Fifty years after his death, Winston Churchill remains the epitome of a bold and successful leader. Co-author of the recent God & Churchill, the British Prime Minister’s great-grandson Jonathan Sandys discusses the marks of Churchill’s leadership and why he provides hope for leaders today, especially those who fail.
CS: What defined Churchill’s leadership?
JS: When I started teaching a course based on Churchill’s leadership, I called it “Lead like Churchill: Courage, Faith, and Integrity.” If you look at Churchill’s life, he’s got great examples of courage, certainly most well-known as the lone voice in the 1930s warning that Adolf Hitler was rising and that we were going to face a danger from Germany, and nobody would listen to him. It took great courage for him to stand up because nobody was with him. He was rejected not only by his colleagues but he was also rejected by family and friends. When it comes to his faith, in God & Churchill we do prove that Churchill had a faith in God. He had a faith in himself, he had faith in his ability in the destiny that God had given him and the prophecy of it at 16 years old, he believed very much in his own destiny. He believed very much in the people he was representing and the possibility that we could actually defeat Hitler and the forces between 1940 and 1945; he firmly believed that and most importantly he had a firm belief in God and he would always direct the people back toward God for hope and protection. And then we have the integrity part. Once Churchill had stood up and started warning about Hitler and the rise of the Nazis, he refused to back down no matter what it cost him. And it did cost him very dearly and he refused point blank to back down. Those are brief examples of Churchill’s faith, courage, and integrity, and those are the sort of qualities that we need to look for in leaders today.
CS: Why is it important to study Churchill as a model for leaders today?
JS: Winston Churchill is considered the apex when it comes to leadership. He’s also the example that everybody holds up as a light that demonstrates you should never surrender. Winston Churchill was considered a failure right up to the end of the Second World War when we had victory. When I discovered how much trouble my great-grandfather faced with personal issues, with friends and family, when I saw all that he had gone through in his life, I felt that it was my mission to take up that legacy and use Churchill’s life story as a way of giving hope to others. I am 40 years old, but I am still determined to talk to anyone who even considers the possibility of giving up in life. I don’t want them to give up before they have heard the name Winston Churchill. Because Churchill should have quit many, many years before the Second World War even began. He should have given up and he didn’t. He is an example of someone who throughout their life accepted their failure but in his 60s was called upon to fulfill an extraordinary task in the victory of 1945.
CS: Did you find it challenging to describe Churchill objectively as a historian while also being connected to him as his great-grandson?
JS: When I started as a public speaker in 2005, I approached Sir Martin Gilbert, who was my great-grandfather’s official biographer, and I told him of my plan to be a public speaker and eventually an author. Martin made me promise the same promise that was exacted from him in the 1950s that if I’m going to write about my great-grandfather, then I must stick to the letter of the law when it comes to history; I must not embellish anything; I must tell the absolute truth about Churchill, warts and all. And I see now, having written this, how vital it is to be honest about the person. You may admire them, but since World War II Churchill has been placed on a pedestal far too high for anyone to reach. And it is vital in days like this when we’re looking for leaders with courage, faith, and integrity that leaders like Churchill are accessible to all of us. So it’s my responsibility to bring Churchill back to earth and to basically say, “Yes he was a great leader, he did a wonderful job of leading people, he led wonderfully in the Second World War, but he was a man who had flaws.” And my great-grandfather was the first to admit that he had flaws.
CS: Why did you write this book?
JS: We wrote God & Churchill for three very important reasons. First, this disproved the erroneous belief that my great-grandfather was an agnostic or atheist. Secondly, well-researched and undisputed historical evidence about his life and his times show that God intervened in Churchill’s life, and Churchill could not have survived had God not intervened. And thirdly, if God did intervene in Churchill’s life then it’s entirely possible that he is still at work today in both the world and indeed in our individual lives.
CS: How did Churchill see Word War II as a fight to preserve Christian civilization?
JS: My great-grandfather said that the closer we follow the Sermon on the Mount the more likely we are to find success in our endeavors. Churchill recognized that civilized kind of truth has the Ten Commandments as its basic tenets. And successful leaders take it one step further and incorporate the Sermon on the Mount into their philosophy of leadership. Churchill recognized the difference between Christianity and Nazism, which is basically light and dark. With Christian civilization you had freedom and hope; with Nazism you had darkness and the blackness of Satan and there was no hope. It was an authoritarian regime and there was no freedom whatsoever. So, whereas Christianity seeks to expand your mind and to expand you and to draw you into a wonderful loving relationship with God, Nazism seeks to push you away and seeks to push you into an area where you’re nothing and romanticizing about human beings as opposed to God.
CS: Did you ever feel any pressure growing up because you descended from such a powerful figure?
JS: Very interesting you should ask that question — yes. Being the great-grandson of an amazing man like Winston Churchill, one would have thought that would be a tremendous blessing, that people would treat you differently. But I was very bullied in school, my father had been as well. I was bullied because I was Churchill’s great-grandson but I never really understood why. Winston Churchill may well have been the leader during the Second World War, but Churchill didn’t fight the war on his own and he didn’t win the war on his own. I’m related to Winston Churchill and that’s fantastic. However, Winston Churchill belongs to the world. He’s an international hero; he is a person who belongs to the world; he is a gift and as such that should be respected and treated like that. You try to put him in a box then you restrict Churchill and you restrict the power of what he achieved and what God got him to achieve.
CS: What is your favorite Churchill story?
JS: During the Second World War, the family was sitting around the table. My great aunt Sarah, against the family’s wishes, had married this out-of-work actor called Vic Oliver. The only reason he wanted to marry Sarah is because he wanted to be attached to the Churchill name. Great-grandpa had his head buried in his chest, just playing with his food and he wasn’t saying a word; he was going through one of those depressing “black dog” days. And Vic Oliver decided he was going to try to cheer Churchill up, so he looked at him and said, “Pa, in your view, who is the greatest political leader alive today?” And my great-grandfather looks up and a big smile appears across his face — you knew Churchill was going to insult you when a big smile would appear and his eyes would light up — he looked at Vic Oliver and he simply said, “Benito Mussolini.” Then dropped his head back down. Well, the room went entirely quiet, they couldn’t believe that he named Mussolini and Vic Oliver didn’t take the hint. So he continued to press Churchill and said, “Papa, I don’t understand, why on earth did you choose a fascist?” Once again my great-grandfather’s head went up, a big smile appeared across his face, he looked at him and said, “Because Mussolini is the only leader to have had the prerequisite courage to have his son-in-law shot.”