Learn about inspirational leadership at your agency from Winston Churchill

See six lessons via Winston Churchill on inspirational leadership.

Winston Churchill had a talent for delivering bad news in a way that boosted morale, leaving people feeling inspired in the face of difficult odds. Indeed, inspirational leadership is a theme throughout Erik Larson’s excellent new biography, The Splendid and the Vile (2020).

As a long-time fan of the British prime minister’s leadership, I knew pieces of the story from past biographies and from visiting the Churchill Museum and Churchill War Rooms in London. Churchill wasn’t a role model in every way… but Larson’s page-turner is especially relevant today.

We can learn from how Churchill inspired people during dark times, as you lead your agency today. Everything I quote in this article comes from Larson’s bestseller—I recommend reading the original for even more inspiration.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a scary time—and a time that requires inspirational leadership. Comparing Churchill to his appeasement-minded predecessor, a WWII diarist noted: “If I had to spend my whole life with a man, I’d choose Chamberlain, but I think I would sooner have Mr. Churchill if there was a storm and I was shipwrecked.

In an uncertain world, it’s hard to practice inspirational leadership—yet it’s all the more important now. If we lose hope, we risk creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Let’s explore six lessons from the book for you and your agency.

#1: See and be seen.

Your team needs your leadership and inspiration… regardless of whether you feel ready:

“Ismay was struck by how much the public seemed to need this new prime minister. While walking with him from 10 Downing back to Admiralty House, Ismay marveled at the enthusiastic greeting Churchill got from the men and women they passed. A group of people waiting at the private entrance to No. 10 offered their congratulations and encouragement, with cries of ‘Good luck, Winnie. God bless you.’

Churchill was deeply moved, Ismay saw. Upon entering the building, Churchill, never afraid to express emotion, began to weep. ‘Poor people, poor people,’ he said. ‘They trust me, and I can give them nothing but disaster for quite a long time.'”

There’s power in “see and be seen”:

Churchill understood the power of symbolic acts. He stopped at an air-raid shelter where a bomb had killed forty people and a large crowd was gathering.

For a moment, Ismay feared that the onlookers might resent Churchill’s arrival, out of indignation at the government’s failure to protect the city, but these East Enders seemed delighted. Ismay heard someone shout, ‘Good old Winnie! We thought you’d come and see us. We can take it. Give it ’em back.’

Colin Perry, who had witnessed the raid from his bicycle, saw Churchill and wrote in his diary, ‘He looked invincible, which he is. Tough, bulldogged, piercing.’

Tough, yes, but at times weeping openly, overcome by the devastation and the resilience of the crowd. In one hand he held a large white handkerchief, with which he mopped his eyes; in his other he grasped the handle of his walking stick. ‘You see,’ an elderly woman called out, ‘he really cares; he’s crying.’

When he came to a group of dispirited people looking over what remained of their homes, one woman shouted, ‘When are we going to bomb Berlin, Winnie?’ Churchill whirled, shook his fist and walking stick, and snarled, ‘You leave that to me!’

At this, the mood of the crowd abruptly changed, as witnessed by a government employee named Samuel Battersby. ‘Morale rose immediately,’ he wrote. ‘Everyone was satisfied and reassured.’ It was the perfect rejoinder for the moment, he decided. ‘What could a Prime Minister at that time and in such desperate conditions say that was not pathetically inadequate—or even downright dangerous?’

To Battersby, it typified ‘the uniquely unpredictable magic that was Churchill’—his ability to transform ‘the despondent misery of disaster into a grimly certain stepping stone to ultimate victory.’

It’s OK to recharge—but don’t hide, especially when times are tough:

“[On learning a large attack would come that evening,] Churchill ordered his driver to turn around. Wrote secretary Martin, ‘He was not going to sleep quietly in the country while London was under what was expected to be a heavy attack.’

‘Churchill went to the Cabinet War Rooms to await the raid. He did many things well, but waiting was not one of them. Growing impatient, he climbed to the roof of the nearby Air Ministry building to watch for the attack…'”

You aren’t in this alone—ask allies for what you need:

This was Churchill at his most deft—candid yet encouraging, grave but uplifting, seeking to bolster his own people while reassuring, albeit somewhat disingenuously, the great mass of Americans that all he wanted from the United States was material aid.’ … ‘Churchill entered his closing rhetorical drive [as 70% of Britain—and Nazi propaganda minister Goebbels—listened].

‘Here is the answer which I will give to President Roosevelt: Put your confidence in us,’ Churchill said. ‘Give us your faith and your blessing, and, under Providence, all will be well. ‘We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire. Neither the sudden shock of battle, nor the long-drawn trials of vigilance and exertion will wear us down. ‘Give us the tools, and we will finish the job.’” …

“That weekend, King George came to a new realization. In his diary he wrote, ‘I could not have a better Prime Minister.’

#2: Vent privately, not publicly.

