Lessons from Churchill on Crisis Leading, Part 1


If you studied leadership at all, you may be familiar with the great man theory, trade theory, or contingency theory. All of these are schools of thought about leadership, but they lack a Christian worldview. Winston Churchill, on the other hand, was probably the greatest leader of the 20th century, and he believed in God. He believed that things were happening supernaturally, paralleling human events, and this shaped his approach to crisis leadership. He said, “The destiny of mankind is not decided by material computation. We all believe that it’s not just the material things that are deciding history. When great causes are on the moon, we find out that we are spirits, and that something is going on beyond space and time.” This is why he is the model man to teach us about crisis leadership.

Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of England, led the world through World War II. He believed that if we will do the right things, if we lead well, if we ignite people’s souls, if we do some of the things that I’m about to share, we will deserve victory. Supernatural forces will work on our behalf to bring about victory.

Here are nine principles Churchill employed on leading in a time of crisis:

  1. Frame the crisis. You have to put the crisis into perspective. Put language to it that explains it so people can move forward and thrive. Winston Churchill did this in World War II. He expressed the conflict between the Western powers and Nazism in distinctly religious terms. I won’t go into the history of World War II, but it is often seen as the final battle of World War I. Some people said it had to do with the unfair treaties that followed World War I; some people said it had to do with land and the harshness of the settlement. But Churchill knew that people don’t go to war or give their best for reasons like these. He called Nazism “barbarous paganism.” And it was. It was rooted in racist, Nordic paganism. This helped the people understand so that they could be rallied to the cause. His words beat in their hearts.You have to frame the crisis before you. What are you facing? If you’re going to lead the people, you’re going to have to put language to the crisis. What’s the nature of the battle? What’s really going on? How do we rally people?
  2. Invoke destiny. We Christians believe that God orchestrates our lives. We believe that things don’t happen by accident, but there’s a path chosen for us that will lead us forward. We believe that good works are ordained for us in advance (Ephesians 2:10). Invoking destiny is nothing more than saying, “You’re called for such a time as this,” the same great words that were said to Esther. Churchill said it this way, when he took the Prime Ministership of England, “ I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and this trial.” Churchill not only believed that he was destined for that moment, but he also spoke to the British people in those terms. In fact, he spoke that way to everyone! He communicated to those around him that this was their battle, their generation’s calling. He said we’re meant to win things for the future. We’re meant to win things for our grandchildren. This is our destined cause. And it made every shopkeeper and taxi driver and man sweeping the streets believe that they were part of the cause, that they could sacrifice and do the things they were called upon to do at that time. Invoking destiny will free you of fear and cause you to lead in big moments.Pastor, in case you forgot, you’re called to this. You were prepared for this crisis before you. Your people have been prepared. Your church has been prepared. Don’t believe that evil is prevailing. No, believe you are destined to fight, and on the other side of battle, you’re going to have even more influence in your city.
  3. Define victory. Leaders don’t often define victory. They often get mired in the details. But what are you fighting for? Because of Churchill’s speeches, and because of the way he so clearly defined victory, everybody, anybody knew what victory would look like. They knew exactly what they were fighting for. They knew exactly where they were going. Churchill said, “If we can stand up to Hitler, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.” In one sentence he defined victory.Have you defined victory for your people? What’s it going to look like when you’re on other side of this thing and your church has served powerfully in the community? Don’t get so mired in the details that you forget to define the vision of your victory.
  4. Redefine hardship. In our generation, people tend to think that anything hard is ultimately and automatically evil. Of course, that’s not true. We know that hardship is the coin with which we pay for victory. In fact, one of my favorite scriptures ever is Hebrews 12:7, which says, “Endure hardship as discipline.” In other words, it can be redemptive and with purpose. It can be something that empowers us to accomplish more. Churchill would give speeches where he said things like this, “We shall draw from the heart of suffering itself the means of inspiration and survival.” What was he saying? “We’re going to suffer. It’s going to be hard. But this is how we will achieve inspiration and survival.”

One translation of James 1 says that we should make friends with hardship: “Welcome these hardships as friends. They come to make you better. They come to set you free.” Churchill redefined hardship, stating, ”We’re not going to be people of leisure. I’m not giving you that opportunity. We’re going to embrace hardship because it’s going to make us better.” And you who are leading, I know you’ve got challenges, tremendous challenges, but be sure to redefine the understanding of hardship in the minds of those you lead. It’s very, very important.