Winston Churchill was not just one of the most influential people of 20th century British history, but of history in general. Was he universally loved? No, nor did his life effortlessly glide from success to success. In fact, he saw significant failure before his revered leadership during World War II. What’s more, he was able to recognize and acknowledge his failures and keep moving forward despite sometimes harrowing challenges.
All that happened a long time ago, however. Are there still lessons in leadership and greatness to be learned from a man who died more than 50 years ago? Absolutely there are. The traits Winston Churchill cultivated in himself have always applied to great leaders and always will. Here are a few of Churchill’s key leadership qualities that everyone can learn from.
Honesty Is Non-Negotiable
In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1, Hotspur famously says, “Tell truth and shame the devil.” Hotspur himself knew a thing or two about combat, and about honesty and popularity sometimes being at cross purposes. Likewise, Winston Churchill knew that his job was to seek the truth and do the right thing, sometimes at the expense of being liked. He famously said, “The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.”
Effective Communication Is Mandatory
Both a remarkably skilled orator and writer (receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953), Winston Churchill always understood the importance of effective communication. By speaking the truth to the British people even when the truth was difficult, and by having the emotional intelligence to know exactly how much emotion to put behind his words, he inspired a nation that had already lost a generation to World War I and faced evil on an unprecedented scale.
Sometimes You Will Go Against the Conventional Wisdom
Winston Churchill was outspoken, and was not always well-liked. In the early 1930s, he was essentially alone in Britain in urging rearming against Germany. This refusal to compromise on convictions was likely learned from his father, who, rather than presiding over what he considered fiscal irresponsibility, resigned as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1886. The elder Churchill’s career ended as a result, but the lesson of sticking to one’s most deeply held convictions clearly stayed with Winston Churchill.
Courage Is a Major Sustaining Factor
Courage isn’t necessarily inborn, but is an attribute that can be cultivated and developed.
Courage is made up of a combination of many attributes. For one thing, courage faces suffering with dignity. It also includes standing up for what’s right, being willing to face the unfamiliar, choosing to act despite fear, and persevering through difficulties. It should be noted that Winston Churchill’s courage wasn’t automatic. As a youth, in fact, he was admonished by parents and teachers for being what today we would call a slacker. Some credit Churchill’s later courage and perseverance to the responsibilities that fell to him when his father died.
Thinking Big Is the Right Thing to Do
Winston Churchill wasn’t “just” Prime Minister of Britain during World War II. He had previously been a soldier and a war correspondent. After the war, Churchill wrote and published prolifically. During the war, his goal was total victory, well before most of his colleagues recognized the enormous threat Nazi Germany posed. If it weren’t for Winston Churchill’s leadership, history may have turned out very differently, and there aren’t that many people in the world about whom you can say that.
Most of us will never be faced with the global scale of challenges Winston Churchill faced in the 20th century. Yet we can all learn from Churchill’s guiding principles and perseverance. Better still, it is never too late to develop our leadership capabilities. Being the best leader you can be certainly won’t be a cakewalk, and there will be times when you’re beset by uncertainty and question your capabilities. There may be times when you’re hated. But as Winston Churchill himself said, “You have enemies? Good. It means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”
Leadership isn’t a skill you learn once, like riding a bicycle. It is a lifetime pursuit, whether you’re leading a family, a choir, a baseball team, or an empire.