Prime Minister Winston Churchill or Winston Churchill CEO?

I just read Winston Churchill CEO a new book by Alan Axelrod, who describes himself as a prolific author of business and popular history books. The book is a most recent example of the “lessons from …” genre of business books.

The book has several strengths. Axelrod is a lucid and eloquent writer, easy to read. He does a good job analyzing the effectiveness of Churchill’s greatest speeches, particularly those of 1940, which inspired the nation at the moment its future looked darkest.

Axelrod’s brief biography of Churchill made clear something I hadn’t quite realized, namely how much Churchill was a military man – indeed a warrior – all his life. He trained as a soldier and while serving as a war correspondent in South Africa, the Sudan, and India was also involved in military operations (i.e., he killed enemies and was himself captured). He was first Lord of the Admiralty and Minister of Munitions during World War I, and had a lifelong interest in military technology. He spent the thirties trying to persuade his countrymen to prepare for what he saw as an inevitable war with Germany, and was ultimately prime minister during that war. In both world wars, he was at the front as much as possible, and even while prime minister, frequently wore a uniform.

The surprising event that makes it evident that Churchill was primarily a wartime leader was his losing the 1945 election in a landslide, held just two months after his greatest moment of triumph. British voters listened to Churchill’s belligerent campaign rhetoric and, looking forward rather than backward, concluded that – despite his achievements in wartime – he was not the right person to lead in a time of economic reconstruction. Axelrod ignores this defeat because it speaks to the limitations of applicability from one context to another.

Axelrod fails to demonstrate the relevance of Churchill’s career as a leader of the public sector in crisis to the ongoing management of the private sector. The book jacket copy “we shall in the boardrooms” shows this incongruity. Axelrod’s approach is to scatter through the book in text boxes the learnings for private sector managers. Many of these are simplistically self-evident, such as “all business is people business,” or “make a sale, create a customer,” or “the goal of every enterprise is to win.”

The book also does not tell us who the implied reader is. Axelrod is writing for people in business but never attempts to show which functions and levels and which types of business. Had Axelrod taken his mission seriously, rather than scattering these bon mots throughout the text, he would have written a chapter or two in which he identified his audience, and then wrestled with the question of what one could learn from the career of an eminently successful wartime political leader that would be relevant to the sorts of careers and industries he was writing for.

Drawing lessons is ultimately a challenging task. What can be learned from an exemplar’s experience that is relevant to another person in a different time, place, and set of circumstances, particularly if the exemplar is as unique as was Churchill? Axelrod’s book unwittingly demonstrates just how challenging a task it is.

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