Finding Victory Inside Defeat: Part 2

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.

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.

Yesterday we reviewed the first two principles: 1) Humble yourself and 2) Define reality. Today we will look at principles three and four:

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

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 3 & 4

3. Scrap your plan: Sometimes you must "lose to win"

On May 19, 1940 the French High Command dismissed General Gamelin, replacing him with General Weygand. Weygand immediately drew up a plan to counterattack German forces.

The French plan was “sound in principle,” according to Churchill but, based on faulty information of troop strength and the delays, would not work. British General Gort, recognizing the futility of following this course, “took a vital decision” and abandoned the Weygand plan entirely.

The British government backed Gort's plan the following day, but it was his decisive action to "scrap the Weygand plan" that literally saved the day. Gort's willingness to "lose" was critical to the British evacuation and ultimately to the Allied victory.

But Gort’s decision . . . to abandon the Weygand plan and march to the sea . . . will ever be regarded as a brilliant episode in British military annals.

No leader wants to say about their carefully constructed plan, "It's just not working," but at times that is precisely what must be done.

Questions to ask:

  1. Will our current plan achieve our desired results? Why or why not?
  2. Have any key team members lost confidence in our plan? Why?
  3. Is it time for me to “scrap the plan”? What alternatives exist?

4. Check Your resolve: Your team must know you are in this to win.

Churchill was resolved. He was unashamedly, unapologetically, unequivocally in this war to win.

Germany has most of the cards, but the real test is in the resolve.
— Winston Churchill, 1940

Churchill demonstrated the importance of his resolve, when, on May 26, 1940, just sixteen days after being appointed Prime Minister by King George, he faced the House of Commons. Churchill said,

The House should prepare itself for hard and heavy tidings. I have only to add that nothing which may happen in this battle can in any way relieve us of our duty to defend the world cause to which we we have vowed to defend the world cause . . . .

Meeting later with the War Cabinet, approximately 25 leaders, Churchill said, "I described the events, and I showed them plainly where we were, and all that was in the balance. Then I said quite casually:

Of course, whatever happens at Dunkirk, we shall fight on.

The Cabinet's response to his determination was telling. These national leaders needed their leader -- they wanted their leader -- to act with resolve.

There occurred a demonstration which, considering the character of the gathering -- twenty-five experienced politicians and Parliament men, who represented all the different points of view, whether right or wrong, before the war -- surprised me. Quite a number seemed to jump up from the table and come running to my chair, shouting and patting me on the back. There is no doubt that had I at this juncture faltered at all in the leading of the nation, I should have been hurled out of office. . . . It fell to me in these coming days and months to express their sentiments on suitable occasions.

Churchill expressed the same unrelenting resolve and defiance in the face of adversity when meeting with the French in Paris, in meetings with Parliament, and in addresses to the nation. Interestingly, his resolve was both a reflection of the determination of the people of Great Britain and a motivating factor that fueled their determination.

The British people now realise the danger . . . [and] are resolved as never before in their history.

Churchill's commitment was not lost on the allies either. Cordell Hull (Secretary of State under FDR from 1933–1945) wrote in his memoirs, “France was finished, but we were convinced that Britain, under Churchill’s indomitable leadership, intended to fight on.”

Of course, the question becomes, How does a leader gain and maintain that resolve? The ancient king, Hezekiah helps us here. Hezekiah's situation was bleak. He and his nation were at the breaking point, bending under severe pressure from the Assyrian king, Sennacherib. Sennacherib was the most powerful man on the planet, the leader of the world power of his day. In the face of such unrelenting pressure Hezekiah bent, but he did not break.

6 And [Hezekiah] set combat commanders over the people and gathered them together to him in the square at the gate of the city and spoke encouragingly to them, saying, 7 “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or dismayed before the king of Assyria and all the horde that is with him, for there are more with us than with him. 8 With him is an arm of flesh, but with us is the Lord our God, to help us and to fight our battles.” And the people took confidence from the words of Hezekiah king of Judah. 2 Chronicles 32:6-8

Hezekiah was able to show resolve because he knew the King over the king. Yes, Hezekiah was outnumbered, but with God he was in the majority. Supernatural power trumps national power and any battle strategy.

Did Hezekiah throw caution to the wind? No. Did he disregard the need for organizational excellence? No. But he did operate with confidence. He stared down his adversary like the boy, his big brother behind him,  faced the neighborhood bully. Like Churchill, because Hezekiah was confident, the people were confident.

Questions to ask:

  1. On a scale of 1 (low) - 10 (high), what is the state of my resolve? Am I "all in"? Why or why not?
  2. Have I acknowledged that the Lord is the "more" I need?
  3. How can leaning on God's help, help my resolve?
  4. What are the key communication points to express your resolve?

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.

If You Missed It

Did you miss yesterday's post and the previous two leadership principles? Read about them here.

Coming Up

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

5. Launch your Mosquito Armada: Leverage the power of “little.”
6. Look ahead: You must prepare and improvise 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. "took a vital decision" from p. 83.
  3. "But Gort's decision . . ." p. 93.
  4. "Germany has most of the cards . . ." p. 89-90.
  5. "The House should prepare itself . . ." p. 99.
  6. "Of course, whatever happens we shall fight on" p. 100.
  7. "There occurred a demonstration . . ." p. 100.
  8. "The British people now realise . . ." p. 112.
  9.  Cordell Hull, "France was finished . . ." p. 143.