Expert Insight: Churchill Leadership Series
By David Schneider
Date: March 31, 2010

Churchill Series : Behavior 3 - Churchill Maintained A Structured Routine That Worked Best For Him

Four Key Strategies Used By Churchill To Succeed In His Leadership Role

Winston Churchill was the most senior executive in England in the era.  Yes, there was a king, but top leadership of Britain in World War II was Churchill.  The workload of the most senior executives is consuming, let alone that of a national leader of a country at war.  Look to the workload of the President of the United States and you can quickly understand the challenge.  Wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill not only had the leadership of his country – he was the leader of the free world leading the war effort in a global conflict.

English government – and English business, is often maligned as ineffective.   While there are times that the label “ineffective” is justified, it does not take much effort to look at the government or business of any country to see examples of ineffective efforts, so to paint British government with the generality is wrong.  In the case of the period, the British people awoke from a broken policy of appeasement that followed a long World War led by an ineffective government.  The ineffectiveness that followed was strategic and geopolitical in nature.  The government that Churchill took over was ineffective. 

Winston Churchill understood that the perception of the problem of continued ineffective government required a sharp break – that the British people and the British government would require a “bracing splash of cold water” and an example from the top of a dynamic leader in action – and Churchill immediately set a blistering pace.  This pace was a sharp contrast of previous Prime Ministers, including the ones in the First World War.  Although Churchill was 65 when he assumed the post – he embodied energy.  He set a pace that quickly established 10 Downing as a dynamo that pressured the entire old-fashioned, lazy and cumbersome government machine to step up to his pace.  Many worked to keep up – and some died trying, but all raced to keep up with Churchill.

Sixteen Hour Days – 1st Shift & 2nd Shift

To meet the demands of his office, Winston Churchill in effect worked two solid 8 hour days in a 24-hour period of time.  At that time he was not a young and spry man and understood the importance of getting proper rest and maintaining a pace that would meter his energy to survive the long haul grueling pace.  He created a structured schedule that set a pace for his routine.  Establishing the routine removed thought effort and time “figuring out” what he needed to do that day.  Establishing the routine allowed his staff and the members of the government and military leaders to plan for when they could meet with their leader.  The routine allowed Churchill to become an effective and successful leader.

Churchill's typical work day would start around 7 AM. Churchill would work from his bed until the late morning or early afternoon. He used special wooden tray constructed for the specific purpose of writing and reading.  He would arise, have a light breakfast, and then in the comfort of his bed with his tray in his lap would begin the long morning of working through the paperwork, memos and other correspondence his staff would present for his review, comment and approval.   He would rise from bed and dress when the work was completed or he needed to go to other scheduled meetings.  His staff organized and handled the endless stream of paper as it flowed across his tray – presenting to Churchill the next subject as he completed the work at hand.  With a total focus on the work at hand Churchill could mow through the mountain of written correspondence timely and efficiently.

After completing the morning correspondence Churchill would dress for the day.  The afternoon was when Churchill would attend meetings or make public appearances. Seldom before noon would Churchill make it over to the War Cabinet room a few blocks from 10 Downing.  Key people would have already been at work, but it was routine for Churchill to walk into the hubbub after the noon hour, and everyone on the War Cabinet staff knew that.  If Churchill were to arrive early – something was wrong or there was some other unusual event on his calendar that created the need for the schedule change – and people would know of it in advance.

While this routine may fly in the face of conventional wisdom - it allowed Churchill to read and absorb the latest internal information about the progress of the war; allowed him to digest reports and information that he had requested.  It also allowed him to think and respond in the quiet of his quarters.  This quiet time Churchill used for his letters and memo dictation – and so much clear and lucid written communications got created from his bed.    

His routine allowed the members of his leadership team to do the same as their boss, to read, talk, and understand the events so that when Churchill walked into the room they were as ready as Churchill and the rest of the leadership team to have meaningful and constructive discussions and quickly make decisions.

