Lessons you can learn from Winston Churchill

Sir Winston Spencer Churchill is Britain’s most famous prime minister for excellent reason.

Churchill’s leadership saved the United Kingdom from probable destruction in 1940. It was Churchill’s tenacity and ability to convince Britons to fight on that kept Britain from capitulating to the Nazis.

Those abilities came from Churchill’s remarkable but flawed intellect and insight into the world. I think everybody has such insights, but few people learn how to capitalize on them.

Understanding how Churchill saw the world and used those insights can help you become effective in many situations. Some lessons you can learn from Churchill include:

1. Learn how to see The Big Picture

Most people fail or give up because they see only part of the situation. For example, in the summer of 1940 most Britons could only see the destruction of France and German air power.

Churchill; however, understood the Big Picture. For instance, Churchill realized that German air power was limited and Britain had the resources to counter it. More importantly, Churchill understood that Britain was not alone.

Churchill; however, understood the Big Picture. For instance, Churchill realized that German air power was limited and Britain had the resources to counter it. More importantly, Churchill understood that Britain was not alone.

Hence, while most British people were panicking. Churchill realized that in a few months or a year America could provide Britain with greater military resources than Germany.

Therefore, Churchill based his decision to keep fighting on a rational assessment and a deep understanding of the true situation, not optimism. Like many big picture thinkers, Churchill realized most people would come over to his side as they learned the Big Picture.

Consequently, understanding the Big Picture is critical in any field of endeavor. Whether you are running for office; building a business, or conducting a marketing campaign, an understanding of the Big Picture is critical for success.

2. Reject Conventional Wisdom and Popular Opinion

Churchill was a successful war leader because he rejected conventional wisdom and ignored popular opinion. Churchill understood that popular opinion and conventional wisdom rest on a shallow understanding of the situation and often wrong.

For example, in the late 1930s conventional wisdom and popular opinion in Britain held that making concessions to Germany would create peace. However, Germany’s leader; Adolph Hitler, was not interested in peace.

By ignoring conventional wisdom and popular opinion, Churchill understood that war was inevitable and prepared for it. Thus, Churchill was the only British leader psychologically prepared for war in 1939.

Furthermore, in the Summer of 1940 conventional wisdom and popular opinion dictated that the Germans had defeated Britain. In reality, Britain had many important military assets left including an enormous army, a powerful fleet, a large war industry, a growing air force, and important allies overseas (the United States and Canada).

By rejecting conventional wisdom, Churchill realized that Britain was in an excellent position to continue the war in 1940. By 1941, most Britons came to realize that Churchill was right and victory was possible.

3. Understand how history applies to today’s world

One reason why Churchill thought Britain could fight on and win was his understanding of history.

As a historian, Churchill knew that the situation Britain faced in the summer of 1940 was neither new nor unique. On several occasions, Britain had found itself threatened by a giant European power with an enormous army and won.

For example, in the late 17th Century French King Louis XIV threatened Britain with Europe’s largest army. Yet the British and their allies ultimately defeated Louis XIV in the War of the Spanish Succession 1701-1714.

Later in the Seven Years War (1756-1763) the British used their naval power to defeat the French and Spanish on battlefields all over the world. During the Napoleonic Wars, Napoleon controlled most of Europe and threatened Britain with invasion. Yet the British still won.

One reason for Churchill’s optimism was the Prime Minister’s realization that alliances change. Napoleon I, lost because he turned on his most powerful ally Russian Czar Alexander I. Instead of destroying Britain Napoleon invaded Russia and suffered a humiliating defeat.

Ultimately, Hitler repeated Napoleon’s mistake by turning on his best ally, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Like his hero Napoleon, Hitler wasted most of his resources on a useless war against Russia.

Consequently, Britain went from a position of weakness and fighting alone with few allies in 1940 to a position of strength in 1942. By 1942, Britain had two powerful allies the United States and the USSR actively fighting the Germans.

Churchill’s reading of history convinced him that Russia and America would eventually come to Britain’s aid. Hence, in 1940 Churchill treated the United States and the USSR as future allies rather than enemies or neutrals.

History proved Churchill correct. Churchill’s experience shows that a good understanding of history can help you identify patterns that can lead to success.

4. Be Honest

One reason many people hate politicians; and other leaders, is their tendency to lie even in the face of ugly realities. Conversely, one of Churchill’s greatest strengths was his ability to discuss horrendous truths.

For example, when he became Prime Minister on 13 May 1940 Churchill made this statement to his war cabinet: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

People respect Churchill’s memory because he was honest. Instead of lying to the British people and promising an easy victory. Churchill admitted the ugly truth that Britain had a long, bloody, vicious, and destructive struggle in front it. Moreover, Churchill admitted the British people could receive nothing for their struggle and sacrifice.

Thus, Churchill won the people’s respect by being honest with him. Churchill, like Gandhi and Lincoln, understood the power of honesty.

People will follow an honest leader to hell and back because that leader gives them reasons to trust him or her. Likewise, people will not trust or follow a leader who uses lies to win support.

5. Remember that there will be a future and think in the long-term

Churchill fought on in 1940 because he understood that there is a future. Moreover, Churchill understood we can change the future.

Thus, while German bombs were panicking most Britons in 1940, Churchill was thinking about the war’s end. Churchill was looking forward to British bombing of Germany while most Britons were watching the skies for German paratroops.

Churchill was free to engage in long-range planning, because he thought in the long-term. That meant Churchill was making plans to win the war in 1940 while most people were thinking about losing it.

Churchill’s ability to think long-term enabled him to see victory when most people saw defeat.

6. Focus on the Final Goal and Remind Your Team of the Ultimate Goal

During World War II, Churchill was constantly talking about victory. For instance, Churchill loved to flash the V for Victory sign.

Churchill emphasized victory because he understood that people caught in a struggle often forget the ultimate goal. Obviously, the ultimate goal in war is victory; but many people forget victory when they concentrate on the details of the conflict.

Emphasizing victory allowed Churchill to remind the British people and their allies that the goal was victory over the Axis. Importantly, the victory emphasis let Churchill tell the people they could defeat the Axis.

Hence, one great lesson you can learn from Churchill is to emphasize your ultimate goal and remind your team of it. For example, if you are in a political campaign remind the team the goal is winning the election. Likewise, remind your sales team that the ultimate goal is making money.

Focusing on the ultimate goal and reminding ordinary people of that goal is a key role of a successful leader. Unfortunately, many leaders forget the goal and wonder why their team loses focus and fails.

Churchill understood that people will forget the ultimate goal if we do not remind them of it. So remind your team of the ultimate goal, every day.

Churchill had many flaws as his failure to deal with the 1943 Bengal famine shows. However, Churchill’s ability to think long-term, understand history, be honest, see the big picture, and ignore conventional wisdom gave him the mental tools for victory.

Understanding how Churchill thought and triumphed in a supposedly hopeless situation can show you how to survive and overcome adversity. Churchill’s career shows that how you see the world can help you snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.