Five Key Leadership Traits of Winston Churchill

In the midst of a challenging US election season, I recently re-read British historian Paul Johnson’s 166-page biography of Winston Churchill (2009, Viking Books), and was reminded of the important leadership lessons we can glean from Churchill’s example.

Few can hope to mirror Churchill’s achievements: he spent more than 50 years as a member of Parliament – including two separate stints as Prime Minister - fought in 15 battles, was a prominent figure in the first world war and a towering leader in the second, wrote more published words than most professional writers, produced more painted canvases than most professional artists, personally constructed buildings, walls and gardens by hand and was surrounded all his life by a large and much loved family and countless friends. How did he do it?

Johnson condenses Churchill’s secrets to success down to five key goals he strived for all his life.

1). Aim high. Whatever path Churchill chose to follow, he always sought to be the best he could be. He relentlessly mastered oratory so he could rise in the political world. He fought on the front lines of war and worked tirelessly to master strategy and logistics so that he was equipped to lead the military and a nation at war. He dreamed big and always aimed to be the best at whatever endeavor he undertook.

2). Work hard. Churchill believed there was no substitute for hard work. While he was a master at conserving his physical energy (he often worked in bed for hours in the early morning), he worked hard all day, consumed large dinners (with prodigious amounts of alcohol) and then returned to work most evenings until late at night. He had almost around the clock clerical help to capture dictation at any hour and in any location –whether at his desk, his bed, or his bath. He was a man in constant motion.

3). Recover from failure. Churchill made enormous mistakes throughout his career, and then redoubled his effort to correct them and learn from them. His mistakes in the first World War, which led to significant military losses, would have ended the career of most other politicians. After leading his country to victory in WWII, he lost his seat as Prime Minister in the post war period, only to win it back again in 1951. He never let setbacks keep him down and he scrambled back to his feet each time. He obviously had been born with special abilities in this area, but he also worked hard to cultivate the ability to overcome humiliation and defeat and his success in this area is inspirational.

4). Forgive and forget. Churchill wasted no energy on what Johnson calls the “meannesses of life: recrimination, shifting the blame to others, malice, revenge seeking, dirty tricks, spreading rumors, harboring grudges, waging vendettas.” He fought hard, won or lost and then moved on to the next challenge. He took pleasure from converting enemies to friends. 

5). Save room for joy. Having wasted no time on hatred, Churchill created plenty of space in his life for joy. He was steadily surrounded by family and friends and made time for both. He loved to laugh and sing and collected and told jokes throughout his life. He relished life and created joy for others along the way.

Regardless of your chosen profession, Churchill’s life offers guidance in how to be your best and achieve success. Perhaps during this challenging political year more than any other, aspiring leaders would do well to learn from his example.