My historical hero, Winston Churchill, died on January 24, 1965. Each year during the week before the anniversary of the Great Man’s death, a few of my friends and I read a good book on Churchill, revel in his spirit and usually have a fine meal in his honor. I also like to memorialize him—during this annual time we have humorously begun calling ‘Winstonmas’—by offering selections from my book Never Give In: The Extraordinary Character of Winston Churchill. I think you’ll find liberation from the cult of the contemporary in Churchill’s words and I hope you’ll think on him with gratitude in this week leading up to January 24.
On Realism: “The truth is incontrovertible. Panic may resent it; ignorance may deride it; malice may destroy it, but there it is.”
As a rule, human beings try to avoid unpleasant truths. We prefer the comfortable to the unsettling. We dislike harsh facts for the same reason we dislike mirrors: they force us to stare our problems in the face. Historians have long known that civilizations in crisis take refuge in myth and fantasy because the sensual, escapist world of imagination promises deliverance from the cold, disturbing world of reality. But the deliverance is never genuine: it is only a temporary distraction, not real hope. Hope springs instead from courageously confronting the truth, no matter how bleak or costly it may be.
In complaining about the age of appeasement, Churchill once said, “No one in great authority had the wit, ascendancy or detachment from public folly to declare these fundamental, brutal facts to the electorate.” This touches one of the distinguishing marks of his style of leadership: he believed in the necessity of squarely facing the most ugly realities. How refreshing this is in our media age when public relations experts are mistaken for leaders and when every unsightly blemish or untidy fact is carefully reworked, re-painted, or retired. Churchill would have none of it: “It is no use dealing with illusions and make-believes. We must look at the facts. The world . . . is too dangerous for anyone to be able to afford to nurse illusions. We must look at realities.”
Churchill possessed an almost mystical confidence in knowing the facts and facing them honestly, whatever the offense, as a critical step toward ultimate triumph. In September of 1932, he warned the House of Commons of the Nazi movement and urged honesty in dealing with the public. “I would now say, ‘Tell the truth to the British People.’ They are a tough people, a robust people. They may be a bit offended at the moment, but if you have told them exactly what is going on you have insured yourself against complaints and reproaches which are very unpleasant when they come home on the morrow of some disillusion . . .” Years later, as First Lord of the Admiralty, he told the House of Commons of a major naval defeat and reminded the members, “We do not at all underrate the power and malignity of our enemies. We are prepared to endure tribulation.” And when the defeats continued, his conclusion was near brutal in its frankness: “We shall suffer and we shall suffer continually, but by perseverance, and by taking measure on the largest scale, I feel no doubt that in the end we shall break their hearts.”
This resolve to engage the truth at any price granted Churchill some immensely important insights. As a careful observer who refused to change facts to fit his philosophy or bend reality to his imagination, he acquired shrewd insight into the ways of men and events. While others fashioned fantastic theories to explain what little they understood, Churchill recognized that history does not arrive in neat packages or move in defined channels. Time, chance, human nature,—all play their role. Life is not black and white, events are stubborn and unruly, and men rarely follow precise patterns in their behavior. Understanding this gave Churchill the judgment to fashion policies suited to the fluid and uncertain nature of circumstances.
“The world, nature, human beings, do not move like machines. The edges are never clear-cut, but always frayed. Nature never draws a line without smudging it. Conditions are so variable, episodes so unexpected, experiences so conflicting, that flexibility of judgment and a willingness to assume a somewhat humbler attitude towards external phenomena may well play their part in the equipment of a modern prime minister.”
A “humbler attitude” meant caution in dealing with other human beings: “The high belief in the perfection of man is appropriate in a man of the cloth but not in a prime minister.” It also demanded an unnatural willingness to consider opposing views: “The more knowledge we possess of the opposite point of view the less puzzling it is to know what to do.” It enabled him to coolly calculate risk: “We realize that success cannot be guaranteed. There are no safe battles.” And it made him even more impatient when empty posturing replaced informed action: “Peace will not be preserved by pious sentiments expressed in terms of platitudes or by official grimaces and diplomatic correctitude.” Perhaps above all, it gave him a healthy sense of the absurd in the affairs of men: “The human story does not always unfold like a mathematical calculation on the principle that two and two make four. Sometimes in life they make five or minus three; and sometimes the blackboard topples down in the middle of the sum and leaves the class in disorder and the pedagogue with a black eye.”
Facing ugly truth is not easy. Often the toughest battle a leader will face is the one against his own reticence to see things as they really are. It requires uncommon courage and very few have the character to deal with such stark reality. But when the truth is known, the worst is over and the benefits are a clearer vision and the wisdom of a “humbler attitude,” without which leaders cannot move beyond despair to a brighter day of victory.