Winston Churchill and You: Lessons from the Life of the Greatest Statesman of the 20th Century

October 17, 2011 |

“Winston Churchill and You: Lessons from the Life of the Greatest Statesman of the 20th Century"

My theme today is “Winston Churchill and You: Lessons from the Life of the Greatest Statesman of the 20th Century.”

Now, I will tell you straight out that I am not a Churchill scholar. I have not read the authoritative multi-volume biography by Martin Gilbert, nor any of Churchill’s many books –including his favorite, The River War.

On the face of it, therefore, I must admit that my chosen theme is somewhat preposterous. You must be asking, “What can I possibly learn from the life of Winston Churchill?”

Even more pointedly, you are surely wondering how Churchill’s life could have anything to do with the profession or practice of architecture. He was no Prince of Wales, who, in a famous speech in 1984, decried Peter Ahrends’s scheme for a towering extension to the National Gallery as a "monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.”

No, there is little evidence that Churchill had much to say about architecture – except that he loved Blenheim Castle, where he, Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill, was born, premature but healthy, on 30 November 1874.

But if Churchill had wanted to be an architect, I think it quite likely he would have been at the very least an interesting one.

He had a keen eye for color and form. He taught himself to paint as a form of therapy when he was out of office during his “wilderness years” after the debacle at Gallipoli in the First World War. Many of his more than 500 works – he was particularly adept at sunlit landscapes – nabbed high prices on the auction block.

He even wrote a best-selling book, “Painting as a Pastime,” and was elected an Honorary Member of the Royal Academy Extraordinary.

He also had a feel for the physical texture and components of buildings. He took up bricklaying as yet another form of relaxation, and built by his own hand many of the outlying structures at his estate at Chartwell.

In fact, Churchill applied for membership in the British masons’ union but was turned down for political reasons.

Of course, the world should be grateful that Churchill did not turn to painting or masonry and especially not to architecture for full-time work, or we would have lost the greatest statesman of the 20th century.

Which brings me back to my theme – and to 3 questions:


The first two questions come from the British writer Paul Johnson, in his excellent short biography, Churchill. I recommend it highly.

I propose, therefore, to explore a number of statements Paul Johnson makes to support his argument that Churchill did indeed save Britain.

For each of these, I will make a leap of faith and suggest how lessons derived from Churchill’s life and work might apply to the current practice and business of architecture in the United States.

First, some curious facts about Churchill.

Most of us have this image of Churchill in his later years, rather plump, with a cigar between his fingers – hardly the essence of athleticism.

But he was fencing champion at Harrow, before going on to Sandhurst, and won the All India Calcutta Cup – the highest honor – in polo – and played as late as 1951, in a match against the House of Lords.

He became a famous war correspondent. His first war was Cuba, in 1895, and he served in India with the Fourth Hussars. He witnesses the Battle of Omdurman, Egypt – 1899 – in which the Dervish army destroyed.

He was a POW in the Boer War, and famously escaped, and was under fire more than 50 times. For all this, he received numerous military honors – 15 medals, many with extra decorations.

Churchill was elected to the House of Commons at 26, and married Clementine Hozier in 1908. It was, for its time, an unusually faithful marriage.

He was incredibly prolific as a writer. He wrote 8-10 million words in his lifetime, and his “War Memoirs” is more than 2 million words. In comparison, Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” is a mere 1.1 million.

Let us not forget that he won the Nobel Prize – in Literature -  for “War Memoirs.” And, to top it off, he was the first honorary citizen of the United States.

Enough trivia. Let’s get to the meat.



The first point that Johnson makes is somewhat counterintuitive: that Churchill was personally fortunate in that he took over at a “desperate time.”

To say that the times were bleak on the 13th of May 1940 when Churchill took power would be a grave understatement.

Six of Britain’s seven Allies had already been defeated. France was about to surrender.

And so, on May 13, Churchill made the first of many historic speeches as Prime Minister, in which he famously said:

“I would say to the House, as I have said to those who have joined the Government, ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.’”

