You would think that everything that could be written about Winston Churchill has been written. But in fact, the Churchill “industry” keeps pumping out new books each year. One of the latest is among the best.
British historian Paul Johnson has written a small, 168-page volume packed with essential analysis of this remarkable man that will benefit all our readers. Why? Because Johnson focuses on incidents that teach us critical life lessons we all encounter. This book reminds us why we read stories of great men and their deeds. We need inspiration, motivation and encouragement that we, too, can pass through this life, making a difference and leaving a legacy. Johnson’s short book reminds us why Churchill’s story will live on.
One chapter alone, “The Lessons of Failure,” is worth the read. In 1915, during World War I, Churchill devised and implemented an ill-fated attack in the Dardanelles, Turkey. The plan was to open a new front and turn the tide of the war, thus shortening the conflict. It failed miserably, with loss of life in the hundreds of thousands. Among the Commonwealth nations, Australia and New Zealand suffered extraordinary loss of life. Though later exonerated, Churchill bore the brunt of blame for the failure.
How he bounced back from this and other personal defeats is well told by Paul Johnson. I will leave you to read it for yourself. But let me summarize the author’s lessons from Churchill’s life. They form a wonderful primer on leading a successful life. He offers five lessons.
1. Always aim high. As a child, Churchill was ignored by his parents and given very little encouragement. He was raised by a beloved nanny before being sent off to boarding school. He craved his parents’ attention but received little from them during his formative years. Nevertheless, he was not crippled by resentment or anger. Instead he continued to set out to achieve. He also revered his parents, especially Randolph, his father. He wrote and spoke of them throughout his life with the highest regard. This emotional factor alone likely supported him on the path to the greatness he achieved.
2. There is no substitute for hard work. Working 16-hour days, he turned out multiple millions of words in books, articles, directives and speeches. I don’t know whether any other man of letters wrote as much as Churchill. He taught himself painting and built walls and ponds at his country home, Chartwell. He traveled, observed and governed. This last job is probably the hardest of all. Governing is no easy task at any level. Yet Churchill did it under stress, against opposition, and he did it well.
3. Stay focused. Churchill never allowed mistakes, disasters—personal or national—accidents, illnesses, unpopularity or criticism to derail him. Johnson writes, “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” (p. 164).
4. Let go of hate. He wasted an extraordinarily small amount of his time and emotional energy on the meannesses of life: recrimination, shifting the blame onto others, malice, revenge seeking, dirty tricks, spreading rumors, harboring grudges or waging vendettas. I have read several Churchill biographies and watched many documentary dramas on his life. The stories that illustrate this truth are remarkable. He was not a saint, but the man had a remarkable ability to move on past a storm of conflict and seek reconciliation—even with the Germans.
5. The absence of hatred leaves plenty of room for joy. He lived an abundant life. A happy event brought him pleasure. He delighted in surprising people and sharing good things with them. He kept the gates of his country home open so that neighbors could come and walk the gardens. He told many jokes, and he was the butt of more. Yet he had the rare ability to laugh at himself. Johnson writes, “Joy was a frequent visitor to Churchill’s psyche, banishing boredom, despair, discomfort, and pain.”
I recommend this book because, more than any other biography I have read about this great man, it lifts and encourages me. It is a true story of a remarkable man who lived a large life among some of the most tumultuous events of human history. In doing so, he maintained his humanity. His is a good life to study. WNP