Expert Insight: Churchill Leadership Series
By David Schneider
Date: April 14, 2010

Churchill Series : Behavior 5 - No Defeat In His Heart

Churchill Denied The Presence Of Defeat

While Winston Churchill may have understood intellectually that defeat is always a potential outcome; emotionally Churchill denied the presence of defeat.  Said another way, Churchill refused to accept defeat, and that eventually Britain, and the free world, would triumph over the horrible mechanization of Nazi Germany.

Churchill was not always successful, but he was successful then it mattered.  None the less, when he did fail, he would pick up and start over.  In his political career he saw many defeats, at times when he was no longer in office.  In those times he turned his attention to other avenues of thought or endeavor while he watched, waited and planned what his next move would be to get back into the ring.

Images Of Churchill

One of the images that we have of Churchill is the “English Bulldog Determination”.  His face at this time in office – in his mid to late 60’s – helped to define that image.  His famous “V” for Victory (created by a young Oxford archaeology don C. E. Stevens) with a smile created the image of the joy of victory.  Just as Churchill maintained a positive balance in his demeanor, he maintained a positive balance in his attitude and outward projection.  When presented with bad news about a loss in the battlefield Churchill's response was "We must just KBO" which meant "Keep Buggering On".  That KBO attitude was a continuous thread in Churchill's correspondence and memoranda.  An example is Churchill's telegraph to diplomat Randall Campbell "continued to pester, nag invite, demand audiences. Don't take no for an answer." Winston Churchill understood that often the best way through resistance was to continually pressure against that resistance until it yielded. He also understood that upon discovery of an immovable object maneuver was necessary.


There is no doubt that Churchill was a serious man in a serious time, but his whimsy and sense of humor, and when he would use both, tell of a man who had the confidence and presence to be a victorious leader. 

Churchill's Attitude Regarding Defeat

At the time Churchill spoke to two interlocked audiences: The House of Commons and the common radio listener (more than British subjects – the world audience) – and he knew how to play to each audience in a way that demonstrated both the serious side, and the confidence of victory.  “We shall not flag or fail.  We shall fight in France, we shall fight 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 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.”  Those were the words that both the world radio audience and House of Commons heard.  But the House of Commons heard more – as he gave this speech to the House before the radio address – delivered in sotto voice “We shall fight with pitchforks and broomsticks, it’s about all we’ve bloody got.”

Churchill's attitude regarding defeat and his clear rejection of defeatist attitude was woven in all of his public speeches.  Churchill spoke more often about the eventual victory, the inevitable victory, that was going to be achieved through hard work, blood, sweat and tears.

The leading attitude that drove Churchill was that he would not show defeat in his behavior, and he detested seeing defeat in anyone in the government or the military.  Churchill would not hesitate to remove officers or leaders who became defeatist in their attitude.  The moment he smelled a defeatist attitude he would face it squarely and challenge it.  Logical arguments about defeat were often met with counter arguments that would identify the root cause and would make suggestions on how to rectify the situation.  If he smelled defeat in an officer or leaders heart he would not hesitate to take action and the individual was “sacked” from their position of command.   He felt his authority and used it to kill off defeatism – one time saying aloud as he walked up and down the empty cabinet room after a major sacking “I want them all to feel my power.”

Churchill clearly understood that if you are defeated in your heart you were defeated for real.  What is this behavior really called?


How Do You Use Courage To Remove Defeat In Your Heart As A Supply Chain Leader?

How many times have you heard a leader say “We are going to try this…”?  Did they say it with conviction in their voice?

How about this example; “Please attempt to complete all of the questions before the time expires.”  How does that line inspire you to work hard to finish?  Does “Please attempt” give you permission to not complete all of the questions?

The word “Try” itself – regardless of the tone, is a defeatist word.  To “Try” is to attempt.  An attempt lacks commitment, and without commitment, there is hesitancy to pull back, not “give it your all” and accept something less.

Most failures in supply chain management stem from a lack of commitment to meet specifications.  There are times where the specifications are not known, so people fail to reach them out of ignorance.  But in most cases the standard of expectation is known, and our organizations “try” to reach them and fail, because our organizations failed to commit to reach the standard.  Later in the series I address how Churchill set and maintained high standards and how high standards are important, but more important is the drive to make commitments.

Churchill was bold -- he was his entire life.  There was almost nothing that the man could not do.  And he did not just try, but would throw his whole being into whatever he was attempting.  He had no fear of failure, because failure was just another step, one that could be corrected.

In our world of supply chain management there is a large fear of risk and failure.  Because of that fear of failure – our organizations fail to achieve what they could, our people fail to achieve what they could, we fail to achieve what we could.

Final Thoughts

If you are afraid of failure before you start, you are already defeated.

If you have courage in your heart before you start, you will have victory.

Next time, we will look at the sixth of the 12 key behaviors of Churchill's leadership.

For the first six 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 are afraid of failure before you start, you are already defeated.

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