“Blood, toil, tears and sweat”– thanks to a speech impediment, he almost spits out the word “sweat”– but later in the speech he makes an even more compelling statement, when he says,

“Victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory there is no survival.”

As Paul Johnson writes: “The last words – ‘for without victory there is no survival’ - were of deadly significance, and were felt to be so. [Britain] was facing extinction as a free country.”

What does this point about “desperate time” mean for us here today?

Well, I don’t wish to suggest that the economic recession of the last 3-4 years is in any way comparable to the horrific situation Churchill faced in May 1940. The plight of the euro is nothing like the Nazi blitzkrieg in Europe.

But these are desperate times for architecture firms, rivaled perhaps only by the economic disaster of the early 1990s. That debacle led to a “lost generation,” as many architects young and old were forced to abandon the profession they so loved, to pursue whatever employment they could find. It would take the profession more than a decade to recover.

Yet, even in this desperate time, a month after taking the reins as prime minister – and self-appointed War Lord – Churchill had the miracle of Dunkirk.

As you know, more than 300,000 troops were ferried across the Channel on every available vessel, from British navy ships to fishing boats and leisure craft, and 90% of the Allied troops trapped in France were saved.

This amazing rescue remains as one of the indelible legends of the war. The expedition gave the British people something to hope for. Churchill labeled the response “the Dunkirk spirit.”

Of course, as Paul Johnson notes, it was “a bogus victory” – let’s face it, they were running for their lives -  “… but Dunkirk nevertheless gave a huge boost to British morale: now that Winston was in charge, … the country was moving upward, if only an inch at a time.”

Let us recall Churchill’s words just a month earlier: “For without victory there is no survival.”

For many in the design profession, the last few years have posed a severe threat to your careers and to the careers of tens of thousands of other American architects, and to the survival of hundreds of architecture firms. Layoffs and reductions of 20, 30, 40% or more have not been uncommon.

So, under these bleak conditions, I ask you to consider: Is there some “win,” even a small one, that you can use to rally the troops on your team, or in your firm? Are you using your “victories” to inspire morale?

Is there a “Dunkirk spirit” in your practice? Are you doing all you can to stay positive? Can you, like Churchill and the British at Dunkirk, snatch victory from the jaws of defeat?



Let me turn to Paul Johnson’s second point, which is this:

“Churchill himself set a personal example of furious and productive activity at 10 Downing St.”

At the time of Churchill’s ascendancy to the premiership, 10 Downing Street was a den of sloth and ineptitude. Banker’s hours were the norm.

Churchill, by personal example, rapidly began to change that. He himself worked 16-hour days.

He instituted his famous memos and orders that stated “Action This Day” …

And he pushed and cajoled government officials with his queries to: “Pray inform me on one half-sheet of paper, why…”

At the same time, he made a conscious practice of conserving his energy:

“Never stand when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down.”

He was famous for his shortafternoon naps, which he took in his “siren suit”– a one-piece zip-up suit, which he called his “rompers.”

Churchill said that this practice enabled him to cram two day’s work into a single day.

According to Paul Johnson, his dictation secretaries “helped him to turn Number Ten into a dynamo, and its reverberations gradually resounded through the entire old-fashioned, lazy, obstructive, and cumbersome government machine, until it began to hum, too.”

By the way, this level of activity was not limited to deskwork. By 1943, Churchill had logged 110,000 miles of travel, including 33 days at sea and more than 300 hours in the air, many in the face of danger.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that your firms are places of sloth and ineptitude.

But given today’s hard time, I ask you, as leaders in your firms:

What example do you set for others, especially those you supervise or mentor?

Do the young people in your firm see you putting in the hours and the energy to make sure that the next important presentation is perfect?

Do you exude enthusiasm, even under the most trying circumstances?



The argument can be made that the only orator of the 20th century to rival Churchill was Adolph Hitler.

But after Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, Hitler came to rule more through fear than persuasion. He retired like a “troglodyte” (in Johnson’s phrase) to his bunker and gave up his grand public speeches.

