CHAPTER 3: Confronting Failure and Learning from
Avoiding failure in business is the route to failure. Avoiding risks in
politics, however, is the route to a long career in office. A failed risk in
politics is far more dangerous than a failed risk in business. In business,
shareholders and customers will quickly forgive you if you recover from a
disaster - think of CocaCola after the "New Coke" debacle, or Ford after the
But in politics, partisans will keep alive and distort and magnify any failure
or mistake in your career. Often small mistakes are punished more severely than
disasters. Churchill observed: "In all great business very large errors are
excused or even unperceived, but in definite and local matters small mistakes are
punished out of all proportion." This is one reason politicians are risk-averse,
and why modern government administration seeks to minimize risk and avoid failure through a mindless bureaucratic process that delivers mostly mediocrity.
Churchill's refusal throughout his career to practice bland, risk-averse
politics stands out as his most striking leadership attribute. Churchill's
audacious and risk-taking character was at the core of his genius, but also
constituted the chief liability of his long career and nearly led to his ruin.
The lessons he learned from the mistakes and setbacks early in his career proved
instrumental in his future success as war leader in World War II.
The Lessons of Failure:
Responsibility must be combined with authority. Churchill's maxims: "My one fatal mistake was trying to achieve a great enterprise without having the plenary authority which could so easily have carried it to success." "What you have no right to do is to ask me to bear responsibilities without the power of effective action."
Decisiveness depends on the person at the top. Churchill's maxims: "Every decision must be forced to a clear-cut issue." "You must continually drive the vast machine forward at its utmost speed. To lose momentum is not merely to stop, but to fall."
CHAPTER 6: The Power of Decision -- Churchill's Thought Process
War decisions offer a close parallel in form to entrepreneurial decisions.
Both the war leader and the entrepreneur or CEO need to be able to judge risk and
chance. Information is usually limited or insufficient to provide certainty as to
the outcome of a venture. One can't be sure how the enemy (the competition) will
respond. Hence almost all decisions must be made in the shadow of uncertainty.
Most people shrink from risk and are unable to reach firm decisions because they
are paralyzed by uncertainty.
Churchill remarked that it is never possible to guarantee success; it is only
possible to deserve it. One deserves success only by reaching and implementing
clear and consistent decisions, and factoring in the element of chance by some
method. Chapter 1 commented on Churchill's decisiveness and the historical
imagination that informed his decisions, especially his war decisions. This
chapter takes a closer look at Churchill's thought process and at the do's and
don't's derived from his deliberations about how decisions should be reached.
The Do's and Don't's of Churchill's Thought Process:
Always concentrate on the broad view and the central features of the problem
at hand. Churchill's maxim: "It is a good thing to stand away from the canvas
from time to time and take a full view of the picture."
Factor in risk and chance by keeping things in proper proportion.
Churchill's maxim: "Assume that the favorable and adverse chances equate, and
then eliminate them both from the calculation."
Keep open to changing your mind in the presence of new facts. Churchill's
maxim: "I would rather be right than consistent."
Be careful not to look too far ahead. Churchill's maxims: "Only one link in
the chain of destiny can be handled at a time." "It is only with some difficulty
and within limits that provision can be made for the future. Experience shows
that forecasts are usually falsified and preparations always in arrears."
Avoid excessive perfectionism. Churchill's maxims: "'Nothing avails but
perfection' may be spelt shorter, 'Paralysis.'" "Do not let the better be the
enemy of the good."
Don't make decisions for decision's sake. Churchill's maxim: "There is great
wisdom in reserving one's decisions as long as possible and until all the facts
and forces that will be potent at the moment are revealed."
© copyright 1997 by Steven F. Hayward. Permission obtained from Prima