Expert Insight: Churchill Leadership Series
By David Schneider
Date: June 23, 2010

Churchill Series : Behavior 8 - He was a National Leader – not a Party Leader

Churchill Diffused Political Issues By Appointing The Most Talented People To His Administration Despite Their Beliefs

May 2010 saw the installation of the first coalition government in the UK since the time of Churchill.  This time it is because the electorate was divided between the different parties so that no single party had majority rule.

Churchill’s rise to Prime Minister was a different climb.  The short story- Neville Chamberlain resigned from office and King George assigned Churchill the job.  To some of us “Yanks” the king said something like this:  “Simple.  Brilliant!  Neville, please retire – you’re sacked.  Churchill, you are in.  Quick, now off you go and win the war Winnie!” (You have to say it with a bit of a John Cleese accent).

No, it was much more.  The wartime conditions and the leadership’s response to those conditions had to get worse, much worse, and the people, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons had to turn on Chamberlain, the leader of the “appeasement” movement.  For that change to happen things had to get really bad.

The key to Churchill’s success is not that he ran a coalition government or that he was selected by the King.  The true story is much more amazing, for he had to rise above party politics for the good of the country and of the world.  The political scene leading up to May of 1940 was a battlefield as bad as any in the actual war, where party politics had ripped the heart out of good leadership.  It would take an amazing man with a singular focus to steer Britain to victory. 

And he almost did not get the job.

To really understand the challenge – you have to understand the history that led up to it:



The memory of the First World War was still fresh in the minds of every adult in England.  That war had been a political folly that killed a million British and wounded another 1.3 million.  2.2% of the population killed and 3.7% wounded.  The war left a deep psychic scar on the country.  With that fresh in their minds the people of England were in no mood for a fight in Europe.  The same sentiment was alive and thriving in the United States too.

The government of Neville Chamberlain sought out ways to stay clear of the war.  In a famous move Chamberlain flew to Berlin and agreed to a pact with Hitler declaring “peace in our time” and to a policy of appeasement to Hitler and Nazism.  While most of the English public agreed with the policy, many did not and spoke out about the policy.  Tensions built and a deep political divide formed.  It took an iron hand of political control on the part of Chamberlain and his thug of a party whip, David Margesson, to keep the Appeasement policy intact.

The events that led to Chamberlain’s downfall and to King George installing Churchill as Prime Minister were helped along by a disorganized group of Tory rebels who were openly opposed to the government’s appeasement policy.  Described in a letter to Churchill by Harold Macmillan as “troublesome young men”, this restless group of young Conservative politicians kept up the pressure until history dealt them the right hand.

In our time, with the history behind us, the appeasement policy of Chamberlain looks like insane willful self-delusion.  But at the time it was the opponents of appeasement that were painted as the crazy war mongering fools that would drag Britain into a conflict to be avoided.  The dissident opinions of Churchill, Macmillan, and the core group of “troublesome young men” faced not only withering scorn of their peers but the ruthless retaliation of Chamberlain’s thug, Margesson.  Chamberlain played party politics for keeps, attacking his critics with a full bag of dirty tricks-spying, wiretapping, denial of advancement, and other cutthroat parliamentary politics. 

Still, under this withering attack the “troublesome young men” stood their ground.  The machinery was stacked against them as were most of the press and the BBC.  Reporters that wanted to report the build-up of the German forces found their work unpublished by editors who feared provoking Hitler or Chamberlain.  Churchill, regarded as a gifted orator but politically unreliable and emotionally unstable, would turn down invitations to lead the challenge to appeasement, tempering his criticism of Chamberlain, and waiting for the right time.  When he entered the government, as the First Lord of the Admiralty in 1939, he would leave the plotting to others.

Things had to get much worse before the overmatched, anti-appeasement Tories could move.  As things got worse, with each debacle they shifted public opinion, added converts to the movement, and turned the tide.  After British forces were routed in Norway, the general public became aware with a “sudden and paralyzing revelation that Chamberlain was a vain old man with nothing up his sleeve”.  On May 7th & 8th, during a brutal Parliamentary debate, Chamberlain realized he had lost control of the House of Commons and his government was voted out of power, bringing appeasement to an end.

Into the Breach

When Chamberlain resigned there were no opposition leaders left standing that did not have a stain of bad blood on them, except for Churchill.  As he took office Churchill understood that to win the “real” war the war of politics had to come to a quick end.  Even though the two parties agreed to form a wartime coalition party, Churchill saw the need to stop all political fighting and bickering. 

His path: choose the most able men from either party and from outside the political spectrum to join his war cabinet.  It was a brave move – just the move that needed to be made to defuse the political war.  To make it really work he not only invited members of the opposition party, he invited bitter political enemies, telling them to focus the “steam of anger to the engine – to the Nazis” and not to each other.  His War government included Labor party leaders Herbert Morrison as Home Secretary, Chamberlain, and Clement Attlee (at different times) as Lord of the Council. Attlee served as Deputy Prime Minister and Ernest Blevin as Minister of Labor.

By including these political enemies in his war cabinet Churchill could assimilate them into the fabric of the wartime effort.  The move kept them busy, for Churchill understood that idle hands are hands that create mischief.  Shrewder was the fact that if they did create mischief they would be endangering the war effort.

To keep the peace Churchill maintained a strong stance of “England First” and was quick to discipline or remove anyone creating political tension.  He was able to maintain this political “peace” for as long as the war lasted, but as soon as the war ended the coalition dissolved and Churchill found himself out “on the street”.

How Does Churchill’s Example Apply To Today’s Supply Chain? 

Ask yourself this question- how many times do you see a decision made in your company which is made for a “political” reason – to support a boss or to support a preferred subordinate?  As much as we would like to say “not in my company” the fact is it happens in all organizations.  It is natural to have tensions between people in leadership functions.  We have a competitive nature that drives us and office politics is but one result of that competitive spirit.

Truly gifted and effective leaders recognize the political issues and work to defuse them or remove most of the impact.  These leaders accomplish this through integrity, fairness, honest speaking, and honest actions.  Politically motivated corporate leaders do not thrive in healthy organizations.  Organizations ruled through political intrigue do not survive.

Final Thoughts

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

For the first nine installments of Schneider's Churchill series (including an introduction to the 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:

Truly gifted and effective leaders recognize the political issues and work to defuse them or remove most of the impact.  

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