February 14, 2009

He was the lion who roared when the British Empire needed him most.

He held many positions during his long career and was an accomplished civil servant.  Winston Churchill entered the Royal Military College of Sandhurst, and graduated with honors in December of 18941.   He later saw action in Cuba, India, Egypt, Sudan, the front lines of World War I, and even took part in one of the last British cavalry charges in history2.   When he turned twenty-five, Churchill was elected to Parliament, and began his career as a statesman in the House of Commons.  He went on to serve as First Lord of the Admiralty, Minister of Munitions, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Prime Minster.  In his private life, Winston Churchill was an avid reader and scholar, painter, author, journalist, and war correspondent.  Historians widely attribute Churchill with being “the greatest statesman of the 20th century.”  Churchill was an effective leader and statesman because of his tremendous ability to inspire people; his unique strategic insight; his relentless passion; and his imperturbable personality.

One of Winston Churchill’s chief attributes as a leader was his capability of inspiring people, regardless of seemingly ominous circumstances.  The source of this inspiration was his own character.  Churchill perpetually demonstrated enthusiasm, determination, and optimism—if not at all times in private, then at least always in public.  One of Churchill’s private secretaries spoke of Churchill’s drive:

The effects of Churchill’s zeal was [sic] felt immediately in Whitehall.  Government departments which under Neville Chamberlain had continued to work at much the same speed as in peacetime awoke to the realities of war.  A sense of urgency was created in the course of very few days and respectable civil servants were actually to be seen running along the corridors.  No delays were condoned; telephone switchboards quadrupled their efficiency; the Chiefs of Staff and the Joint Planning Staff were in almost constant session; regular office hours ceased to exist and weekends disappeared with them3.

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Churchill’s ability to inspire may be seen in the opening days of World War II.  He did not permit a defeatist attitude, nor would he entertain talk of reasonable terms with Adolf Hitler.  As Sir Martin Gilbert, Churchill’s official biographer, wrote, “It was Churchill’s own opposition to all forms of defeatism that marked out the first six months of his war premiership and established the nature and pattern of his war leadership.”4 Another example of Churchill’s powers of inspiration was his ability to channel his determination to the British people, and generally strengthen their resolve through enthusiastic encouragement and praise to others.  During the opening days of the war he said that, “The British people are like the sea.  You can put the bucket in anywhere, and pull it up, and always find it salt.”5 Churchill inspired not only British leaders, but British citizens as well, by projecting an attitude of optimism and stalwart fortitude.  Finally, Churchill’s robust optimism is excellently showcased in a speech he made in the House of Commons on June 4, 1940, when he spoke these famous words:

We shall go on to the end.  We shall fight in France, 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 beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.6

Churchill’s words prompted the Labour MP Josiah Wedgwood to say, “That was worth 1,000 guns, and the speeches of 1,000 years.”7 Churchill’s potent spirit of perseverance and determination is best summed up in one of his own maxims:  “We must just KBO.”  The initials stood for “Keep Buggering On.”8 Churchill understood the dangers of defeatism and poor morale as a soldier and leader, so he set the example needed to inspire others around him… and he kept “buggering on.”

Winston Churchill was also an effective statesman and leader because he possessed the attribute of strategic foresight.  An example of his keen intuition is found in the aftermath of the Munich Agreement.  While Neville Chamberlain proclaimed that its policies of appeasement had brought, “peace in our time,” Winston Churchill complained of the terms.  He declared that:  a) nothing vital was at stake; b) Czechoslovakia could “have hardly got worse” terms in the agreement; and c) the agreement would ultimately not be successful in preserving Europe’s uneasy peace while the threat of Nazi Germany under Hitler still loomed.9 World War II would prove his intuition correct.  Despite his misgivings, Churchill, “…never doubted that the Western Alliance would defeat Hitler and subsequently Japan,” and his vision was again clear.10 Another example that showcases Churchill’s strategic foresight is Communist Russia.  Churchill had early misgivings about Russia, apart from the ones that he voiced in his famous “Iron Curtain” speech, where he spoke of an iron curtain settling on Eastern Europe.  In 1931, Churchill declared in front of a large audience in Brooklyn, New York, that the great struggle of the future would be between English-speaking nations and communism.11 The Cold War would later prove his prophecy correct.  A third example of Churchill’s strategic intuition is shown during his time as First Lord of the Admiralty starting in October 1911.  Churchill summed up his approach to British naval power in these words:

Adequate preparation for war is the only guarantee for the preservation of the wealth, natural resources, and territory of the State, and it can only be based upon an understanding, firstly, of the probable dangers that may arise; secondly, of the best general method of meeting them as taught by the principles to be deduced from the events of history; and, thirdly, of the most efficient application of the war material of the era.12

Churchill applied this policy to his duties as First Lord of the Admiralty and set about thoroughly preparing Britain’s fleet for war.  He also studied German naval progress, strength, and maneuvers.  A mere four years later, World War I broke out, and thanks to Churchill’s wisdom, the British Navy was well prepared for battle.  In summary, Churchill possessed exceptional strategic foresight, tempered with a healthy dose of realism.  As one observer wrote, “Churchill had great foresight, but he knew the future is mostly unpredictable.” 13

While Winston Churchill’s foresight was a critical component of his leadership, there was another factor that elevated all of his talents to the forefront:  his passion.  Winston Churchill possessed a passion for democratic freedom that drove him to work hard for its preservation, allowing him to be an effective statesman and leader.  Perhaps the best example of Churchill’s passion is found in some of the words that he used to inspire people and battle defeatism:  “I am convinced that every man of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender.  If this long island story of ours is to last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood on the ground.”14 Churchill’s passion fueled his desire to maximize the efficiency of Britain’s wartime government and bureaucracy.  An excellent example of this efficiency is the structural organization that Churchill implemented in the English chain of command.  Sir Martin Gilbert writes that:

The organization of his wartime premiership was a central feature of Churchill’s war leadership.  That organization took several months to perfect, but from his first days as Prime Minister and Minister of Defense he worked to establish it, and to create in the immediate ambit of 10 Downing Street an organization that would give the nation strong and effective leadership.15

This organization was comprised of different councils, executives, committees, and boards.  Each leader in charge of the respective agencies sat on an executive board chaired by Churchill called the Chief of Staff Committee.  Once Churchill fine tuned this system, “…the highest possible accumulation of professional knowledge was at his disposal.”16 Churchill’s passion also produced innovation.  For example, he prompted the invention of the tank.  In order to break the deadlock of the “no-man’s land” of World War I, Churchill suggested that a type of heavy tractor with robust treads be produced from which men could fire machine guns and throw grenades from behind armor plating.  This suggestion led to the production of the first tanks.  Churchill’s service as a soldier also showcases his passion.  During World War I, Churchill served on the frontlines in France as a major with the 2nd Battalion of the Grenadier Guards.17 Eventually, Churchill became the commander of the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers, a battalion of the 9th Division.18 As a soldier, he possessed a steady, defiant courage, setting an excellent example for his men.  When he left France in 1916, one Scotsman from under his command declared that, “I believe every man in the room [at a farewell lunch] felt Winston Churchill’s leaving us a real personal loss.” 19

The last component of Churchill’s remarkable formula for success was his imperturbable personality.  Coupled with a dogged determination was a personality that was capable of exuding charm and wit, and that caused people to gravitate toward him.  Churchill famously described himself in the following way:  “We are all worms but I do believe I am a glow worm.”  History shows that he did indeed glow.  For example, he was able to maintain a poise in even the most stressful of times:

Churchill’s typists were also to find that, however bad his moods could be in dire moments of the war, he always had words of comfort for them and a ready smile-—his “beatific grin,” as Marian Holmes called it.  “Don’t mind me,” he would say after an outburst, “it’s not you—it’s the war.”  On one occasion, in November1944, finding Marian Holmes and her colleague Elizabeth Layton working in the Hawtrey Room and Chequers without a fire, he commented, “Oh, you poor things.  You must light a fire and get your coats.  It’s just as well I came in”— and he proceeded to light the fire himself, piling it high with logs.20

It may be said that Churchill’s personality was the result of a combination of different qualities that produced his witty charm.  John B. Severance, a British author on Churchill writes that, “Lots of people have imagination, courage, and tenacity.  Few people have them in the amount or combination that Churchill did.”21 Churchill used his unique charm and personality to encourage people to strive hard at their work and to excel in the jobs they were assigned.  For example, people visibly displayed their affection for Churchill, as General Ismay recalled in an incident on Downing Street when a large group of people waited outside his private entrance to the Admiralty, and greeted him with cries of encouragement and good luck.22 Churchill’s poise was also displayed in his famous wit.   One evening as a tired and wobbly Churchill was leaving the House of Commons, the Labour Member of Parliament Bessie Braddock accused him of being “disgustingly drunk.” He replied: “Bessie, my dear…you are disgustingly ugly. But tomorrow I shall be sober and you will still be disgustingly ugly.”23