If you’re tempted to vent to everyone, stop yourself—vent privately, not publicly:

“The French, [Colville] told Churchill, were moving ever closer to capitulating. Churchill said, ‘Tell them…that if they let us have their [naval] fleet we shall never forget, but that if they surrender without consulting us we shall never forgive. We shall blacken their name for a thousand years!’

He paused, then added, “Don’t, of course, do that just yet.’

It’s risky to share all your concerns with the team, especially when you’re in a leadership role:

“In his diary the next day [General Alan] Brooke wrote, ‘All reports look like invasion getting nearer.’ For him, as the general in charge of defending Britain from attack, the tension was great. ‘I do not think I can remember any time in the whole of my career when my responsibilities weighed heavier on me than they did during those days of the impending invasion,’ he wrote later.

The survival of Britain would rest on his preparations and his ability to direct his forces, despite what he knew to be their shortcomings in training and armament. All this, he wrote, ‘made the prospect of the impending conflict a burden that was almost unbearable at times.’

Compounding this was the fact that he felt he could not reveal his inner concerns. Like Churchill, he understood the power and importance of outward appearance.

He wrote, ‘There was not a soul to whom one could disclose one’s inward anxieties without risking the calamitous effects of lack of confidence, demoralization, doubts, and all those insidious workings which undermine the power of resistance.'”

#3: Follow bad news with inspiration.

When you share bad news, follow it with inspiration:

“He worked on his radio speech until the last minute, from six to nine that night, before settling himself in front of a BBC microphone. ‘I speak to you for the first time as Prime Minister in a solemn hour for the life of our country,’ he began. … The speech set a pattern that he would follow throughout the war, offering a sober appraisal of facts, tempered with reason for optimism. ‘It would be foolish to disguise the gravity of the hour,’ he said. ‘It would be still more foolish to lose heart and courage.’

“The speech terrified some listeners, but Churchill’s apparent candor—at least on the threat of invasion, if not the true state of the French army—encouraged others…”

Keep people inspired:

“Here, as in other speeches, Churchill demonstrated a striking trait: his knack for making people feel loftier, stronger, and, above all, more courageous. John Martin, one of his private secretaries, believed that he ‘gave forth a confidence and invincible will that called out everything that was brave and strong.’

Under his leadership, Martin wrote, Britons began to see themselves as ‘protagonists on a vaster scene and as champions of a high and invincible cause, for which the stars in their courses were fighting.’

Sometimes, choose to omit the worst parts:

“On June 4 [1940], the last day of the [Dunkirk] evacuation, in an address to the House of Commons, Churchill again turned to oratory, this time to bolster the empire as a whole. First he applauded the success at Dunkirk, though he added a sober reminder: ‘Wars are not won by evacuations.’

As he neared the conclusion of the speech, he fired his boilers. ‘We shall go on to the end,’ he said, in a crescendo of ferocity and confidence. ‘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 the 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—’

As the House roared its approval, Churchill muttered to a colleague, ‘And…we will fight them with the butt end of broken bottles, because that’s bloody well all we’ve got.’ …

One young navy man, Ludovic Kennedy, later to achieve fame as a journalist and broadcaster, recalled how ‘when we heard it, we knew in an instant, that everything would be all right.’

#4: Celebrate “proxy” victories.

Small wins count, too:

“What especially heartened the public was that the RAF appeared consistently to best the Luftwaffe. In the battle off Dover, as Churchill told Roosevelt in one of the Foreign Office’s daily telegraphic updates, the Germans suffered six confirmed losses (three fighters, three bombers); the British lost a single Hurricane. … [For the public], ‘the bringing down of raiders…has a psychological effect immensely greater than the military advantage gained.'”

Your team wants to see that the agency is fighting to win:

“This new surge in morale had nothing to do with Churchill’s speech and everything to do with his gift for understanding how simple gestures could generate huge effects. What had infuriated Londoners was that during these night raids the Luftwaffe seemed free to come and go as it wished, without interference from the night-blind RAF and the city’s strangely quiescent anti-aircraft guns. Gun crews were under orders to conserve ammunition and fire only when aircraft were sighted overhead and, as a consequence, did little firing at all.

On Churchill’s orders, more guns were brought to the city, boosting the total to nearly two hundred, from ninety-two. More importantly, Churchill now directed their crews to fire with abandon, despite his knowing full well that guns only rarely brought down aircraft. The orders took effect that Wednesday night, September 11. The impact on civic morale was striking and immediate. Crews blasted away; one official described it as ‘largely wild and uncontrolled shooting.’ Searchlights swept the sky.

Shells burst over Trafalgar Square and Westminster like fireworks, sending a steady rain of shrapnel onto the streets below, much to the delight of London’s residents. The guns raised ‘a momentous sound that sent a chattering, smashing, blinding thrill through the London heart,’ wrote novelist William Sansom. Churchill himself loved the sound of the guns; instead of seeking shelter, he would race to the nearest gun emplacement and watch.

The new cacophony had ‘an immense effect on people’s morale,’ wrote private secretary John Martin. ‘Tails are up and, after the fifth sleepless night, everyone looks quite different this morning—cheerful and confident. It was a curious bit of mass psychology—the relief of hitting back.

