Good Leaders Cannot Get Too Far Out in Front of Their People


It almost happened because of his role in the spectacularly unsuccessful Dardanelles Campaign two decades earlier in World War I. In that affair, over 142,000 British, Dominion and French troops were killed or wounded. Although it would be hard to see a silver lining from this disaster, there was one. Fortunately for all of us, Churchill learned from the experience and, although he made other mistakes in his career, this discovery stayed with him and informed his future leadership.

Few people have engaged in as much wartime leadership as Winston Churchill. He played active roles as a soldier and correspondent in the Boer War (1899-1902), First Lord of the Admiralty and a line officer in the British Army in World War I (1914-1917) and as First Lord of the Admiralty and Prime Minister in World War II (1939-1945). He was largely credited with saving the Western World from Nazi domination as a result of his heroic leadership stand when England stood alone against the Germans in 1940.

His road to that display of courage and determination was bumpy and fraught with potholes, stumbles and miscalculations that branded him among many as a reckless, unreliable warmonger and sidetracked his political ambitions for many years. We are fortunate that he arrived at his appointment with destiny at all.


One of Churchill’s more famous setbacks occurred during World War I when, as First Lord of the Admiralty, he proposed attacking the Ottoman Empire with a strike at its heart: Constantinople (Istanbul). He believed that he could roll up the entire empire and capture the city by forcing the Dardanelles, a strait that traditionally demarks the boundary between Europe and the Middle East and landing troops in an area called Gallipoli. His strategy was based in the sobering reality that in western Europe, the war had ground to a laughterhouse stalemate; an entire generation of European, Ottoman, British and Commonwealth young men gave their lives in a futile attempt to break through each other’s lines. Churchill reasoned that a successful attack in this region would change the dynamics in the war and put enormous pressure on the Germans and their allies. The plan of attack required close coordination between the British Army and its vaunted Navy, a tenuous thing at the best of times. Coordination was poor; sadly, the Navy did not live up to its reputation and the Army was sluggish and executed poorly. The result was that the campaign failed badly. In addition to the lost lives, it also cost Churchill his post in the British Government. Some have argued that his strategy would have worked had the Army and Navy worked better together, acting more decisively. However, in war, operational plans break down from all manner of unexpected problems and challenges. It is possible that even with these enhancements, the plan might still have failed. Conversely, it is more likely that, had the senior leadership team acted and communicated more effectively together, the Gallipoli incursion and subsequent disaster might not have occurred at all.

Public outrage at the horrific outcome demanded that the British War Cabinet conduct an inquiry into the attack. As a result of this after-action review, an important leadership issue emerged. In the ensuing Interim Report of the Dardanelles Commission, published 12 February 1917, the following was noted: “Mr. Churchill thought that he was correctly representing the collective views of the Admiralty experts. But without in any way wishing to impugn his good faith, it seems clear that he was carried away by his sanguine  emperament and his firm belief in the success of the undertaking which he advocated…

Mr. Churchill had obtained their support to a less extent than he himself imagined…Other members of the Council, and more especially the Chairman [Prime Minister Asquith], should have encouraged the experts to give their opinion, and, indeed, should have insisted upon their doing so.”Andrew Roberts, commenting on this in his book, Churchill: Walking with Destiny added, A collective groupthink permeated the meeting of (the Commission)
of 13 January, encouraging optimism and discouraging incisive questioning, a problem made all the worse by [Admirals] Fisher’s and Jackson’s silence.1


How many times have we seen people clam up or “get rolled” in strategy discussions, especially with senior leaders present? Many of those leaders got
where they were by being able to execute well. Often, they have great ideas and/or see more clearly a solution to a pressing issue. Typically, they press
that advantage in strategy discussions with great conviction. Often, team members “reluctantly go along.” Is this one of the reasons that 2/3 of all
change initiatives fail to achieve their stated goal or fail altogether?
There are two critical components in group decisions, 1) the Quality of the Solution, and; 2) the Acceptance of the Solution. While vision is
important, a leader must communicate that vision in a vivid and compelling manner so that those entrusted with executing the mission believe in it,
wholly support the effort and enthusiastically follow through. Then, those leaders must relay the vision in a similar fashion so that all involved have confidence in the execution and can withstand the snags and setbacks that inevitably occur. However, those responsible to the leader for execution have an important obligation to ask the difficult questions necessary so that they can fully endorse and believe in the mission. Leif Babin and Jocko Willink, in their book Extreme Ownership talk about the need for those responding to the leader to fully believe in the vision put forth.2 If they are not able to believe in the vision or proposed strategy, they will not fully support its execution; consequently, the proposed approach will struggle or fail to produce the expected results. If they are unable to get satisfactory answers, they must press the leader to understand their concerns fully so that the vision or strategy may be refined, revised or scrapped completely. This requires a level of trust among the leadership and team members to work properly. This can only happen in an organization whose culture fosters
this kind of communication and is evidenced by the leaders having the level of humility to listen carefully and act appropriately. In Churchill’s case as First Sea Lord, his towering personality and overwhelming self-confidence created a blind spot to the dangers of the coordinated Army-Navy attack plan. At the same time, Admirals Fisher and Jackson failed to impress on Churchill their
reluctance to pursue his plans. Their collective failure to achieve clarity cost hundreds of thousands of lives, set back the war effort, and substantially damaged Churchill’s reputation and risked impacting the course of history. In World War II, he engaged his War Cabinet and the Allies more effectively, collaboratively. And the rest, as they say… the results were markedly different.
Leaders succeed in creating engagement when they are crystal clear about their vision and the strategies they intend to employ. In addition, they need to be humble enough to recognize that those who implement that vision often have a stronger grasp on the day-to-day realities of execution. That means that leaders must seek input and listen carefully before proceeding. Team members who work closely with the leader must have the courage and persistence to ensure that they obtain sufficient clarity and fully understand her approach so that they can endorse and enthusiastically support its execution. Otherwise, they must present clear and compelling information why an alternative approach is the better course. Anything left in the middle
will likely result in a muddle, rendering less than satisfactory outcomes.

1 Andrew Roberts Churchill: Walking with Destiny p.248
2 Leif Babin and Jocko Willink Extreme Ownership Ch. 3


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