Churchill, on the other hand, used his incredible writing and speaking ability at every opportunity.

As I mentioned, he learned to overcome a speech impediment. He learned, too, from an embarrassing experience early in his career, that he must memorize every speech, which he did to perfection.

On the 4th of June 1940, after Dunkirk, he gave one of his most memorable speeches – you all know it:

“We shall not flag or fail. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on 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 shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.”

After France capitulated, as Paul Johnson notes, “he struck again with memorable words” (in a rallying cry reminiscent of Hal’s St. Crispian’s speech in “Henry V”):

Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years men will still say, “This was their finest hour."

But Churchill did not rely solely on words to stir the British people. When a young Oxford don named C.E. Stevens came up with the V for Victory sign, Churchill made it his own and flashed the V at every opportunity.

By the way, Morse code for “V” is dot-dot-dot-dash, and if you sing it, it’s the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony!

As Paul Johnson writes,

“So the first true victory Britain won in the war was the victory of oratory and symbolism. Churchill was responsible for both.”

I ask you then:

Are you using your powers of persuasion and speech in your leadership role at your firm and in the architecture profession?

Is there an opportunity where delivering a well-written and “emotional” statement – even a brief one – could be the key to winning your firm’s next big project?

Oratory is a lost art. You can shine by taking the time to make an oratorical statement – even if it will never come up to the level of a Winston Churchill. Whose does, these days?

Is there some way to introduce a symbol or image – beyond the usual “branding” trash – that will inspire and motivate your colleagues, your staff, even your clients?



Johnson’s fourth lesson from Churchill’s life refers to “his sense of the importance of airpower and his speed in grasping the opportunities it offered.”

Churchill believed in technology. Starting in 1911, as First Lord of the Admiralty, he worked 18-hour days and “absorbed the new technology of naval warfare with impressive speed.”

He ordered the historic switch from coal to oil, and created a new class of oil-burning battleships, the Queen Elizabeth class.

He learned to fly, and created the naval air service.

He was responsible for the creation of a new class of extremely fast vessels equipped with a new weapon called “depth charges” - the “U-boat destroyer,” later simplified to “destroyer.”

After the Great War, as secretary of state for war and air, he turned the RAF into the world’s largest air force. The RAF was allowed to decline in later years, but the R&D behind it was still strong.

So, by the time Churchill took power in May 1940, Britain was producing better aircraft than Germany, and in much greater numbers. With Churchill’s appointment of his loyal friend, Lord Beaverbrook, as minister of aircraft production, the pace became furious.

Add in Britain’s advantage with radar, and, according to Johnson, “For the first time in the war, British technological superiority was established.”

As a result of Churchill’s leadership in promoting technology, the RAF was able to defend its southern airfields against the Luftwaffe. The RAF inflicted casualties in a ratio of three to one against German aircraft.

Hitler was forced to resort to nighttime raids against London. As dreadful and frightening as these were, they were not strategic.

It was impossible for Hitler to invade England. By October 1940, the Battle of Britain was won.

As Churchill had so famously stated on 20 August 1940, when the tide was beginning to turn:

“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

With the invasion averted, Churchill knew that he had to take the offensive and strike directly at German cities. He gave Beaverbrook the go-ahead to develop a long-range bomber that could carry 5 tons of bombs. This became the Lancaster, which wreaked such terrible havoc on German cities and kept Hitler occupied in the west, which diluted his strength against Russia to the east.

I ask you: What is the technology of today that will help you and your firm win the war – the war for more competitive contracts, for the best projects?

Is it Building Information Modeling? How are you deploying BIM in your firm? We’ve seen several approaches:

  • At the top 10-15%, firms that are 100% BIM on all projects
  • At the bottom 20%, firms that have virtually no interest in BIM
  • In between, firms that are dabbling in BIM – trying BIM on 1 project (but also doing 2D), and so on.

Is it “green building”?

Are you “stretching” the use of technology to achieve energy and water savings that go beyond the 30% savings of LEED?