The next day’s Home Intelligence reports confirmed the effect. ‘The dominating topic of conversation today is the anti-aircraft barrage of last night. This greatly stimulated morale: in public shelters people cheered and conversation shows that the noise brought a shock of positive pleasure.‘”

Rally your team to a common cause:

“On the ground, too, there was a different attitude, this in tune with the overall feeling that England had shown beyond a doubt that it could endure Hitler’s onslaught; now it was time to return the favor. A Mass-Observation diarist who worked as a traveling salesman wrote in his diary:

The spirit of the people seems to be moving from passive to active and rather than cower in shelters they prefer to be up and doing. Incendiaries seem to be tackled as though they were fireworks and tackling fires in top rooms with stirrup pumps is just part of the evening’s work.

One leader was telling me his chief trouble is to prevent people taking risks. Everyone wants to ‘bag a bomb.’

#5: Recognize that perception is reality.

Consider how you come across to your team—with poor delivery as the exception rather than the rule:

“Although public reaction [to the broadcast version of the ‘This was their finest hour’ speech] varied, one consistent theme was criticism of Churchill’s delivery.

‘Some suggested he was drunk,’ Mass-Observation reported on Wednesday, June 19, ‘others that he did not himself feel the confidence he was proclaiming. A few thought he was tired. It would seem that the delivery to some extent counteracted the contents of the speech.‘ … One listener went so far as to send a telegram to 10 Downing Street warning that Churchill sounded as though he had a heart condition, and recommended he work lying down.

As it happened, the problem was largely mechanical. Churchill had insisted on reading the speech with a cigar clenched in his mouth.'”

Indeed, perception becomes reality:

Goebbels confessed in his diary to feeling a new respect for Churchill. ‘This man is a strange mixture of heroism and cunning,’ he wrote. ‘If he had come to power in 1933, we would not be where we are today.

And I believe that he will give us a few more problems yet. But we can and will solve them. Nevertheless, he is not to be taken as lightly as we usually take him.'”

You likely won’t have everything you want… but you can use what you’ve got:

“The empire’s preparedness was, [U.S. ambassador Joseph Kennedy] related, ‘appallingly weak’ relative to Germany’s great strength. ‘Pitiful,’ he wrote. All England possessed was courage.

#6: Accept that your work may not be fully appreciated today.

Inspiring your team can pay off enormously…

“Against all odds, Britain stood firm, its citizens more emboldened than cowed. Somehow, through it all, Churchill had managed to teach them the art of being fearless.

It is possible that the people would have risen to the occasion no matter who had been there to lead them, but that is speculation,’ wrote Ian Jacob, military assistant secretary to the War Cabinet under Churchill and later a lieutenant general. ‘What we know is that the Prime Minister provided leadership of such outstanding quality that people almost reveled in the dangers of the situation and gloried in standing alone.’

Wrote War Cabinet secretary Edward Bridges, ‘Only he had the power to make the nation believe that it could win.’

…Diana Cooper, wife of Information Minister Duff Cooper, told Churchill that the best thing he had done was to give people courage. He did not agree. ‘I never gave them courage,’ he said. ‘I was able to focus theirs.’

In the end, London endured, albeit with grave injuries. Between September 7, 1940, when the first large-scale attack on central London occurred, and Sunday morning, May 11, 1941, when the Blitz came to an end, nearly 29,000 of its citizens were killed, and 28,556 seriously injured. No other British city experienced such losses, but throughout the United Kingdom the total of civilian deaths in 1940 and 1941, including those in London, reached 44,652, with another 52,370 injured.”

… but accept that not everyone will appreciate your efforts:

“Just two weeks later, in an episode of breathtaking irony, the British public voted the Conservative Party out of power, forcing Churchill’s resignation. He had seemed the ideal man to run a war, less so to guide Britain’s postwar recovery.

… [Seeing him despondent, Churchill’s daughter Mary] poured her sadness for her father into her diary: ‘It was an agonizing spectacle to watch this giant among men—equipped with every faculty of mind and spirit wound to the tightest pitch—walking unhappily round and round unable to employ his great energy and boundless gifts—nursing in his heart a grief and disillusion I can only guess at.'”

… Churchill was the last to sign [the guestbook as he departed the prime minister’s country house]. He added beneath his name a single word: ‘Finis.’

Applying Inspirational Leadership at Your Agency

Inspirational leadership is hard—but worth it. To recap my takeaways from Winston Churchill in The Splendid and the Vile:

  1. See and be seen. Now’s not the time to hide away; your team needs to see you.
  2. Vent privately, not publicly. Find a way to balance how you feel vs. what you say.
  3. Follow bad news with inspiration. Share difficult updates, but pair them with hope.
  4. Celebrate “proxy” victories. Treasure what you can, even they’re indirect wins.
  5. Recognize that perception is reality. True or not, people believe what they perceive to be true.
  6. Accept that your work may not be fully appreciated today. But that’s OK; that’s leadership.

Question: What do you take from Churchill’s inspirational leadership, as you lead your agency through difficult times?

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