World War II, however, is where Churchill’s personality shines the most.  He tirelessly travelled to military positions and installations, conducting inspections, boosting morale, and supporting commanders.  He also established a personal friendship with Franklin Delano Roosevelt and maintained strong relations and diplomatic ties with the American Government.  Through it all, he was able to maintain a cool assurance of victory and instill confidence in everyone around him.

In conclusion, of all the qualities that Churchill displayed, perhaps the most interesting was his unexpected outbursts of humility.  While Churchill’s power to inspire, his strategic foresight, his driving passion, and his unstoppable personality were the core qualities that made him an effective leader and statesman, the realization that he too was a “worm” tempered his character and kept him focused.   His lifetime spanned not only the two World Wars of the 20th century but other conflicts, historic diplomatic meetings, and the onset of the Cold War.  Winston Churchill led the British nation on two separate occasions as prime minister, in peace and in war, and on two separate occasions as First Lord of the Admiralty, both in the office and on the frontline.  Yet, he steadfastly refused to take the credit.  When cheered at the demise of Nazi Germany, he responded, “I have never accepted what many people have kindly said, namely that I inspired the nation.  It was a nation and race dwelling all round that had the lion heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.”24


[1] John B. Severance, Winston Churchill:  Soldier, Statesman, Artist (New York:  Clarion Books, 1996), 17.

[2] Ibid., 18.

[3] Geoffrey Best, Churchill and War (London and New York:  Hambledon and London, 2005), 167.

[4] Martin Gilbert, Winston Churchill’s War Leadership (New York:  Vintage Books, 2004), 27.

[5] Ibid., 26.

[6] Martin Gilbert, Churchill:  A Life (London:  Pimlico, 2000), 656.

[7] Ibid., 656.

[8] Gilbert, Churchill’s War Leadership, 29.

[9] “The Munich Agreement” in Sir Winston Churchill & World War II:  Remembering “Their Finest Hour,” High School Summer Study Abroad      (Hillsdale:  Hillsdale College, 2008), 55.

[10] John Keegan, The Second World War (New York:  Penguin Books, 1989), 310.

[11] Severance, Soldier, Statesman, Artist, 75.

[12]Gilbert, Churchill:  A Life, 239.

[13]Severance, Soldier, Statesman, Artist, 9.

[14]Gilbert, Churchill’s War Leadership, 23.

[15] Ibid., 5.

[16] Ibid., 6.

[17]Gilbert, Churchill:  A Life, 332.

[18] Ibid., 340.

[19] Ibid., 360.

[20]Gilbert, Churchill’s War Leadership, 18.

[21] Severance, Soldier, Statesman, Artist, 10.

[22]Gilbert, Churchill’s War Leadership, 48.

[23]Ronald Golding to Richard M. Langworth, Churchill by Himself (New York: Public Affairs, 2008), 550.

[24]Winston S. Churchill, The Unwritten Alliance: Speeches 1953-1959 (London: Cassell, 1961), 202-3.


Best, Geoffrey.  Churchill and War.  London and New York:  Hambledon and London, 2005.

Churchill, Winston S. The Unwritten Alliance: Speeches 1953-1959. London: Cassell, 1961.

Gilbert, Martin.  Winston Churchill’s War Leadership.  New York:  Vintage, 2004.

—.  Churchill:  A Life.  London:  Pimlico, 2000.

Keegan, John.  The Second World War.  New York:  Penguin Books, 1989.

Langworth, Richard M. Churchill by Himself: The Life, Times and Opinions of Winston S. Churchill in his Own Words. New York: Public Affairs, 2008.

Severance, John B.  Winston Churchill:  Soldier, Statesman, Artist.  New York:  Clarion Books, 1996.

Sir Winston Churchill & World War II:   Remembering “Their Finest Hour.”  High School Summer Study Abroad Program.  Hillsdale:  Hillsdale College, 2008.

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