We Shall Not Fail
War, like business, is challenging for leaders because of the utter unpredictability.
You can seldom carry out a strategy exactly as planned.
"War, like business, is challenging for leaders because of the utter unpredictability. You can seldom carry out a strategy exactly as planned. You must do your best with the hand you’re dealt, since the opposition often prevents you from doing what you would like to do.
As Winston Churchill put it, “An operation of war can’t be thought-out like building a bridge: certainty is not demanded, and genius, improvisation, and energy of mind must have their parts.” War presents enormous obstacles, but somehow Churchill succeeded where others would have failed. He mapped out clear strategies and created effective teams. He was inspirational. He chose talented people and communicated his instructions clearly.
His eight principles are a perfect model for winning in business:
1. Have a clear vision and strategy. War and business are a subtle combination of setting and meeting short- and long-term objectives. The immediate aim might be to succeed in a particular offensive, the goal to defeat the enemy. But, it is no simple matter to get there. Long-term strategies are often complex and need to constantly evolve. “The issue usually is not in the realm of Yes or No,” Churchill reflected, “but more in that of More or Less.”
No strategy succeeds without clear vision, and it was clear that Britain by itself could not defeat Nazi Germany. Churchill wisely judged that if Britain fell, America would also be at risk, and Churchill formed his vision and strategy around America’s involvement.
2. Organize to overcome opposition. Without sufficient coordination, strategies flounder. Churchill learned the hard way in WWI that a war can’t be run properly without the right organization. Upon becoming Prime Minister, he quickly appointed himself Minister of Defense, a post that had not existed. With it went a small secretariat that kept him informed, conveyed his instructions, and ensured that nothing stagnated.
The lesson is to keep track of as many aspects of your business as possible. Churchill’s able secretariat kept him apprised of every significant development. He embraced all aspects of the war. Though accountable to his Cabinet and to Parliament, he acquired more power than is usual, explaining, “It was accepted because everyone knew how near death and ruin we were.”
Just as battle-tested business executives manage to pull their companies together when they are nearly on the rocks, Churchill was able to mesh the military, manufacturing, Parliament, and the public in the face of disaster. As one colonel wrote: “The days of coordination were gone. We were now going to get direction, leadership, and action!”
In business, someone has to be in charge, and systems must be in place for authority to be exercised sensibly. Coordinate strategy and action. Departments are most likely to thrive when they are in friendly competition for resources and markets.
3. Exercise willpower to execute the strategy. Formulating a strategy is an intellectual process. Keeping it going is about willpower. Churchill’s hearty enthusiasm and pithy comments prompted action. As Churchill saw it, the war would not be won by purely defensive measures. The Allies had to take the war into Germany.
Churchill often expressed his strategic insights in simple statements: “Battles are won by slaughter and maneuver. The greater the general, the more he contributes in maneuver the less he demands in slaughter.”
In mapping out plans for business, little should be set in stone. Churchill noted, “In war, all principles are governed by facts and circumstances; otherwise, strategy would become a drill-book and not an art; it would depend upon rules and not on judgment of the proportions of an ever-changing scene.”
The same could be said about rolling out this year’s model or introducing a new service. For your strategy to succeed, you need real-time adjustments.
4. Bank on the experience factor. Before he became Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, Churchill had held various positions. Unlike many politicians, he could talk on equal terms with admirals, generals, and marshals.
Leaders need to understand the whole business. You don’t need to know as much about every department as your experts, but you must be sufficiently well versed to comfortably air your arguments in a constructive dialogue. By the time Churchill became wartime Prime Minister, the job fit him like a glove: “I felt as if I were walking with destiny and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and this trial. I knew a good deal about it, and I was sure I would not fail.”
The more you know about the history and intricacies of your business, the more likely you will plot a strong future.
5. Show tactical flexibility. Flexibility and swift reactions are essential to cope with rapidly changing situations. Don’t fence your strategy in with too detailed instructions. Leave a loose rein for those charged with producing results. Only then can they exercise their initiative and react to the changing circumstances without needing further guidance.
Granting people leeway in achieving objectives demonstrates your confidence in them. Brief instructions encourage success and succinct reports, and Churchill only dealt in detail when he thought it necessary. His strategic directives were always to the point.
6. Install inspiring front-line leadership. High morale requires an inspiring leader. Churchill inspired with his words, but that was only part of his leadership. Wise leaders position themselves where they can exert the greatest influence on the most important issues. In the summer of 1940, when the situation was desperate, Churchill walked the ruined streets of London, addressed Parliament, and broadcast to the nation.
A general who operates from the safety of his headquarters will never be inspirational. Troops are quick to criticize such behavior, while the leader who shares their dangers is admired. To lead from the front requires intellectual and physical leadership.
7. Find and place top talent. When Churchill became Prime Minister, he was able to start with a clean slate. Leaders seek able men and weigh results over personality. “The High Commands are not a club,” Churchill said, “It is my duty to make sure that exceptionally able men, even though not popular with their contemporaries, should not be prevented from giving their services.” Churchill offered various tradesmen and men of color the opportunity to rise to officer rank.
Don’t leave employment and promotion policies to the “personnel experts.” Promote from within before hiring from outside, and make sure that individuals are promoted irrespective of race and color, and if suitable, from departments not normally considered “management” material. Sometimes the top man or woman for a job is the one who has made the best of a difficult appointment, not someone who has coasted in an easy position.
8. Remember: Nothing inspires like enthusiasm. Churchill was no warmonger. He had seen too much battle firsthand. But he was enlivened by the rush of adrenaline triggered by his responsibilities: leading and lifting the morale of a nation; organizing a nation at war; forging alliances with Roosevelt and Stalin; and surviving dangers to which he exposed himself. He relished all of it.
Business leaders would be wise to study Churchill’s wartime performance when faced with their own crises.
Celia Sandys, granddaughter of Winston Churchill, is the founder of Churchill Leadership, and the author of We Shall Not Fail: The Inspiring Leadership of Winston Churchill, from which this article has been adapted. (415) 421-1900, email@example.com, www.churchillleadership.com
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- Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.