There are plenty of great business books out there, giving you ideas on how to improve all aspects of your business. To be honest, I prefer to read histories and biographies. Hey, there’s only so much time, I can’t read everything, I figure I might as well read what I enjoy! But I can take business and life lessons from these books also.
This week I finished this book, The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, by Erik Larson. Great book! Turns out Erik Larson went to Penn, where I went, but I didn’t know him, he graduated two years earlier.
The book chronicles the year from May 1940 to May 1941, when London, and much of the UK was under the blitz. 44,000 British civilians were killed. Churchill came into power in May and had to lead a nation under attack, with no help after France surrendered, and before the US entered the war after Pearl Harbor. The book follows Churchill and his family, especially his youngest daughter, Mary, who recorded her thoughts in her diary. Another key figure is Jock Colville, a young man who was one of Churchill’s personal secretaries, who, breaking the rules, also kept a diary (which he published, at least the non-personal parts, in 1985).
What did I learn about business from this thriller?
There is no substitute for hard work. Jock Colville, who had been serving under Chamberlain, was amazed at the increased work pace under Churchill. He worked late into the night, which was difficult for his staff, but there was much work to be done, just like at a startup. He didn’t stick to a normal schedule, he took his naps and had his bath during the day. But he often worked during his bath. He wasn’t going to lose the war as a result of slackness.
You need to inspire your workers. Churchill had to inspire his countrymen. They were riding out the awful nighttime bombings in shelters or at home, never knowing if they would be hit. His words and actions communicated that they would never surrender. He would climb up to the roof during bombing raids, a bit foolhardy, but he was fearless, and wanted to see what was going on.
Churchill needed metrics. How many planes do we have, how many lost, how many does Germany have? These weren’t easy to obtain but crucial to determine how to win the air war. Likewise, in business, we need to have our metrics to measure our business and our progress.
Churchill appointed Max Beaverbrook to oversee aircraft production. He knew this would cause turmoil throughout the industry, but he knew Beaverbrook was the man for the job. He doubled crucial production and made quite a few enemies along the way. He constantly pleaded to quit, but Churchill kept prodding him on. Lesson – your key lieutenants are your way to get things accomplished.
Churchill knew advancements in technology might be the key to defending his island and winning the war. He kept the “Prof” Frederick Lindemann, close at hand, and pushed his ideas hard, including understanding the new German radio beam navigation system that enabled nighttime targeting of bombers, and constantly testing and improving aerial mines to stop German planes. Lesson – technology needs to be harnessed! Doing things the same old way might not win the war.
As hard and long as the work may be, there is life outside of work. Churchill retreated to Chequers, the PM’s country home, on weekends. He brought his friends, colleagues, and family, so they could relate outside of regular working hours. He would play records and march around in his silly siren suit, a one-piece outfit that could be pulled on in a moment, to the delight of others. Colville said this showed his complete absence of personal vanity. The diaries of Colville and of Mary Churchill show that during this time of all-out war, there was time for love! Jock had to give up on the woman he wanted to marry, and Mary got engaged, but wisely, with a push from her mother, put it off. Pamela, Churchill’s daughter in law, met American diplomat Averill Harriman, and they actually remet thirty years later and were married in 1971!
And Churchill had and showed empathy. He made it a point to personally visit bombed out areas, which gave the populace great strength. He had to let them know he knew what they were going through, and that he was going through it as well.
I could go on. But you get the point. We can learn a lot from how great leaders behaved. Our task in business is not so crucial, it may not be life and death, but it is still important, to us, our staff, our clients and in our case, our patients!