When you’re going through hell, keep going.


Two weeks after Churchill came into power, France was knocked out of the war, and 340,000 British troops had to scramble to escape over the beaches at Dunkirk. The Germans had absolute control of all of Europe. It seemed impossible that Britain could survive.

With almost no hope left, the nation turned to Winston Churchill, the one man who had spoken the truth for years, saying nasty things about Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, even though it cost him in terms of political success and personal reputation.

Churchill’s first speech to the British people as PM laid out his program bluntly, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” He followed that with another speech shortly thereafter: “. . . we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

In other words, his plan for success: Complete and total defiance.

“We shall never surrender.” When you have nothing left but defiance, commit to it with everything you have. Like Prince Hal in Shakespeare’s Henry V, Churchill used language to rouse the fighting spirit he believed was still alive in the British people, saying, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” And the line that summed up his personal career and the spirit that led the British people to victory: “Never, never, never give up.”

Churchill would later describe what he did this way, “It was the nation and the race dwelling all round the globe that had the lion’s heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.”

He was right about the lion’s heart. Within months, the Luftwaffe would duel the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain. The RAF was badly outnumbered by its German opponents, but that didn’t stop it from beating the Germans day after day, month after month. Finally the Germans admitted defeat by changing tactics and began the Blitz, the strategic bombing of London and southern England.

Londoners proved Churchill’s lion’s heart remark again, taking care of each other in the tube stations during the air raids while firefighters made sure that St. Paul’s survived the bombing.

As we emerge from the recession of the last few years, it’s good to remember things could be a lot worse. Take a few pointers from Churchill as you try to lead your organization into recovery:

Remember that “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference,” as Churchill said.

No matter what kind of shape your business is in, if your attitude is never, never, never give up, you stand a much better chance of succeeding. The folks you work with will pick up on your sincerity and conviction, and they’ll begin to operate the same way. And it will enable all of you to take the difficult steps necessary.

Be absolutely honest. Has any organization’s leader ever been blunter than Churchill when he told his desperate countrymen that he had nothing to offer them “but blood, toil, tears and sweat”? If Churchill could be that forthright as he faced annihilation, you can be too, no matter what it is you’re facing. So . . . never surrender.

For Churchill and England surrender was not an option, which freed Churchill to do whatever he had to do, including making some brutally harsh decisions. As the Battle for France raged in May 1940, French leaders begged Churchill for British air support. But the RAF’s commanders told Churchill that it was urgent that they conserve their fighters for the anticipated battle in their own skies. Churchill left the French to fend for themselves and held back the fighters, positioning the RAF for its triumph in the Battle of Britain.

Support innovation. Churchill had been one of the early backers of tanks, hoping they could be deployed in World War I to break the awful stalemate of trench warfare. In 1944, he would champion the use of artificial harbors called mulberries — cement-filled ship hulls that could be sunk where needed to create instant harbors for troop deployments and supplies.

But the most innovative and most important thing Churchill supported was radar (the British were the first to deploy effective radar systems). The Brits created a number of radar stations in southern England to use as an early-detection system, and coupled it with a brilliant fighter-command system that allowed the RAF’s air marshals to dispatch fighters where and when they were needed. Radar went a long way to neutralize the Germans’ gigantic superiority in numbers. (The Brits, at Churchill’s urging, shared radar’s secrets with the United States, and the Americans put it to very good use as well.)

Once America entered the war, as Churchill later confessed in his history of World War II, he knew that the Germans would be defeated. But for nineteen months, Churchill had to rally a beaten people against an unstoppable foe. How did he do it? He understood the people he was leading — and he understood what it was they wanted, what it was that the Nazis were trying to destroy. He said, “All the great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom, justice, honor, duty, mercy, hope.” He was able to lead because he knew the people he was leading and never separated himself from them. He was, quite literally, willing to die for them.

Most managers aren’t asked to be that willing. But your commitment should be close to Churchill’s — as close as you can get when the situation is not life-and-death. If you haven’t got that commitment, maybe you should be looking for another line of work.

Just in case you were asleep for a large portion of the 20th Century (or were born very late in it), I’ll catch you up on what happened to Mr. Churchill. After saving his country from the brink of destruction, Churchill was forced out of office by a vote of the British people just before the end of the war in 1945.

Churchill was hurt but showed the classic British stiff upper lip by saying, “History will be kind to me — for I intend to write it.” Write it he did, a six-volume history called The Second World War, which was the primary reason he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953.

But history was going to be kind to him whether he wrote it or not. The British people returned him to the office of Prime Minister, 1951-1955. Queen Elizabeth offered to create Churchill as Duke of London, but he declined. In 1963, by an act of the U.S. Congress, he was the first living person named Honorary Citizen of the United States.

When Winston Churchill died on January 24, 1965 at the age of 90, the Queen decreed that he should have a state funeral, the first ever in English history for a non-royal. The former has-been and crackpot had journeyed a very long way on the strength of his courage and commitment.


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