Winston Churchill. Likely you studied a bit about him in school. Perhaps you’ve read and heard about him later in life. But do you have a clear sense of who he was and what made him so great?
Our recollections of Churchill are limited and filtered since he lived in an era long before television, the internet, and social media. There are no push notifications or news specials to remind us of him or to help us appreciate his incredible impact on the free world we live in today.
For me, Churchill has always been one of my favorite historic figures. Since I delight in the power of words – especially from great leaders and communicators like Lincoln, Roosevelt, Reagan and Churchill – I have long appreciated the impact of his life. The ups and downs of his career and his private life are an inspiration to those of us who had a frustrating childhood and whose successes have been followed by times of disappointment and struggle.
When Churchill was sixteen, he already had a clear vision about his life’s purpose. He shared it with one of his close friends who recalls Churchill saying, “This country will be subjected somehow, to a tremendous invasion, by what means I do not know, but I tell you I shall be in command of the defenses of London, and I shall save London and England from disaster.”
Churchill was not and is not the first teenager to dream of saving the world. But the intentional steps he took in his education and his work life after he spoke these words show that this vision was followed by persistence and hard work to prepare himself for what he saw as his destiny. For the sake of the free world, we are fortunate that he was diligent about making preparations to live out his personal vision.
Winston Churchill did not have a simple, unbroken path to his ultimate success in leading the world’s effort to defeat the Nazis in World War II. Beginning in grammar school, he demonstrated the tenacity and determination that would come to characterize his life. In spite of many brutal beatings in boarding school and a distant relationship with his parents, he remained resolute. The toughness he developed in his early years allowed him to persist in his later years when he was discarded by his government as a failure.
Churchill’s vision about his life’s purpose colored every decision he made with regard to his schooling and career choices. He realized that a military background would likely be helpful if he was to be part of defeating England’s enemies, so he went to military school at Sandhurst. When his schooling was finished, England was at peace so he spent several years as a freelance war correspondent. Ultimately he was able to get a position as cavalryman in the British Expeditionary Force fighting in the Sudan in 1898. His success in the war with the Boers, and other subsequent successes, led to a major wartime leadership role as first lord of the Admiralty during World War I.
Churchill took responsibility and resigned after Britain’s major defeat at Gallipoli in December 1915. With his resignation, he went from days of unrelenting tasks and responsibilities to long periods of unwanted leisure. Frustrated with inactivity, he asked to be posted as a soldier on the western front in France.
After the war, Churchill entered politics. Beginning in 1931, he began to warn his country about Hitler. Churchill had learned that Germany was rebuilding its military and that Britain was falling behind. His positions led to a great debate about British rearmament in May, 1935, and this debate continued until the outbreak of war in 1939. As the debate continued, Churchill became the leader of those who wanted to be ready to fight the threat of Nazism.
Six months into the war, Britain’s neck was in Hitler’s noose, and Neville Chamberlain, the pacifist Prime Minster that Churchill opposed, was forced to resign. Now, as Britain and the world faced its most critical moment, they turned to Churchill and made him Prime Minister.
Incredibly, the vision of a sixteen-year-old boy had become a reality. He had become the one leader in the world who stood in the way of tyranny … fifty years after sharing his bold vision with his friend.
His speeches inspired British resistance during the difficult days of 1940 and 1941, when the British Empire stood almost alone in its active opposition to Adolf Hitler. He led Britain as Prime Minister until victory over Nazi Germany was been secured in 1945.
Churchill was a great man whose life changed the course of modern history. His greatness was rooted in his vision, leadership, and persistence.
His vision started with a personal vision that guided the steps of his life. As he gained experiences and learned about world events, his vision grew into the vision of England and other free-world nations standing up to evil. Ultimately his vision of a free Christian world provided the framework to rally his country, the US, and many other countries to fight the evil of Nazism.
To be successful in our personal lives, we need to have a vision that is a starting point for defining the purpose of our lives. If we lead organizations, our vision is essential for us to be able to provide people with an inspiring glimpse of the future, and to get them on board to move the organization forward.
Churchill was a great leader in many ways. But what stands out when you look at his life was his commitment to a vision and ideas long before he and they were popular. He fought for his ideas even when people opposed him. He hung on to them and continued to argue for them after his many failures. His commitment to what he believed and his unwillingness to be silenced ultimately allowed him the opportunity to lead his country and the Allies from the darkest point of WW II until the war was won.
One lesson we can learn from Churchill is that great leaders lead even when they and their positions are not popular. He was once quoted as saying, “You will never reach your destination if you stop and throw stones at every dog that barks.” All good leaders must take steps that detractors criticize. Leadership is the process that leaders use to change an organization. Great leaders lead change effectively. They are willing to cast a vision and be committed to it. They work day and night to convince people that the path they have chosen is the right one. They stay the course and in Churchill’s words, they “never, never, never give up.”
This brings us to the last trait that described Churchill. Few great men in history have experienced the personal battles and periods of failures that he did. He was not close to his parents and his closest influence was his nanny who played a major role in Churchill’s ability to emotionally survive childhood. He battled depression for much of his life. Before his country turned to him at the point where the war was nearly lost, he was considered a failure.
But even in these times of great difficulty, he rallied himself and promoted his positions. As England took a course in the late 1930s and into the early days of WW II, he hung on to his unpopular position. Despite criticism and unpopularity, he spoke out whenever possible about the evil threat of Hitler and his diabolical plans. He persisted with his view due to his commitment to the vision he had of England remaining a free country. Through personal challenges and public embarrassments, he persisted. The result of his persistence was that when his country and the world needed him, he was prepared and ready to lead the free world to victory.
Of the three attributes that defined Churchill, persistence is the most difficult. Most of us know this by personal experience. Successful people are people of action but persistence is often what is required when doors have been closed and there is nothing you can do but keep plugging along and waiting for things to change.
Persistence is what it takes to stick to the plan when it looks like, despite consistent effort, you will never achieve the changes and success that you seek.
Persistence is unnatural, particularly in today’s world of instant gratification. It means staying the course long after most people, often unsuccessful people, would have abandoned the cause. It means continuing to move forward when the rest of the team, or when friends and family, think that you have lost your mind and need to move on to something else.
And, once again, in the words of Churchill, it means, “Never, never, never give up.”