Profiles in Greatness - Winston Churchill
He was a British statesman, writer, orator, painter, and the leader of the British nation during its darkest and perhaps finest moments. He was also a man very familiar with failure.
The Right Honorable Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was born in 1874 to a British Lord father and American socialite mother. Although his grades were unremarkable, he thrived in the British Army, fighting in India and Sudan in his early 20s. In 1900 he began a long political career in Parliament. Forty years later, as World War II broke out, Churchill began serving as prime minister and minister of defense. It was in the theater of war that Churchill made a name for himself. His tenacity, ingenious tactics and fierce spirit helped him lead Great Britain and the Allied forces to victory.
Churchill accepted the premiership again in 1951 and remained a Member of Parliament until 1964, the year before he died. Throughout his lifetime, he received numerous honors, including knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II and honorary U.S. citizenship from President Kennedy.
His life was a shining example of boldness and determination. But Churchill considered himself a flawed man; his humility allowed him to leave lessons all of us can apply to our lives.
“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”
Young Winston Churchill suffered with a speech impediment. But in his first year at Harrow, he won a contest by reciting 1,300 lines of poetry from memory. He had a gift for words and persevered until he overcame the impediment.
During World War II, he wrote and delivered speeches that defined key moments in British and world history. But most people don’t realize that his gift for speaking came as the result of years of study and practice. His private secretary, John Colville, stated that Churchill devoted one hour of preparation for every minute of delivery.
“You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”
Churchill’s father was a Member of Parliament. “I am a child of the House of Commons,” he said. “I was brought up in my father’s house to believe in democracy.” These core beliefs in the democratic way of life were strong motivating forces.
Churchill promoted aggressive action against Hitler long before the British government saw the need. In the end, his foresight and moral certainty inspired the world and left a legacy of freedom. As he said, “What is the use of living, if it be not to strive for noble causes and to make this muddled world a better place for those who will live in it after we are gone?”
“If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
Winston Churchill became a legend for his wartime leadership and subsequent victory, but he was a man familiar with the blows of defeat and failure. While serving as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1915, Churchill tried to break the deadlock of World War I by forcing the Dardanelles Straits. The plan failed, and attempts to land troops at Gallipoli resulted in massive Allied casualties. A demoralized Churchill was removed from office. His demotion was a tremendous blow, but he continued to work in politics. Then, in 1940, his election to prime minister gave him the renewed opportunity to prove himself in military leadership. “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial,” he said.
That first year in office he ordered the evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk and Calais. He was hoping to save as many as 50,000 men from certain death. When the evacuation was complete, more than 300,000 were saved.
“We shall go on to the end,” he said, “we shall fight in France, we shall fi ght 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 fi ght 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....”
“For myself, I am an optimist—it does not seem to be much use being anything else.”
Although he tended to a sometimes-sour disposition, or what his family referred to as the “black dog,” Churchill was also an optimistic and enthusiastic leader. When the D-Day invasion force was set to head for Normandy in June 1944, the king of England had to dissuade the exuberant prime minister from sailing with the fleet.
After the war, Churchill spent much of his time writing, composing his war memoirs in The Second World War and writing the multivolume A History of the Englishspeaking Peoples. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953.In his writings, he displayed awe about the world around him: “I wonder whether any other generation has seen such astounding revolutions of data and values as those through which we have lived. Scarcely anything material or established which I was brought up to believe was permanent and vital, has lasted. Everything I was sure or taught to be sure was impossible, has happened.”
“Personally I’m always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught.”
Well past the age of 40, Churchill learned to paint. He showed talent and was a prolific artist, creating more than 500 paintings. His continued willingness to learn set him apart from other leaders and enabled him to move beyond mistakes. “We must all turn our backs upon the horrors of the past,” he said. “We must look to the future. We cannot afford to drag forward across the years that are to come the hatreds and revenges which have sprung from the injuries of the past.”
“Never give in.”
Even after the Germans began bombing London during World War II, Churchill ran Britain’s campaign from the city. He lived and worked in an underground bunker, as did many Londoners. Despite pleas from aides and Parliament, Churchill’s refusal to evacuate helped foster a spirit of determination and courage among British subjects.
In 1943, Churchill suffered two heart attacks and fought off pneumonia while in Carthage with Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. Three weeks later, the Prime Minister was back in London and back at work. “This is the lesson,” he said, “never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”
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