What Can Winston Churchill Teach Us about Leading Change?

While in London, I had the pleasure of visiting the Churchill Museum, an extremely well-preserved vista into the past, displaying the underground rooms where Churchill, his ministers, military advisors and staff led the effort to win the Battle of Britain and ultimately World War II.  It was amazing to see history frozen in time, and learn so many details of the life of this great man and the trials and tribulations of that great generation.

Leading change can so often feel like a war zone – devising plans and strategies, arming ourselves with tools and tactics, focusing on the mission and averting scope creep, engaging stakeholders both allies and enemies, overcoming resistance, striving for small wins during the many battles to win the war, avoiding land mines, juggling scarce resources, regrouping and redeploying, coping with stress and battle fatigue, negotiating terms and conditions – I could go on and on, the analogies are seemingly endless.

Visiting the museum caused me to ponder what we as change leaders can learn from Churchill and his stewardship of WWII.  Among many other talents, he was known for his wry wit and exception oratory prowess.  Here’s a sample relevant for all of us in the business of leading change:

  • “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.” Churchill said this in response to criticisms about the fact that he changed political parties.  Indeed, this quote is the essence of Change Intelligence:  to lead change, we must start with ourselves first.  This is one way that great leaders are both courageous and vulnerable – they reflect on their strengths and weaknesses, and course correct – sometimes in very public ways – to ensure their behaviors match their values and goals, even when it’s not easy.
  • “Blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”  This quote reinforces the fact that change can be a long and arduous journey.  While most of us will never have to endure bombing raids or food rationing, we all need to cope with the emotional tribulations of letting go of the old and grappling with the new, and our own and others’ feelings of loss, confusion, and fear.
  • “Never was so much owed by so many to so few.”  In this quote Churchill was praising the Royal Air Force, giving thanks for their heroism and sacrifice while fighting the Battle of Britain, during which Hitler’s Luftwaffe bombed the country relentlessly for months on end.  So often leading change can seem like a thankless job, and we can feel scarred and shell-shocked during the fight and for quite some time after it’s over.  Great change leaders acknowledge the hard work – both effort and outcomes – that helps us fight the good fight and prevail against what can seem like insurmountable odds.

One more footnote about Churchill:  he became Prime Minister in 1940, when he was 65 years old, and remained active in British and global politics long after the war ended, retiring at age 81.  Throughout the war and beyond, he is said to have outworked his staff.  I like to keep that in mind every time I get an invitation to join AARP in the mail!  We’re never too old to make world-changing contributions, and we benefit from the wisdom of our elders.

Enjoy living in peace and freedom today.