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Marketing Viewpoint by Ruth Winett

Winston Churchill and Leadership in Hard Times

While dozens of authors have written about Winston Churchill, Erik Larson in The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz has shed new light on a leader who inspired his country and the world by his bravery and leadership during World War II.

With ninety percent of London destroyed, and with Coventry and other smaller cities badly bombed, Churchill kept going and kept his people resolute. In difficult times, leaders can learn from Churchill’s example as portrayed in the Larsen book:

1. Assess the new situation. Churchill quickly recognized that France was about to surrender and that the UK was on its own in a desperate fight for survival. Britain had fewer aircraft and fewer ships than it would take to defeat Germany. During the Blitz, 53,400 people were killed and 44,600 wounded.

2. Hire people with the imagination and fortitude to handle challenging jobs. Churchill made his newspaperman friend, Max Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook) responsible for boosting the production of fighter planes even though appointing a civilian angered the Air Ministry. Beaverbrook sourced parts from multiple suppliers, repaired and reused parts from downed planes, and converted civilian factories into production lines for aircraft. In seven weeks, he had increased the supply of planes from 45 to 1040. He was not popular, but he got the job done.

3. Exploit technology. Frederick Lindemann, a physicist advisor from Oxford, challenged the conventional wisdom and provided suggestions for thwarting the Germans’ night-flying technology. The British were limited to daytime flights.

4. Communicate clearly and sincerely with your staff and your citizens (or other stakeholders). Any leader who is a good communicator has a distinct advantage.

5. Be present and empathetic. Disregarding his personal safety, Churchill inspected the damage to London and encouraged the citizens in person. You don’t have to weep like Churchill, but you must be sincere, empathetic, and positive.

6. Cultivate allies, and ask for help when necessary. Britain was unable to defeat Germany without help. Churchill made multiple creative attempts to get isolationist-America behind Britain. He convinced President Roosevelt to loan Britain more than 50 outdated destroyers in exchange for 99-year leases of British bases in the Caribbean and on Newfoundland.

7. Engage allies through addressing their needs, not yours. Churchill told President Roosevelt that the US’s neutrality endangered the US, not that it endangered Britain.

8. Learn from your failures. The British fired on French ships in the Battle of Mers el-Kébir, Algeria, killing 1,297 French sailors. The goal had been to urge the defeated French to turn their ships over to Britain so that Axis powers would not capture them. Churchill greatly regretted the miscommunication which led to this disastrous outcome.

9. Get your team behind you. Churchill forced a Parliamentary vote of confidence that could have unseated him. In winning the vote, he became stronger than ever.

10. Be resolute. Never give up. Despite more than a year of bombing and despite defeats in Greece and at El Alamein, the British remained resolute. Their indomitable leader gave them the courage to carry on.

Churchill made mistakes, but he modeled bravery and resolve. He successfully led Britain during a war that nearly ruined Britain economically as well as militarily. Even the Nazis were impressed with him and his perseverance. He “had the ability to transform the despondent misery of disaster into a grimly certain stepping stone to ultimate victory,” said Larsen. The traits he exemplified are traits that leaders of all types of organizations should cultivate.

Actionable Business Insights

Copyright © 7/20 Ruth Winett. All rights reserved.

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