An Unmitigated Defeat
I first met Winston Churchill on a train going from London to Edinburgh.
I had picked up a slim book of his WWII speeches in a small bookstore in Covent Garden in the heart of London. I thought it would give me a taste of history and British culture while I traveled the UK five years ago.
As I flipped through the pages on the train, I quickly felt a kinship with Churchill. He just told it like it was, and yet had an unflappable sense of hope. The first speech in the book was the one he gave after Britain signed the Munich agreement with Germany. The gist of it is that Germany had invaded a small portion of Czechoslovakia and wanted to annex it. Britain conceded to their desires to ensure peace.
It was heralded as a victory by all – both the government and the people. Britain had just recovered from WWI and did not want to fight another war. They were yearning for peace. Unfortunately, it made them blind to the reality that a fight with Germany was inevitable.
Winston called the agreement an “unmitigated defeat” and gave an 18-page speech in the House of Commons calling it so. According to Churchill, Britain had given Germany everything they wanted, and it was just the beginning. He felt Germany’s appetite was insatiable and would not be satisfied with this one area alone.
As we know today, he was right. A year after the Munich Agreement was signed, war with Germany began and Winston was selected as the next prime minister to lead Britain through it.
It was a bold move to say the thing that no one wanted to hear.
It was profoundly unpopular. After learning more about Churchill, I now know that moment was not the product of a one-time decision, but a lifetime of making bold choices and sharing bold viewpoints. He felt a duty to speak his mind – often to his detriment and sometimes to his benefit.
Winston was a believer in his father’s mantra to “trust the people.”
He felt that they could handle the truth, no matter how difficult, as long as it was not shared in a demoralizing way. The rest of his speeches during WWII were filled with the truth of the harsh reality Britain was facing and inspiring calls to action.
There are certain themes that Churchill seemed to hit in every speech that stood out to me, and I internalized as the blueprint for how to share difficult news. He would share:
This is the reality of the situation
We are all in this together
This is about more than us
We will be victorious
He didn’t sugarcoat the harsh reality of war and death, and yet, he also had an unwavering belief that they would and must prevail. A year after the war began, one of Churchill’s speeches observed:
"Long, dark months of trials and tribulation lie before us. Not only great dangers, but many misfortunes, many shortcomings, many mistakes, many disappointments will be our lot. Death and sorry will be the companions of our journey; hardship our garment; constancy and valor our only shield.
We must be united, we must be undaunted, we must be inflexible. Our qualities and deeds must glow through the doom and gloom of Europe until they become the veritable beacon of its salvation."
Tell me that doesn’t inspire you.
That slim book of speeches taught me the power of communication and the ability that a single individual has to use their words to speak light into the darkness.
By the time Churchill was 25, he had given 1,500 political speeches and traveled the distance that is equal to three times around the world to do it. He loved the act of public speaking. He was well practiced and gifted. He believed in the power of speech to inspire change.
At times, he could feel the audience resistant at the beginning to his words and then with him by the end. Churchill understood that he had the capability and responsibility to use his words to unite and inspire in the midst of great hardship.
I don’t believe that kind of influence is reserved for leadership alone. We can all use our words for good – to unite instead of divide. To speak truth when it’s unpopular. To point at something that others claim as victory and observe that it could be defeat.
Winston may not be with us today, but in his absence, he has left us his example and his words:
"I am confident that we shall succeed in defeating and largely destroying this most tremendous onslaught by which we are now threatened. And anyhow, whatever happens, we will all go down fighting to the end. I feel as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, that we shall be victorious."