October 9, 2014

Five Lessons for Us from Winston Churchill's Life

In a prior post, I talked about how much I was enjoying Paul Johnson’s biography of Churchill. I agree with Johnson’s opening sentence:
Of all the towering figures of the 20th century, both good and evil, Winston Churchill was the most valuable to humanity and also the most likable.
Winston Churchill led a full life, and few people are ever likely to equal it. But Taylor suggests we all can learn from it. He offers five lessons from Churchill’s life.

I was going to summarize the five lessons Taylor provides. But the idea of substituting my words for Taylor’s made absolutely no sense.  I know most of you would prefer shorter posts, but this isn’t all that long and it is well worth reading . . . and re-reading, which I have done and will continue to do.

The first lesson is: always aim high. As a child Churchill received no positive encouragement from his father and little from his mother. He was aware of failure at school. But he still aimed high. He conquered his aversion to math, at least enough to pass. He reinforced success in what he could do: write a good English sentence. Conscious of his ignorance, he set himself to master English history and familiarize himself with great chunks of literature. Once his own master, he played polo to win the top award in the world. He got himself into five wars in quick succession and became both a veteran of military lore as one of the world’s most experienced (and highly paid) war  correspondents. Then he set his sights on the House of Commons and stayed there (with one lapse) for over half a century. He sought power and got it in growing amplitude. He never cadged or demeaned himself to get office, but obtained it on his own terms. He sought to be Prime Minister feeling only he could achieve certain things. In 1940 he aimed not only high but at the highest – – to rescue a stricken country in danger of being demoralized, to put it firmly on its feet again, and to carry it to salvation and victory. He did not always meet his elevated targets, but by always aiming high he always achieved something worthwhile.

Lesson number two is: there is no substitute for hard work. Churchill obscured this moral by his  (for him) efficient habit of spending a working morning in bed, telephoning, dictating, and consulting. He also manifestly enjoyed his leisure activities, for him, another form of hard work, to keep himself fit and rested and to enable himself to do his job at the top of his form. The balance he maintained between flat-out work and creative and restorative leisure is worth studying by anyone holding a top position. But he never avoided hard work itself: taking important and dangerous decisions, the hardest form of work there is, in the course of a sixteen-hour day. Or working on a speech to bring it as near perfection as possible. No one ever worked harder than Churchill to make himself a master orator. Or forcing himself to travel long distances, often in acute discomfort and danger, to meet the top statesmen face-to-face where his persuasive charm could work best. He worked hard at everything to the best of his ability: Parliament, administration, geopolitics and geostrategy, writing books, painting, creating  an idyllic house and garden, saying things and if possible doing things for himself. Mistakes he made, constantly, but there was never anything shoddy or idle about his work. He put tremendous energy into everything, and was able to do this because (as he told me) he conserved and husbanded his energy, too. There is an extraordinary paradox about his white, apparently flabby body and the amount of muscle power he put into life, always.

Third, and in its ways most important, Churchill never allowed the mistakes, disaster – – personal or national – – accidents, illnesses unpopularity and criticism to get him down. His powers of recuperation, both in physical illness and psychological responses to abject failure, were astounding. To be blamed for the dreadful failure and loss of life in the Dardanelles was a terrible burden to carry. Churchill responded by fighting on the Western front,in great discomfort and danger, and then by doing a magnificent job at the ministry of munitions. He made a fool of himself over the abdication and was howled down by a united House of Commons in one of the most savage scenes of personal humiliation ever recorded. He scrambled to his feet and worked his way back. He had courage, the most important of all virtues, and its companion, fortitude. These strengths are inborn but they can also be cultivated, and Churchill worked on them all his life. In a sense his whole career was an exercise in how courage can be displayed, reinforced, guarded and doled out carefully, heightened and concentrated, conveyed to others. Those uncertain of their courage can look to Churchill for reassurance and inspiration.

Fourth, Churchill wasted an extraordinarily small amount of his time and emotional energy in the meanness of life: recrimination, shifting the blame onto others malice revenge seeking dirty tricks, spreading rumors harboring grudges, waging vendettas. Having fought hard, he washed his hands and went on to the next contest. It is one reason for his success. There is nothing more draining and exhausting than hatred. And malice is bad for the judgment. Churchill loved to forgive and make up. His treatment of Baldwin and Chamberlain after he became Prime Minister is an object lesson in sublime magnanimously. Nothing gave him more pleasure than to replace  enmity with friendship, not least with the Germans.


Finally, the absence of hatred left plenty of room for joy in Churchill’s life. His face could light up in the most extraordinarily attractive way as it became suffused with pleasure at an unexpected and welcome event. Witness that delightful moment at Number 10 when Baldwin gave him the exchequer. Joy was a frequent visitor to Churchill psyche, managing boredom, despair, discomfort and pain. He liked to share his joy and give joy. It must never be forgotten that Churchill was happy with people. He insisted that the gates of Cartwell  should always be left open so that the people of Westerham were encouraged to come in and enjoy the garden. He got on well with nearly everyone who served him or worked with him, whatever their degree. Being more than half American, he was never class-conscious. When an old man, his bow to the young queen was a work of art: slow, dignified, humble and low. But he was bowing  to tradition and history more than to rank. He showed the people a love of jokes, and was to them a source of many. No great leader was ever laughed at, or with, more than Churchill. He loved to make jokes and contrived to invent a large number in his long life. He collected and told jokes, too. He loved to sing. Beaverbrook said: “He did not sing in tune but he sang with energy and enthusiasm.” He liked to sing: “Ta-ra-ra-Boom-de-ay,” “Daisy, Daisy,” and old Boer War songs. His favorite was “Take a Pair of Sparkling Eyes” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers, which Lady Moran, who had a fine voice, would sing to him. He was emotional, and wept easily. But his tears soon dried, as joy came flooding back. He drew his strength from people, and imparted to them in bold measure. Everyone who values freedom, and government by, for, and the people, can find comfort and reassurance in his life story

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