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Churchill: Above all, courage

by on
in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

Executive Leadership is pleased to welcome Winston Churchill, who epitomizes what leadership is all about, in this time-machine interview.

EL: Much of your leadership success has been attributed to your ability as a public speaker. Were you always blessed with great oratory skills?

Churchill: No, indeed. I was born with a lisp. It was an American [Congressman Bourke Cockran, New York] who inspired me and taught me how to use every note of the human voice like an organ. He was my model. I learned from him how to hold thousands in thrall. In all modesty, I was the master of chiasmus.

EL: Chiasmus?

Churchill: Chiasmus is a rhetorical device—to use chiasmus is to reverse the order of the words in two otherwise parallel phrases. Some of my better examples are: “Now this is not the end. This is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” Or my favorite: “I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the ordeal of meeting me is another matter.”

EL: What did you learn from the darkest days of the war?

Churchill: If you are going to go through hell, keep going. The fall of Singapore in February 1942 offered an opportunity to draw from the heart of misfortune the vital impulses of victory. This was another occasion to show—as often in our long story—that we can meet reverses with dignity and renewed accession of strength.

EL: Are there specific lessons from this failure that you might impart to leaders today?

Churchill: It had never entered my head that no circle of detached forts protected the rear of the famous fortress. I cannot understand how it was I did not know this. I do not tell this in any way to excuse myself. I ought to have known and I ought to have been told, and I ought to have asked.

EL: You are portrayed as such an optimist during this dark period. How did you do it?

Churchill: First, I, like millions of other people, suffered from the “Black Dog” [depression]. But I would characterize myself as an optimist. Being an optimist is important because a pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty. Indeed, success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm. As I said on my last speech to the House of Common in March 1955, the day may dawn when fair play, love for one’s fellow men, respect for justice and freedom, will enable tormented generations to march forth serene and triumphant the hideous epoch in which we have to dwell. Meanwhile, never flinch, never weary, never despair.

EL: What are the attributes of a great leader?

Churchill: Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality that guarantees all the others.

EL: You made and lost several fortunes. What have you learned about money?

Churchill: We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.

EL: How do you think you will be ­remembered?

Churchill: I published nearly 50 vol­umes of history, biography and speeches (to say nothing of my Nobel Prize for Literature), painted more than 500 canvases and found the time to beat the daylights out of Hitler. History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.


Sources: Churchill A Study in Greatness, Geoffery Best, Penguin Books; Best Little Stories from the Life and Times of Winston Churchill, C. Brian Kelly, Cumberland House; Never Give In! The Best of Winston Churchill’s Speeches, Winston S. Churchill, Hyperion.

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