Finest Hour 170, Fall 2015
By John Addison
John Addison, a member of The Churchill Centre, served as a Co-Chief Executive Officer of Primerica, Inc. from 1999 to March 2015.
“Leadership This Day” illustrates how Winston Churchill’s example guides and motivates today’s leaders.
Contributors come from many fields, including business, politics, and the military.
“Often in the casual remarks of great men one learns their true mind in an intimate way.” Marlborough, 1933
I have always been fascinated by the biographies of great leaders. Although many great men who seized their destiny at critical moments and rewrote history have influenced me during my rise through the leadership ranks in the financial services industry, it was the life and leadership of Sir Winston Churchill that always interested me the most. In 2009, Winston Churchill went from an interest to an inspiration as I entered the greatest battle of my career.
I was Co-CEO of a large division of Citigroup. We had approximately 2,000 employees and were doing over one billion dollars in annual revenues. Our business was successful, but we were ready to part ways with Citi. In fact, we had been working for two years on an Initial Public Offering (IPO) that would have granted our freedom. Then the world collapsed, and Citi was at the epicenter of the financial crisis. The fall-out of the crisis began to crush our division, and an exit from Citi went from a convenience to an absolute necessity.
At that moment, my business partner and Co-CEO, Rick Williams, and I were fighting an existential battle for our business. We committed with our whole heart not only to save a company where we had worked for a combined sixty years, but also to save the jobs of thousands of our friends.
That year we spent more than forty weeks in New York fighting the battle. Coincidentally, HBO had just released the Second World War film Into the Storm, starring Brendan Gleeson as Churchill. It was showing on the Delta Airlines entertainment system. Every week for months, I watched that movie on my flight back and forth to LaGuardia.
My interest in Churchill began to change into something deeper. I read voraciously Sir Martin Gilbert’s Churchill: A Life. I spent time learning as much as I could about the man in my downtime during our fight for the IPO. In many ways, the spirit and courage of Sir Winston became my muse as I walked through my personal trial. I had every intention of turning the trial into “my finest hour.”
During the journey, I drew on Churchill’s leadership influence and these vital lessons:
“You will never get to the end of the journey if you stop to shy a stone at every dog that barks.” Speech, 3 December 1923
Churchill was repeating an old maxim. At times of chaos, a leader must be laser-focused. Distractions are abundant, and clear direction is scarce. At such times, a leader must be a lighthouse not a weathervane. A lighthouse is just a pretty building when the seas are calm. But in the storm, a lighthouse is a beacon that leads ships to safe harbor.
That was Sir Winston to the letter. When Europe was in chaos and almost totally Nazified, he stood as the lighthouse of courage with one mission: Victory at all costs. I made that my mission in 2009. Financial chaos ruled the markets. IPOs and deals were said to be impossible, but we knew that we had to make it happen. We had to avoid distractions and stay laser-focused on the mission.
“Difficulties mastered are opportunities won.” Broadcast, 21 March 1943
For most of 1940 and 1941, Sir Winston and Britain dealt with one disaster after another. He battled for survival much more than for victory. He could not just endure adversity, he had to embrace the storm and overcome it. He did this through the power of his personality, his stirring oratory, and his incredible work ethic. He knew he must rally a nation to persevere and survive enormous odds.
We were in very much the same position in a different arena. Our business was under siege. Our salesforce and our employees had lost much of their net worth in the collapse of Citi stock (so had Rick and I). People were scared and doubtful about the future. Rather than buckle under continual losses, we had to embrace the adversity and challenge inherent in constantly changing circumstances. We had to turn adversity into opportunity.
“Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities because, as has been said, it is the quality which guarantees all others.” The Strand, July 1931
Throughout his life, Sir Winston displayed courage consistently. Whether it was on the battlefield as a young army officer, as a voice in the wilderness against Hitler in the 1930s, or in an underground bunker as the ultimate wartime leader, he portrayed a personal courage that shone for everyone around him. I am quite sure that he had massive doubts and fears, as we all do. I am sure he doubted his ability to deliver and feared for his nation. However, he projected calm courage to his people.
During 2009, I had many sleepless nights. I had countless 3:00 AM bouts of fear and doubt. The future for my business was truly in jeopardy. Sir Winston’s example was a guide for me. I knew that I must master my doubts to project and exemplify courage and confidence for my team.
“You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory—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.” The House of Commons, 13 May 1940
Whether through his words, his famous victory sign, or most important, his actions, Churchill exemplified victory at all costs. He was not focused on negotiated survival. He was focused on complete victory. Even in managing his relationship with President Franklin D. Roosevelt victory was foremost in his mind and his actions. He would not countenance defeatist thinking. He was a force of nature, and through that force, the Allies achieved victory in May of 1945.
Achieving an IPO and saving a company do not compare with saving Western civilization, but through tenacity and perseverance, we had a very successful IPO in April 2010. The experts said it could not be done, but we were twenty-two times oversubscribed and had one of the most successful IPOs of that year. We saved nearly 2,000 jobs and the businesses of over 90,000 independent sales representatives.
During my journey through the storm, Sir Winston was a lighthouse guiding my actions. His leadership principles are not notes for a history book. They are inspiration in times of struggle. They are living, breathing lessons for all generations.