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How Churchill developed self-reliance

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in Leaders & Managers

As a young British war correspondent during the Boer War, Winston Churchill found himself imprisoned in a South African POW camp. He and other inmates desperately wanted to escape, but guards marched ceaselessly back and forth just outside the camp’s outer walls. Churchill and his colleagues couldn’t see a way.

But when they analyzed the situation, they realized they could jump over the eastern wall unseen at the precise moment that the two guards patrolling the eastern perimeter had marched to one end of the wall and turned their backs before reversing direction.

Churchill was the only prisoner to try it and the only one to get over the wall. The problem was, jumping over was the only step he had planned in his entire escape. He knew nothing more about where he was going, or how to get there.

But Churchill relied on his smarts. Dressed in civilian clothes, he walked calmly though Pretoria. When he came to train tracks, he hid until dark and jumped on a passing freight train.

 Once out of Pretoria, he hid in mines and did what he had to do to safely reach the border of Portuguese East Africa, 300 miles away, where he was a free man. If he had failed, he would have been shot. But because he knew he could rely on himself, he felt curiously calm and in control.

Lesson: In certain desperate times, you can plan only your first move carefully. Then, you must count on yourself to handle whatever comes up.

— Adapted from My Early Life, Sir Winston Churchill, Touchstone.

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