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A Student's Guide to Leadership

Leadership Analysis - Winston Churchill

Leadership Characteristics & Traits
Share Your Thoughts! What Makes a GREAT leader?
Transformational Leadership
Decision Making
Motivate Your Team
Leadership Analysis - Winston Churchill
Leadership Analysis - Lee Kuan Yew
Leadership Analysis - Rudy Giuliani
Quiz - What's Your Leadership Potential?
Videos - Famous Speeches By Great Leaders
Further Training in Leadership
Handy links
Handy References
Born in Oxfordshire on 30th November 1874, Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was the son of Lord Randolph Churchill a prominent politician. Winston’s aim from a young age was to succeed in life where his father had failed and this he did. Through his rough beginnings at Sandhurst, his deployment to various overseas operations in the army and navy he finally made his way into politics and became one of the most successful wartime leaders in history.

The paper seeks to expose what made this man a true leader and why he is still an inspiration for the future.

World War I & II

Churchill’s leadership skills were first developed during his time in the military.  He attended the Royal Military College in Sandhurst before embarking on a military career.  It was here Churchill’s earliest leadership abilities were seen. He entered Parliament in 1901 at the tender age of 26 and gained admiration from his party colleagues (Keegan, 2007).  At the outbreak of the Second World War he was appointed First Lord of Admiralty in the Royal Navy, however following the disastrous incidents of the Dardanelles expedition he resigned.  This did not dampen his determination to succeed as he rejoined the army and then went back into politics following senior roles in overseas missions. In 1939 war broke out and Churchill was again appointed First Lord of Admiralty. In May 1940 when current Prime Minister Chamberlain resigned, Churchill took over.  He refused to concede to Nazi Germany and this inspired his country. Churchill organised a successful air defence that lead to the victory of the Battle of Britain and Mussolini’s Italy, which gained the nation’s trust.

However, following the success of the D-Day invasion in 1944 Churchill lost the general election and was forced to renounce his position as Prime Minister.

Achievements Following World War II

Following his demise in 1945, Churchill did not lose his passion for politics he remained determined and was re-elected as Prime Minister in 1951.  It was here he stayed until his health failed him and caused him to resign in 1955.

Not only was Winston Churchill and exceptional wartime leader he was a literary scholar who began writing campaign reports at the age of 24.  He progressed from campaign reports and published his first book in 1900. As well as many political achievements Winston Churchill was honoured in 1953 with a Nobel Prize for Literature and an Order of the Garter by the Queen (Nobelprize, 1953).

Personality Traits

There are many personality traits that describe effective leaders: enthusiasm, self-confidence, assertiveness, extroversion, sense of humour, emotional stability, warmth, high tolerance to frustration and trustworthiness (Dubrin et al, 2006).  Other characteristics, which illustrate generalist leadership abilities, are vision; ambition, good communication, collaboration, co-operation, encouragement, development and the two that are probably the best fit are influence and engagement.  It is difficult for leaders to possess all of these traits, however superior leaders will encompass at least half of these qualities.

Winston Churchill maintained many of these leadership qualities especially vision, encouragement, good communication, influence and engagement throughout his time as Prime Minister of Britain.  One of his weaknesses however, was that he sometimes got to involved in detail and need to look at the bigger picture.  He was also known to change his strategy on a regular basis, much to the frustration of his colleagues.

 Leadership Style

What leadership traits did Churchill demonstrate?

From researching the various leadership theories you would describe Winston Churchill as being a charismatic / transformational leader. 

According to Dubrin et al. these types of leaders communicate their vision in an expressive manner. His strong communication skills were called upon during the time of crisis in World War II.  He was required to inspire people and this he did.  Churchill was a man of his people; his inspiring speeches encouraged the British people to be courageous and hopeful in a time of despair. One of his famous quotes was “Never, never, never give up”.  Churchill was a visionary who brought about major change

According to Dubrin, Daglish & Miller (2006), vision is the ability to imagine diverse and enhanced conditions and ways in which to achieve them.

People need to believe in this vision in order to make it effective. Churchill’s vision was of self-preservation and the preservation of free governments and Western civilizations against ever advancing sources of authority and dictatorship.  Churchill did not merely hate tyranny; he despised it (Keegan, 2007).  In the time when Hitler was a force in Nazi Germany and ready to invade Britain, Churchill stood out as the one man the nation could place its trust in. 

