Winston Churchill is regarded by some as the greatest person of the twentieth century. Famous for his leadership of Britain against Hitler in some of the darkest days of the Second World War, he also received the then-largest funeral gathering London had ever seen at his 1965 passing. Churchill was also known for his inspirational speeches, his concise oratory and his clever wit (such as his reply to Lady Astor’s frustration: “If you were my husband I’d poison your tea.” “And if you were my wife, I’d drink it!”). Made the first of only seven honorary US citizens, Churchill’s influence was felt the world over, yet his pre-war career was perhaps not so auspicious.
Churchill might well be blamed for the botched Gallipoli landing in the First World War in which thousands died, including more than a quarter of the Australian and New Zealand forces. A similar naval blunder was made just days before becoming prime minister and Churchill also created the modern state of Iraq by cobbling together warring minorities and sanctioning the use of chemical warfare.
Such errors teach us all that we can learn from mistakes and rise again. They also show us that we are never too far away from making one flawed decision that can humble us! Fault finding is a preoccupation of many an armchair critic, yet those who lead with long-term success and impact are always mistake-makers who grow through reflection and experience. Churchill knew the power of public speaking and the importance of shaping an image, long before television (he preferred empathy among the people to bunkered retreat during the bombings of the Battle of Britain). Timing and impression are key ingredients to the influence of leaders who typically learn from impetuous or impractical decisions, who live to fight another day, and who seize the right moments decisively.