The Right Honorable Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was born in 1874 to a British lord father and American-born socialite mother. Although his grades were unremarkable in subjects that didn’t interest him, he thrived in the British Army, fighting in countries such as India and Sudan in his 20s. In 1940, 40 years after his long political career in Parliament began and nearly a year after World War II broke out, Churchill began serving as prime minister and minister of defense, positions he would hold until 1945. It was in this 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.
From 1951 to 1955, Churchill once more took up the post of prime minister. He continued to serve as 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 John F. Kennedy.
His life was a shining example of boldness and determination, and over the course of it Churchill imparted many lessons applicable to our own lives.
Winston Churchill, a prolific speaker
Young Churchill suffered from a speech impediment. But in his first year at Harrow School, he “won a school prize for reciting from memory 1,200 lines from Macaulay’s long poem, Lays of Ancient Rome,” according to the International Churchill Society. He had a gift for words and persevered until he largely overcame—and otherwise learned to mask—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. In Never Give In!: The Best of Winston Churchill’s Speeches, Churchill’s grandson writes that, “The late Sir John Colville, one of my grandfather’s private secretaries in the wartime years, told me shortly before his death: ‘In the case of his great wartime speeches, delivered in the House of Commons or broadcast to the nation, your grandfather would invest approximately one hour of preparation for every minute of delivery.’”
Winston Churchill’s legacy
Like his son, Churchill’s father was a member of Parliament. “I am a child of the House of Commons,” Churchill 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 in Churchill’s life.
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?”
Legendary wartime leadership
Churchill became a legend for his wartime leadership and subsequent victory, but he was nonetheless 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 Strait. The plan failed, and attempts to land troops at Gallipoli resulted in massive Allied casualties. A demoralized Churchill was subsequently removed from office. His demotion was a tremendous blow, but after a brief interlude, he returned to his 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, hoping to save around 45,000 men from certain death. When the evacuation was complete, more than 300,000 were saved.
“We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end,” he said, “We shall fight in France and 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 beaches, landing grounds, in fields, in streets and on the hills. We shall never surrender….”
Although he tended to a sometimes dour disposition, or what he referred to as his “black dog,” Churchill was 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.
Winston Churchill, a lifelong learner
After the war, Churchill composed his memoirs in The Second World War, wrote the multivolume A History of the English-Speaking Peoples and won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953. In his writings, he displayed awe about the world around him: “I wonder often 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,” he wrote in his autobiography, My Early Life.
At 40 years old, Churchill learned to paint. He showed talent and was a prolific artist, creating over 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.”
Fostering determination and courage
Even after the Germans began bombing London during World War II, Churchill ran Britain’s campaign from the city, living and working in an underground bunker alongside his staff and war cabinet. Churchill’s refusal to evacuate helped foster a spirit of determination and courage among British subjects.
“… 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.”
This article was updated April 2023. Photo by Ben Gingell/Shutterstock
Amy Anderson is the former senior editor of SUCCESS magazine, an Emmy Award-winning writer and founder of Anderson Content Consulting. She helps experts, coaches, consultants and entrepreneurs to discover their truth, write with confidence, and share their stories so they can transform their past into hope for others. Learn more at AmyKAnderson.com and on Facebook.