Finding Victory Inside Defeat: Part 3

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 second two principles: 3) Scrap your plan and 4) Check your resolve. Today we will look at principles five and six:

5. Launch your Mosquito Armada: Leverage the power of “little.”
6. Look ahead: You must prepare and improvise 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 5 & 6

5. Launch your Mosquito Armada: Leverage the power of "little."

The task of Dunkirk, like any daunting task, seemed insurmountable. How could the Admiralty possibly evacuate 400,000 men? They lacked the ships to ferry the soldiers to safety. Undeterred, Admiralty officers scoured shipyards from Teddington to Brightlingsea in search of more. Churchill writes,

At the same time lifeboats from lines in the London docks, tugs from the Thames, yachts, fishing-craft, lighters, barges, and pleasure boats--anything that could be used along the beaches--were called into service. By the night of the 27th a great tide of small vessels began to flow toward the sea.

How great was the "tide of small vessels"? The total number of water craft in this "Mosquito Armada" (Naval ships and civilian) was 933, the smallest a 14-foot open topped fishing boat.

Figure 2 - British Ships Participating in the Mosquito Armada.  Their Finest Hour , p. 102

Figure 2 - British Ships Participating in the Mosquito Armada. Their Finest Hour, p. 102

What the big ships of the Royal Navy could not do alone, the addition of little vessels made possible. Hitler's Air Force could target the big ships, but striking multiple minute targets was too much even for them. As Churchill noted,

The Mosquito Armada as a whole was unsinkable.

The principle lesson here is that leaders need not forfeit dreams for lack of resources. Take inventory, but then take charge by closing the inventory gap. Never underestimate the power of little.

Whoever dreamed a fourteen-foot opened topped fishing boat would participate in the greatest evacuation in history? It happened -- when the rescue paradigm shifted from BIG to little. A little more capital, a few more people, a little more time in prayer -- these things add up. Launch your own Mosquito Armada.

Questions to ask:

  1. Will my current resources meet my current challenge? 
  2. What is my "resource gap"?
  3. How can thinking "little" make a big difference in this challenge?
  4. What "Mosquito Armada" can I raise to accomplish this task?

Resources to consider:

  1. Why You Don't Have To Be "Little Hercules"
  2. "Inch By Inch Aint A Cinch"

6. Look Ahead: You must prepare and improvise to win.

Moving from governmental dependence on larger ships to a coordinated partnership with the civilian population (and hundreds of smaller vessels) was a major task. Churchill's staff was up to the challenge because they prepared and improvised. Churchill notes:

The preparations, fortunately begun a week earlier, were now aided by the brilliant improvisation of volunteers on an amazing scale.

This is organizational leadership at its finest. It is also leadership that is generally unnoticed and unappreciated -- until it is left undone.

Leaders must be attuned to people, systems, and processes. These matters are mission critical as Jethro reminded Moses:

Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. And let them judge the people at all times. Every great matter they shall bring to you, but any small matter they shall decide themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. Exodus 18:21-22 ESV

Jethro's wise advice to Moses was "pay attention to your organizational leadership."

Hope is not a strategy.
— John Maxwell

In Thinking For A ChangeJohn Maxwell notes, "Hope is not a strategy . . . . When failure isn't an option, nothing serves better than strategic thinking." This kind of thinking, says Maxwell, is the bridge that links here to there. Churchill's staff did that most important work of preparation -- they thought and then acted. Refusing to be held hostage to the "big ship" paradigm they were able to improvise in the moment to create a working alternative.

Sensible people will see trouble coming and avoid it, but an unthinking person will walk right into it and regret it later.
— Proverbs 27:12 GNT

Questions to ask:

  1. Are we held hostage by any "big ship" paradigms? What alternatives exist?
  2. Am I clinging to an organizational structure that is a poor fit for my organizational needs? What needs to change?
  3. Am I preparing leaders, clarifying their roles, and empowering them to take improvising action?
  4. What is the next step to improving your leadership pipeline?

Resources to consider:

  1. Thinking For A Change by John Maxwell
  2. The Four Disciplines of Execution by McChesney, Covey, Huling
  3. "Structure Matters" by Tommy Kiedis

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:

7. Remember the Royal Air Force: It takes the unseen forces to win.
8. Find General Spears: Lean on aids equal to the action.

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. "At the same time lifeboats . . ." p. 101.
  3. Facts for the "total number of water craft" from "The Miracle of Dunkirk: 40 facts about the famous evacuation."
  4. "The preparations fortunately begun . . ." p. 101.
  5. "Hope is not a strategy . . ." from Thinking For A Change by John. C. Maxwell. New York: Warner Business Books. 2003. Pages 124, 140.