Trust forms a major part in being a charismatic leader, without trust you don’t have people who are willing to carry out one’s own vision.  This was a necessity for Winston Churchill as Nazi Germany was about to invade Britain.  If his people didn’t believe in him and trust his objectives on how to best defend their country there is no way that Britain would have defeated the Hitler regime.  His style of leadership was decisive and bold, he knew what we wanted to achieve and brought about ways in which to fulfil his goals.  By making an impressive appearance, Churchill was able to enhance his charismatic traits.  His refined appearance of bow ties, tall hats and cigars became a trademark so to speak.  This portrayed a charismatic image to those around him and gave him credibility.  Many believe that charisma is a behaviour that can be learnt and isn’t a characteristic that someone is born with (BBC, 2007).  Hitler for instance had many tactics to acquire charisma to get people to believe he was super-human.  Churchill used props like cigars, hats and bow ties that distinguished him.

Theory of Charismatic Leadership

Robert House (1977) came up with a theory on Charismatic leadership of which there were nine effects.

1.       Group members trust in the correctness of the leader’s beliefs

2.       Similarity of group members beliefs to those of the leader

3.       Unquestioning acceptance of the leader

4.       Affection for the leader

5.       Willing obedience of the leader

6.       Identification with and emulation of the leader

7.       Emotional involvement of the group members or constituents in the mission

8.       Heightened goals of group members

9.       Feeling on the part of the group members that the will be able to accomplish, or contribute to, the accomplishment of the mission.

From analysing the nine theories and it can be observed that Churchill exuded many of these characteristics during his reign in World War II and following his re-election in 1951. 

Even following his resignation in 1955 due to ill health Churchill was still portrayed as being an influential leader.  Hitler on the other hand who was in charge of Nazi Germany at the same time as Churchill’s rein could also be described as being a charismatic leader, but his characteristics are clearly different to that of Churchill.  Hitler could be categorised as a personalised charismatic as he was a dictator who used his power to benefit his own interest.

Roberts (2003), stated that Churchill established that leaders did not necessarily need charisma or dictatorial powers to inspire others, when people met him they felt they could achieve anything and therefore  genuine inspiration beats artificially created charisma.

Relevance of Churchill and Leadership

Churchill’s legacy still lives on with many leaders drawing from his key leadership principles to not only fight today’s war on terror, but to also support business leaders in this rapidly changing world.  Churchill’s speeches have been an inspiration to current world leaders, who have reflected on they way Churchill conducted himself during periods of political unrest in the world (Longstaffe, 2005).

Strong communication is an important factor during a crisis and this is one thing Churchill engaged in during World War II.  Change is usually inevitable and people often resist it, hence communication plays a key role in assisting to make this a positive within an organization.  An example Longstaffe (2005) presents to compare Churchill’s principle to a business scenario is to view a potential crisis, where profits are being eroded, downsizing is required, the team is unmotivated and shareholders are despondent.  Churchill would merely explain the current realities, then inspire the team by providing them with a vision so they can see the bigger picture, offer advice on how to achieve the goal and motivate them into achieving this.  Churchill excelled at being able to adopt a vision and inspire people to embrace change.  His words of encouragement had to reflect his behaviour, as people follow behaviour more than words.  Churchill’s determination and passion helped communicate his vision and inspire those he lead. Churchill’s leadership principles are timeless and businesses and leaders now and in the future should draw upon them to help achieve success.


Winston Churchill exemplified key leadership skills during his reign as the Prime Minister of Britain during the 1940’s and 1950’s.  Through the study of leadership theories it can ascertained Winston Churchill portrayed a number of characteristics, traits and behaviours of a charismatic / transformational leader.  His charismatic leadership traits enabled him to adopt a vision and concentrate on the bigger picture, which enabled him to claim victory for his nation.  Churchill was able to perform his duties democratically and not as a totalitarian dictator.  To be an exceptional leader one must have strong communication skills.  When much of Britain was in despair, he excelled and through his inspirational speeches, encouraged people to have faith in him. By using simple, but precise language he was able to deliver effective speeches to his nation that all could understand, thus the people of Britain could identify with him and trust his vision. This enabled him to achieve the goals of the country and lead a democratic nation to victory over Nazi Germany.  Much can be learnt from his strong communication skills, innovation and trustworthiness that made him one of the great leaders in history.  He was and still is a true inspiration to others and his principles are still relevant today in our uncertain climate as they were more than 60 years ago.  As Churchill said “History will be kind to me as I intend to write it”.


Churchill in 1912 as First Lord of the Admiralty
Churchill in 1912 as First Lord of the Admiralty

Yousuf Karsh portrait of Winston Churchill on cove
Yousuf Karsh portrait of Winston Churchill on cover of Life magazine

Winston Churchill (1874-1965) with fiancée Clementine Hozier (1885-1977)

Winston, his son Randolf [i.e., Randolph], and grandson, Winston in coronation robes

A Student's Guide to Leadership