph.
Fifth, he cared about fellow Britons. He went out in the streets. He visited the bombed sites. He spoke to the people. He cried openly at the stories of loss, destruction, and deprivation. He was their leader and one of them at the very same time.
Sixth, he was a lifelong student of history. He reveled in, indeed revered, Britain’s past and the history of the “English-speaking world.” He framed Britain’s wartime struggle in the larger context of British destiny and Western civilization. And he understood his own place in that larger story. He raised the stakes; the people responded.
Seventh, he was not a scientist, but he understood its vital importance to winning the war. He brought in the best, starting with Professor Frederick Lindemann, gave them running room, and tried his utmost to prevent the bureaucracy and entrenched interests from slowing things down.
Eighth, more generally, he surrounded himself with talent rather than a group of sycophants or “yes men.” He went further, reaching out to political rivals in his own party, including Neville Chamberlain, with whom he had crossed swords for years over appeasement, and across the aisle. He didn’t let personal grudges linger or get in the way, but managed to look past them.
Ninth, he notoriously worked others to the bone, but also worked himself to the bone, if at times in slightly unorthodox ways, such as from the bedroom or with a fair amount of liquor having been imbibed (with seemingly no effect on his clarity of thought). In the end, he asked nothing of others that he didn’t ask of himself in his work output.
And tenth, he accepted defeat in the July 1945 election with grace, shocking as it was coming just two months after V-E Day in Europe — and what should have been a resounding referendum on his wartime leadership, but rather turned into a vote on Britain’s future, not its immediate past.
Yes, Churchill was a flawed figure in many ways, including his infatuation with colonial policy, his fierce resistance to India’s independence, and some of his personal eccentricities.
But to understand the vital importance of leadership at any moment, and especially in periods of crisis, as surely was the case in May 1940 (and, in its own way, today), Churchill is the perfect case study of “the right leader at the right time.”
David Harris is the CEO of American Jewish Committee (AJC).