Supreme Commander: Churchill & Interrogation

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Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, ’40-’45

By Kevin Black

Even to this day Winston Churchill is a controversial figure in politics. Despite their debates, many of his critics admit that his wartime leadership was a crucial factor in ensuring Allied Victory in 1945. Eliot considers Churchill as the “greatest war statesman of the century.” What stands out about Churchill’s performance as key player of the Allies is Churchill’s inquisitive nature. The chapter title, “Churchill asks a Question” says it best: he questioned everything and everyone, no matter there position. When the Prime Minister wanted answers to questions, he found them one way or another.

The incessant questioning to military commanders and state bureaucracies alike appeared to be an burden and deviation from the time. And yet the questioning was, as Eliot argues, an essential mechanism for controlling the warmaking machine and ensuring its effectiveness. The Prime Minister was testing his subordinates assumptions, checking their ideas, and putting them in a position to think clearly. A newly proposed idea or decision would require extensive research and a prepared defense. In other words, the probability of success was increased through good work.

Is this type of interference acceptable today? Can business leaders mimic Churchill’s actions without turning themselves into micro-managers? Here is a statement by Norman Brook, a member of the Cabinet secretariart, ’41-’62, regarding the impact of Churchill’s constant queries:

Knowledge of these messages, sometimes peremptory in tone but always pertinent and timely, quickly spread through the administrative cadres in Whitehall. They did much to conform the feeling that there was now a strong person at the center. This stream of messages, covering so wide a range of subjects, was like the beam of a searchlight ceaselessly swinging round and penetrating into the remote recesses of the administration – so that everyone, however humble his rank or his function, felt that one day the beam might rest on him and light up what he was doing. In Whitehall the effect of this influence was immediate and dramatic…A new sense of purpose and urgency was created as it came to be realized that a firm hand, guided by a strong will, was on the wheel.

Notice the term purpose is used; recent research by Bersin sheds light the power of purpose in the context of value.

It must be noted that Churchill’s questioning was not the mere act of playing Devil’s Advocate. Churchill was a consumate professional, and to a certain extent a generalist. And yet he was responsible for his nation, with its military, diplomatic, and economic activities. His actions “reveals…the power of hard, intelligent questioning, based less on professional expertie than on wide reading and massive common sense.”

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