The Research Support Facility at NREL achieved nearly 80% energy savings – through the use of off-the-shelf technology – even before using PVs to achieve net-zero energy. And at reasonable cost, too.

Are you “satisfied” with LEED Silver, when you could be going for LEED Platinum? Is LEED Platinum becoming passé?

Is someone in your firm assigned to check out new technologies? Who is “Lord Beaverbrook” at your firm?

Is there a reward system in your firm for seeking out and implementing new technologies?

How are you working with clients to get them to appreciate the advantages of new technology? Can you make a convincing case for Life Cycle Cost versus First Cost?

In short, what is your technology strategy? If you don’t have one, or if the one you have is not working, what do you plan to do about it?



In March 1941, Churchill came to the aid of Greece, which was not seen as an important ally. Although Greece eventually fell to Hitler, this action stalled Hitler from invading Russia in May, as planned. Ultimately, this led Hitler to be caught in the Russian winter, like Napoleon.

Of course Britain’s most important ally would be the United States. Starting with lend-lease, Churchill worked hard to cement the future alliance with America. When Hitler made the fatal mistake of declaring war against the United States after Pearl Harbor, Churchill had the ally he needed to finish the job.

Are you actively seeking allies in your career, profession, and work for your firm?

At Building Design+Construction, we are strong advocates of the Building Team: architects, engineers, and contractors working closely, intimately with the building owner, the developer, the owner’s representative.

We think that having a tightly knit Building Team is the only way to ensure that the project will not suffer from finger-pointing – and costly lawsuits.

Take a look at the major trends in the design + construction industry:

  • Green Building and LEED, which has a prerequisite for team integration
  • BIM, where so much design is occurring very early stage of the project
  • Integrated Project Delivery, which is beginning to be demanded by more and more clients, especially large hospital systems
  • Add in Design-Build, LEAN construction, and Hypertrack Project Delivery

… all these cry out for highly integrated Building Teams.

Architecture firms cannot do it alone. Your firms must be seeking out the very best, proven allies from the other professions, or you will be frozen out of the choice projects.



Paul Johnson makes the case that Churchill always aimed high:

“In 1940 he aimed not only high but at the highest—to rescue a stricken country in danger of being demoralized, to put it firmly on its feet again, and to carry it to salvation and victory.”

“Aiming high” is not easy, as I know from personal experience with BD+C. We like to think we do YEOMANLIKE WORK on everything, but not everything we do is worthy of a journalism award.

But we do take our shots at aiming high – several projects each year where we make the extra effort. Our WHITE PAPERS on Green Building have been consistently highly rated, and we have won many awards for them.

Similarly, I’m sure that you, in your work, seek to do your best for your clients and firm on every project.

But should you be thinking about one project in the next year, where you REALLY pull out all the stops? Where you don’t settle for “good” work, but seek true excellence – for example, a project that might be worthy of being entered in BD+C’s “Building Team Awards” or our “Reconstruction Awards” or the AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE) Top 10?

You won’t win them all, but when you do, it can have an enormous boost on morale – your own and that of everyone else’s in your firm.

Furthermore, how does your firm honor and reward those who aim high – even those who don’t always succeed, as Churchill often failed to do? 

As Paul Johnson writes, “He did not always meet his elevated targets, but by aiming high he always achieved something worthwhile.”

We sometimes think we can be cavalier about rewarding and honoring people – “You’re lucky just to have a job” – but the best people, those few who aim high and probably bring in 80% of your firm’s business – those people are going to be in even GREATER DEMAND from your competitors in tough times like these.

What, then, is your strategy for keeping people happy AND LOYAL?

Other Lessons from Churchill’s Life

There are several other lessons that Paul Johnson draws from Churchill’s life that, in the interest of time, I will condense.



For one, Johnson argues that Churchill “never allowed mistakes, disaster, accidents, illnesses, unpopularity, and criticism to get him down.”

He was always about the work, about moving the game to the next level.

