Finding Victory Inside Defeat: Part 1

Wars are not won by evacuations. But there was a victory inside this deliverance, which should be noted.
— Winston Churchill

A leader's mettle is tested in crisis. These downturns and disappointments are inevitable. How the leader acts and reacts is mission critical. The good news is that we can find victory inside our "defeats." Winston Churchill's leadership during Operation Dynamo provides eleven essential principles for leaders intent on making progress in the face of peril.

Operation Dynamo

In just nine days Great Britain evacuated 338,000 troops "from the beaches of Dunkirk in Operation Dynamo, a stunning great escape that helped Britain avoid defeat in the Second World War." Here is what I learned while reading and reflecting on Churchill's account of this "brilliant episode in British military annals."

  1. Humble yourself: Admit you cannot achieve victory alone.
  2. Define reality: Regularly assess your situation.
  3. Scrap your plan: Sometimes you must “lose to win”.
  4. Check your resolve: Your team must know you are in this to win.
  5. Launch your Mosquito Armada: Leverage the power of “little.”
  6. Look ahead: You must prepare and improvise to win.
  7. Remember the Royal Air Force: It takes the unseen forces to win.
  8. Find General Spears: Lean on aids equal to the action.
  9. Sing your song: Remember the power of consistent communication.
  10. Acknowledge the brilliant episode: Give credit effusively.
  11. Link arms: It takes "heart and soul" alignment.

In this five-part post I unpack each principle, providing historical context, leadership analysis, and biblical perspective. Along the way I will provide you with assessment questions and supply links to additional articles and tools to help.

How to make the most of this post:

  • Review it: The post is thorough. Give it a quick review looking at the headings, quotes (they're good), and questions.
  • Read it: If you are in downturn or want to be ready for one, take the time to read the post in its entirety.
  • Sit with it: Drill down on one or two key points that are most pertinent to your situation.
  • Act on it: Churchill poured over plans. He critically assessed them. Then he redrew his plans to fit the changing circumstances and took action. As the leader responsible for your organization, take the time to draw up your plan to snatch a victory from your defeat.

Finding Victory Inside Defeat - Principles 1 & 2

1. Humble yourself: Admit you cannot do this alone

Churchill begins his account of the deliverance of Dunkirk with these words:

There was a short service of intercession and prayer in Westminster Abbey. The English are loth to expose their feelings, but in my stall in the choir I could feel the pent-up, passionate emotion, and also the fear of the congregation, not of death or wounds or material loss, but of defeat and the final ruin of Britain.

Fascinating. Hundreds of thousands of British and French soldiers are fighting for their lives and the Prime Minister is sitting in his stall in Westminster Abbey. I don't intend to overplay this fact, but it is significant that the "man in charge" bowed before the God over all.

Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.
— 1 Peter 5:6 NIV

Humility before God is always an appropriate posture. Trace the theme throughout the Scriptures. Strength comes to those who acknowledge their weakness.

  • David humbled himself and bounced back from a near coup (1 Samuel 30).
  • Nehemiah humbled himself and discovered God's help to stir a nation to action (Nehemiah 1:4-11).
  • Daniel humbled himself and God made him vastly superior to his contemporaries (Daniel 1:1-9, 20).

Acknowledging one's need before God may be considered "weakness," but that kind of weakness is always rewarded by God with strength.

Questions to ask:

  1. What is my posture in this downturn: "I've got this!" or "Lord, you've got this, so please help me lead well?"
  2. Specifically, how do you need God to help you? Ask him for that.

2. Define reality: Assess your situation

Churchill consistently took time to define his reality. He assessed the possibility of disheartening losses, troop strength, allied capabilities, commanders (his own and the enemies), timing, and the consequences of the evacuation. He was always evaluating.

  • About French efforts: "This issue was not faced in its brutal realism by [French] General Gamelin. The French commander . . . was incapable of taking the necessary decisions himself."
  • About the need for immediate action: "From the 17th [of May, 1940] onwards the British War Cabinet saw clearly that an immediate fighting march southward would alone save the British Army."
  • About communicating the state of affairs: "I thought it right to have a meeting . . . of all Ministers of Cabinet rank other than the War Cabinet. . . . I described the course of events, and I showed them plainly where we were, and all that was in the balance."

Leaders do the hard work of carefully exploring every aspect of their reality. As former Fortune 500 CEO Max De Pree notes:

The first job of a leader is to define reality.
— Max De Pree

Questions to ask:

  1. Have I clearly assessed our current situation? A S.W.O.T. analysis is a great tool. Click here for help.
  2. Are our resources sufficient to meet our challenge? Where are we deficient?
  3. What is the capability/capacity of the leaders we are counting on to help us?
    Can we do the job with the team we have? If not, where must we change?
  4. What regular updates do I need to keep me apprised of our situation?
  5. Am I delaying making a decision that could alter our outcome?
  6. Am I holding back from delivering the hard words to my team or our constituents? See "When Conflict Happens."
  7. Who needs to be informed about our present state of affairs?
  8. What should I say and not say about our situation?

Resources to consider:

  1. Leadership Is An Art by Max De Pree
  2. "Leaders Are Masters Of First Things"

Never Give Up

Churchill's actions show that it is possible to find victories -- small and large -- in failures that are embarrassing, disheartening, and potential fatal. The key is to approach it humbly, act decisively, and move with wholehearted resolve. Name your problem. Take action today.

Coming Up

Tomorrow we will look at the next two leadership principles I saw displayed in the Dunkirk account:

3. Scrap your plan: Sometimes you must “lose to win”.
4. Check your resolve: Your team must know you are in this to win.

Don't want to wait? Read all five parts in their entirety here.


Excerpts from THE SECOND WORLD WAR, Volume II: Their Finest Hour by Winston S. Churchill. Copyright (c) 1949 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, renewed 1976 by Lady Spencer-Churchill, The Honourable Lady Sarah Audley, and the Honourable Lady Soames. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Hartcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

  1. "Wars are not won by evacuations . . ." p. 115.
  2. "from the beaches of Dunkirk . . ." from "The Miracle of Dunkirk: 40 facts about the famous evacuation," by James Moore in The Daily Express, May 21, 2015. Available at (accessed July 19, 2016).
  3. "brilliant episode . . ." p. 98.
  4. "There was a short service of intercession . . ." p. 99.
  5. "This issue was not faced in its brutal realism . . ." p. 75.
  6. "From the 17th . . ." p. 75.
  7. "I thought it was right to have a meeting . . ." p. 100.
  8. “The first job of a leader . . ." from Leadership Is An Art, by Max De Pree. New York: Currency Books, Doubleday. 2004. Page 11.