Which would you rather be—a perfect leader or a successful one?

© BBC 

© BBC 

Winston Churchill was buried 50 years ago today and throughout the week, revisionist journalists have gleefully (and no doubt remuneratively) been picking over his bones in the UK press. 

“Churchill was an imperfect man” is the tune that unites the presenters, and the supporting narrative is compelling. Churchill was out of sync with the social changes in Britain in almost each of the decades he lived. 

  • He failed to recognise the increasing appetite the working classes had for influencing their own destiny, and when they decided to demonstrate this by withdrawing their labour, Churchill, as Home Secretary, responded perhaps too eagerly, by using troops rather than the national police force.
  • He wavered on giving women the vote when he was Home Secretary in 1910, and though he voted for universal suffrage in 1917, his early equivocation has damned him.
  • He was an active proponent of the catastrophic Dardanelles offensive in 1915 which lead to the death of 56,000 troops.
  • Top this off with a personality which continually sought to be centre stage, and reputation of an extravagant lifestyle (he drank 2 pints of Champagne per day), and you can see how he might have been side-lined from mainstream politics and forced to endure his, “wilderness years.”

So how does someone with that track record end up as being the only commoner in the 20th Century to have a State Funeral in St Paul’s?

In May 1940, the context changed; Churchill’s characteristics and capabilities, the irritating and infuriating weaknesses that had marked the previous 3 decades, became potent leadership skills.

I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial...
— W S Churchill

For a period of 5 years, Churchill united a country. In addition, and this is a point often overlooked and undervalued, he lead a diverse cabinet which though disparate in views, remained collaborative and mostly collegial until the end of the war.

Then, at general election in July 1945, two months after VE day and with an approval rating of 83%, Churchill’s Conservative Party lost in a landslide victory to Labour.

A change in context once again changed Churchill’s strengths to weaknesses.

But his success for that 5 year period has dominated, rightly or wrongly, our perception of him as a Great Man.

So what can this teach us?

I think three things:

  1. Find or make the context or situations that allow you to exploit your strengths rather than trying to backfill your weaknesses.

  2. Once you understand the nature of the challenge or objective facing you, recruit the support of others whose skills are such that the collective strength compensates for the individual weaknesses

  3. Rejoice in being successful, not perfect.

Let’s chose a more modern example

Steve Jobs was not perfect but he was successful. But he positively bloomed when he surrounded himself with people who were diverse in talent but united in purpose. Jobs had the Vision, Ives converted this tangible product, and Cook had the detailed control to make it happen—profitably.

For practical application on how to become a successful leader, participate in the workshop, A Human’s Guide to Leadership. 

Work with the grain of human nature, not against it.

Simon LuntComment