Finding Victory Inside Defeat: Part 5

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 fourth two principles: 7) Remember the Royal Air Force and 8) Find General Spears. Today we will look at the final three principles:

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.

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 9, 10 & 11

9. Sing Your Song -- Remember the power of consistent communication.

Leaders fly on the wings of words. What they say -- or do not say -- can be the difference between pulling out of a slide or crashing to defeat. Churchill repeatedly drove home the point that Great Britain would fight on -- with or without the help of Europe.

At the meeting with the French high command on May 31, Churchill concluded his reflection on their conversation with this seemingly trite, but insightful comment: "I was glad to have this (key words to Marshal Peta'in) said. I sang my usual song: we would fight on whatever happened or whoever fell out."

I sang my usual song: we would fight on ...

The Prime Minister's manner sounds almost flippant. It was anything but that. Churchill knew that he need to preach one message: "We will fight on." He needed to give that talk consistently, relentless, and persuasively. It was necessary for morale, but more importantly it was his -- and the nation's -- heartbeat.

Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the group of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go onto the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight in the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing-grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we should fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the Old.

Questions to ask:

  1. What essential message do I need to communicate?
  2. Have I distilled that message into a powerful and memorable line?
  3. What different ways can I best "sing" (communicate) my song?

Resources to consider:

  1. Speak Like Churchill, Stand Like Lincoln: 21 Powerful Secrets of History's Greatest Speakers by James C. Humes
  2. "The Important Work of Reminding" by Tommy Kiedis
  3. "Clear Trumps Clever" by Tommy Kiedis

10. Acknowledge the brilliant episode: Give credit effusively.

Few want to labor under the threat of national defeat and personal animosity. Leaders take that risk. General Gort was such a leader. He defied the Weygand Plan and pushed his troops to the sea and evacuation.

Gort's move was gutsy -- and Churchill recognized it. He referred to Lord Gort as the British Expeditionary Force's "gallant Commander-in-Chief." The Prime Minister acknowledged the pivotal part the general played:

But Gort’s decision, in which we speedily concurred, to abandon the Weygand plan and march to the sea, was executed by him and his staff with masterly skill, and will ever be regarded as a brilliant episode in British military annals.

Every perilous effort has it's Lord Gort. In fact, many people rise to meet challenging times.  Selfless leaders gladly acknowledge the contribution give effusive credit.

Questions to ask:

  1. Whose "gallant" efforts do I need to praise?
  2. How will we establish and maintain a culture that recognizes and appreciates achievement?

11. Link arms: It takes "heart and soul" alignment.

Tough times breed disunity. The dark days of downturns and defeats can lead to discouragement, disgruntlement, and finger pointing. Great leaders counteract that by working to achieve "heart and soul" alignment. Churchill writes,

This report, which of course was written at the darkest moment before the Dunkirk Deliverance, was signed not only by the three Chiefs of Staff . . . [and] the three Vice-Chiefs . . . . Reading it in after years, I must admit that it was grave and grim. But the War Cabinet and the few other Ministers who saw it were all of one mind. There was no discussion. Heart and soul we were in this together.

Heart and soul we were together.

Churchill knew that a divided Britain could never stand. "Can two walk together unless they agree?" asks the prophet Amos? The answer is obvious. But when two do travel side-by-side, when they align, when they serve together "heart and soul" the synergy results in multiplied help, encouragement, ideas, and action.

In their best-selling book, Built To Last, James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras write that alignment is “simply that all the elements of a company work together in concert within the context of the company’s core ideology and …vision.”

Team members who are aligned have a similar passion, they are theologically compatible, and they work together toward a mutually agreed-upon vision. Since they are all pulling in the same direction the organization moves forward

Questions to ask:

  1. To what extent is your team aligned? What is the next step you can take to help our team to pull in the same direction?
  2. Does your team perform at its best? Use the seven questions from "Is Your Team A Real Team?" as your diagnostic tool.

Resources to consider:

  1. Leading Teams: Setting The Stage For Great Performances by J. Richard Hackman.
  2. The Advantage and The Ideal Team Player by Patrick Lencioni
  3. "Is Your Team A Real Team?" by Tommy Kiedis
  4. Built To Last by James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras

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.

The safe homecoming of a quarter of a million men, the flower of our Army, was a milestone in our pilgrimage through the years of defeat.
— Winston Churchill

If You Missed It

Did you miss yesterday's post and the previous two leadership principles? Read about them here. Or you can 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. "I sang my usual song . . ." p. 113.
  3. "We shall fight on . . ." p. 118.
  4. "gallant Commander-in-Chief" p. 117.
  5. "a brilliant episode . . ." p. 98.
  6. "Heart and soul we were together . . ." p. 89.
  7. "Simply that all the elements ..." from Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, Built To Last, p. 202.
  8. "The safe homecoming ..." p. 138.