Even as a child, I admired Winston Churchill. I was enchanted by his versatility. In more than 60 years in public life, Churchill was a soldier, painter, journalist, Nobel Prize-winning author and statesman.
But it was his leadership qualities that turned him into my idol. Personally, I have striven to emulate many of these qualities, and professionally, in my more than 20 years as a university administrator, I have worked to share Churchill’s example with students – because the virtues he upheld nearly 80 years ago remain vitally relevant today.
Here are a few of those virtues that serve as guides for me:
Communication. Churchill was a gifted writer and orator. Those gifts served him well in 1940, when Britain stood defiantly alone as Hitler’s army blitzed Europe. Churchill’s stirring speeches helped deliver Britain from one of its darkest moments. Even as German bombs pummeled London and many speculated Britain’s fall to be imminent, Churchill’s words gave the British people hope and strengthened their resolve. Edward R. Murrow, the legendary American broadcaster, remarked that Churchill “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle …”
Action. Great leaders are visible and hands-on. Churchill kept a high profile during the war. He preferred face-to-face meetings with his allied counterparts and made more than 25 trips outside Britain. He visited bombing sites to commiserate with victims.
Vision. In the decade before Great Britain declared war on Nazi Germany, Churchill was a lone voice calling for Britain to arm itself against Germany, but he was widely derided as a misguided, has-been politician. The day Britain declared war on Germany, Churchill was invited to serve in the British cabinet – and eight months later, he became prime minister. That same bold vision was evident during his visit to Westminster College in March 1946, where he gave the “Iron Curtain” speech and outlined the strategy for winning the Cold War.
Courage. When the German tide swept Europe, Great Britain found itself isolated and facing the world’s most formidable war machine alone. As Britain struggled to stay in the fight, some wondered if Churchill’s predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, had been right to try to appease Hitler. Undaunted, Churchill stayed the course. “You ask, what is our aim?” he said. “It is victory, victory at all costs …”
Passion. Churchill married his courage with passion. He cared deeply about everything in which he was involved – writing, painting and affairs of state. His relentless passion, optimism and determination, if not at all times with family, close friends and advisors, at least always in public, inspired those around him. Above all, Churchill was passionate about the special relationship between the United States and Britain. As he closed his “Iron Curtain” speech, he said that if both nations worked together, “the high roads of the future will be clear, not only for us but for all, not only for our time, but for a century to come.”
I am a lifelong student of Churchill’s leadership. It has shaped me in the past, it shapes me now, and it will continue to shape me in the future.
“The future is unknowable, but the past should give us hope,” Churchill said.
Truer words were never spoken.
Dr. Benjamin Ola. Akande is the 21st president of the 166-year-old Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. He has a Ph.D. in economics.