After the War Cabinet meetings Churchill used the remainder of the afternoon to do important “face time” – either in the planning rooms tacking great battles, visiting areas of London to see the people, to speak in Parliament, to meet with government ministers, visit factories, meet with production boards, review new weapon demonstrations or almost any other meeting that he needed to do.

At about five o'clock Churchill would return to his bedroom and burrow under the covers to take a solid one-hour nap. Upon awakening and after a light supper -- sometimes accompanied in a quiet dinner one-on-one with someone in the government, Churchill would start to read all of the major newspapers to maintain the pulse of what the people of his country were thinking and saying. In those periods of reading he would often comment for memo instructions to members of the government to investigate and address issues that he saw in the people's opinions. His ever present typists and secretaries were at the ready as Churchill would sometimes dictate as many as 20 or 30 memos based off of what he was reading in the newspapers.

Around midnight Churchill would retire for bed. Understanding the need for deep sleep Winston Churchill had very strict instructions not to be disturbed for anything except news about the British Isles actually being invaded. Short of that nothing was to be so important for his rest to be disturbed.

What can we supply chain leaders learn from Churchill’s examples?

First, a structured and predictable routine allowed the rest of his team to know when he would arrive – and what was the agenda.  After a few weeks it was clear what was to happen when, in what place, what was expected and who was to be there.  The routine set in the first few weeks remained in place until the end of the war – and the whole of the team did not have to put extra thought into what was the routine.  Simplification brings efficiency – a structured routine brings simplification.

Second, Churchill created two different times for quiet digestion of information and critical thinking.  In today’s amped up world of phones, email, “crackberry’s” and the rest of the “always in contact” culture there is not enough critical thinking.  Churchill understood that his job as a leader was to strategize, and strategy is not a reactionary sport.  It is observed that the problem with most managers of today is that when faced with a “problem” they do the first thing that pops into their heads.  Tactical leaders – and we need them, are mostly reactionary leaders.  The strategist will always outthink and outfox the tactician.  The strategist conducts critical thinking on a regular, scheduled basis.  How many supply chain leaders have you observed that do not engage in critical thinking, that relies on reaction and not action?

Third, the structured routine kept the crazy makers and the interruptions, for the most part, out of the picture.  It does not mean that he would not take a call from the King, but for the most part people knew what his schedule was and respected it.  How much more do you think that a good supply chain or logistics manager could get done in the day if they could focus on specific “chunks” of time on the key priority and important problems of the day without the interruption of the “got a minute” meeting that takes 30 minutes?  If you want to get significant work done – limit your access and watch your productivity increase.

Finally, Churchill understood the need for rest and to pace himself.  When asked by a young Paul Johnson “To what do you attribute your success in life?” Churchill replied without pause of hesitation “Conversation of energy.  Never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down.”  He knew that he was on a marathon of a leadership position that would last for “years”.  For the survival and victory of his people, Churchill understood that he needed to be in for the long haul.  How many supply chain leaders do you know who cannot maintain the pace – who make bad decisions and mistakes because they are not alert and thinking?  If you want to make consistently good decisions you must have the energy and rest to make those decisions.

Final Thoughts

Next time, we will look at the fourth of the 12 key behaviors of Churchill's leadership, "Churchill Kept an Even Disposition."

For the first four installments of Schneider's Churchill series, please visit the main Supply Chain Digest Website at under "Blogs."

Agree or disagree with Schneider's perspective? What would you add? Let us know your thoughts for publication in the SCDigest newsletter Feedback section, and on the website. Upon request, comments will be posted with the respondent's name or company withheld.

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About the Author
David Schneider is founder and president of David K. Schneider & Company, a supply chain and logistics consulting firm. Prior to that, he was Director of Logistics for Pep Boys Auto and a consultant at Keough.

Schneider Says:

If you want to make consistently good decisions you must have the energy and rest to make those decisions.

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