Ask yourself: How do we at our firm behave when we lose a competition, or don’t get called in for a project interview? Do we give up? Or do we reconnoiter and learn from our mistakes?

I wish I had easy answers to these questions. I don’t. But that doesn’t mean they are not important questions to keep in mind as you examine your own career and your firm’s future.



In a similar vein, Johnson points out that Churchill “wasted little time and emotional energy on recrimination, shifting blame onto others, malice, revenge seeking, dirty tricks, spreading rumors, harboring grudges, waging vendettas. He was even generous to the German people after the war.

“In war, resolution. In defeat, defiance. In victory, magnanimity. In peace, goodwill.”

Unless you’re in the Reality TV business, where bitchiness and recrimination are a way of life, this a good lesson for all of us. What is to be gained from blaming others? How does that advance your career or help your firm move up to the next level? Why waste the time? Instead of casting blame, address the core issues of the problem.



Johnson points out, too, that, even in his darkest days, Churchill made room for joy in his life—with his painting, elaborate dinners, and good humor.

Churchill was an avid lifelong champagne drinker, and the 1928 Pol Roger was his favorite.

It is estimated he drank 20,000 bottles in his lifetime, yet when his liver was examined upon his death, it was found to be as healthy as that of a child’s.

Even though he suffered from depression – which he called the “Black Dog” – Churchill was consistently optimistic in public.

He once told the boys at his old school, Harrow:

Do not let us speak of darker days. Let us rather speak of sterner days. These are not dark days: these are great days—the greatest days our country has ever lived. And we must all thank God that we have been allowed … to play a part in making these days memorable in the history of our race.

That was 29 October 1941– more than a month before Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into the war, at a time when the outcome – and certainly the length and cost of the war - was still largely undetermined.

How important is it for us to spread joy – and optimism - to the people we work with? We all need to do our best to raise spirits and fight defeatism, especially in these difficult times.



I will conclude with perhaps the most important lesson from Churchill’s life – in Paul Johnson’s words, Churchill’s “uncanny gift for getting priorities right.”

It is said that “Churchill’s greatest intellectual gift was for picking on essentials and concentrating on them” – in this case, toward the destruction of the enemy.

He convinced Roosevelt that priority had to be given to defeating Germany first, before Japan – what Paul Johnson says was “perhaps the most important act of persuasion in Churchill’s entire career, and it proved to be absolutely correct.”

However, having your priorities in order is one thing – timing them correctly is another.

Churchill was haunted by the specter of Gallipoli, for which he took the blame.

To avoid another Gallipoli, it was crucial to Churchill to get the timing right for Operation Overlord.

Stalin wanted to open the Western Front in 1942, to take the pressure off Russia.

Roosevelt wanted to launch Overlord in 1943.

Roosevelt wanted to invade Europe in 1943.

Churchill managed to convince both that D-Day had to wait till the Allies were ready to launch an insurmountable attack, to make sure that Overlord succeeded with the least possible number of Allied casualties. History proved him right.

How well do you set priorities – and optimize their timing - in your work, in your career, even in your volunteer activities?

How well does your firm engage in truly effective strategic planning and prioritization?

Setting priorities is, from my experience, the hardest thing in the world to do. It is so easy to get distracted with trivialities, to be nibbled at by inconsequential emails, to lose track of the big picture.

Fail to get your priorities and timing right, however, and your practice will suffer potentially irremediable harm – especially in today’s tenuous climate.



I conclude then, with these 10 Lessons from the life of Winston Churchill …

  1. Turn desperation into opportunity.
  2. Set an example of furious and productive activity.
  3. Make use of oratory and symbolism.
  4. Appreciate the role of technology.
  5. Seek allies.
  6. Always aim high.
  7. Don’t let mistakes get you down.
  8. Don’t waste time placing blame.
  9. Make time for joy and celebration.
  10. Get your priorities - and timing - right.

I encourage you to think about how you might apply them to your profession and your firm, as I hope to do in my own work and daily life.

Thank you.


Source: “Churchill,” Paul Johnson (, 2009.

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