This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s death. We might draw many lessons from Churchill’s life, and not all of them salutary (his views on religion, women, and alcohol come to mind). Nevertheless, Churchill was an inspiring and effective leader in a time of crisis, and it is appropriate to consider what he might teach us today about leadership.

Some Christians have mixed feelings about devoting time to learn from non-Christian leaders. But remember Isaiah calls Cyrus God’s “anointed” (Is. 45:1) and the apostle Paul calls civil authority “the servant of God” (Rom. 13:4). Wherever we find wisdom and leadership at work in the world, they are gifts of God from which we can learn. As John Calvin said, “If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall [not] despise it wherever it shall appear. . . . Those men whom Scripture calls ‘natural men’ were, indeed, sharp and penetrating in their investigation of inferior things.”

Here are three leadership principles from Winston Churchill that I draw from Paul Johnson’s biography, each with a corresponding lesson for us in leadership today. (For additional and more thorough lessons from Churchill, see also Collin Hansen’s article “Churchill for Pastors.”)

1. Great leaders learn from their failures.

On several different occasions it looked like Churchill’s political career was finished. In 1915 he was blamed for the disastrous effort to seize the Dardanelles straight during World War I, and was demoted and disgraced. His wife would later recall, “I thought he would die of grief.” Then, in 1922, Churchill was again disgraced following the Chanak crisis and lost election—right as he fell ill and needed surgery. He would later comment, “In the twinkling of an eye, I found myself without an office, without a seat, without a party, and without an appendix.”

Having bounced back from both of these failures, he then entered a protracted “wilderness season” in the 1930s. His support for Edward VIII during the abdication crisis greatly damaged his popularity, and his alarm about Hitler pushed him into an outcast position in Parliament. On one occasion, having being shouted down, he stormed out of the chamber and confessed to a friend, “My political career is finished.” Later he would reflect about this time: “I was myself so smitten in public opinion that it was the almost universal view that my political life was at last ended.”

Amazingly, Churchill not only survived these stormy ups and downs—any one of which could have ended his career—but he learned from them and became a better leader because of them. In fact, each episode almost seems designed to prepare him for his greatest service, that of prime minister during World War II. For example, according the Johnson, the memory of Dardanelles was partly what motivated Churchill to insist—against Stalin and Roosevelt—upon a later date for the Allied invasion into northwestern Europe, when it was more likely to be successful. The success of D-Day in 1944 may not have occurred without the failure of Dardanelles in 1915.

            Lesson: Failure can strengthen, rather than destroy, your leadership.

Leaders will experience failure—sometimes disastrous, disgraceful failure that seems to unravel their leadership potential. And it is all too easy to respond to failure with rashness and shortsightedness, rather than grace and perseverance. People and life are often more forgiving that we expect, and if we will humbly seek to learn from our failures, they will usually not destroy us. In fact, our failures may even be the mechanism by which God will prepare us for greater tasks ahead.

2. Great leaders know how to enjoy life.

Churchill was an incredibly hard worker and productive man. He published almost 10 million words over course of his life, regularly worked 16 hour days during busy stretches, was under fire 50 times, was present at or fought in 15 battles, and spent 55 years as a member of Parliament, 31 as a minister, and almost 9 as prime minister. Even after World War II at age 70 he did not retire but spent another decade in public service. The amount of energy with which he embraced life is astounding. 

How did he do it? Paradoxically, Johnson argues that the secret to his productivity was his ability to relax and enjoy life. Family, friends, vacation, laughter, and hobbies were for Churchill part of the main business of life, not mere sidetracks or distractions. He poured the same energies into leisure as he did into work, and over the years this balance became for him an incredible tonic against the discouragements and anxieties of leadership.

Painting, in particular, became a refuge for Churchill after the Dardanelles disaster, and he continued painting all his life, finishing more than 500 canvasses before his death (more than most professional painters). He also spent many hours working on his country home and his garden, and spent much time recuperating there with his family. Johnson claims, “Churchill’s great strength was his power of relaxation” (128) and calls painting “the perfect relaxation from his tremendous cares” (55). 

            Lesson: Hobbies, friends, and joy are essential to success.

The equal intensity of both rigor and relaxation in Churchill’s life reveal something about the nature of productivity in a world created by a God who rested on the seventh day. I wonder if those of us in ministry can especially find a lesson in Churchill’s resiliency. Just as Churchill was able to recover from political failures precisely because politics was not the only thing in his life, so paradoxically we will find resiliency in ministry to the extent that ministry is not our everything.

In particular, friends and hobbies are essential to longevity and durability in ministry leadership. They are healthy, sustaining, restorative influences that provide ballast and perspective amid all the ups and downs of life and leadership.

3. Great leaders focus on their calling.

The confidence with which Churchill responded to the call of leading Britain in her most dire hour is unbelievable—seemingly superhuman. On the night in 1940 he discovered he was to be prime minister, Churchill wrote:

I was conscious of a profound sense of relief. At last I had authority to give directions over the whole scene. I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial. . . . I was sure I would not fail. Therefore, although impatient for the morning, I slept soundly and had not need for cheering dreams. Facts are better than dreams.

Keep in mind that Churchill was facing about as daunting a leadership scenario as anyone ever experienced. The Nazis were sweeping through Western Europe toward Great Britain, and at this point it was far from clear how or whether they would be stopped.

It is astonishing that Churchill felt relieved to take charge of the situation, and impatient to get started. But he seemed to sense that he was born specifically for this task, that his gifts and all his prior experiences had brought him to this moment.

            Lesson: Calling makes the difference.

Leadership, especially in vocational ministry, is difficult and often incalculable. You can be godly, gifted, and make all the right calls—and still fall flat on your face. Leadership is beyond any of us in our natural abilities. There are potential pitfalls in every direction, and the challenges and uncertainties that rise up are impossible to anticipate.

Within the calling of God we find the confidence and strength to lead amid seemingly super-human difficulties. There is a calmness that comes from knowing you are exactly where God has called you to be, that your gifts and experiences are uniquely suited for the tasks set ahead of you.

Sometimes you have stick it out for a while before you find that sense of placement that Winston Churchill found in 1940. But if you persevere within the calling of God, you will eventually discover joy in those moments you were born for, those moments where super-human difficulty is met by super-human confidence.

Maybe those moments are still out ahead of us. Maybe our worst failures are preparing us for them.