How Winston Churchill used humour as a management tool

By Matthew Stibbe Matthew Stibbe
Winston Churchill

I’ve just finished re-reading Churchill’s war memoirs and also Andrew Roberts’s new book, Masters and Commanders, about the relationship between Roosevelt and Marshall, Churchill and Brooke.

Leaders can be funny

Of course, Churchill’s wit is legendary but what becomes very clear from these books, and especially Roberts’s which is based largely on contemporaneous diaries, is that humour played an enormous part in Churchill’s management style. It was the grease that kept the wheels turning.

There are other tools for leaders to build employee engagement and more lessons from WWII about improving morale. But Churchill added wit and humour to his management style. It’s a good way of reinforcing key messages.

Defuse tension with humour

When things seemed very difficult – after America’s entry into the war but before Alamein – Churchill gave a speech to the Canadian parliament (I think). He was able to turn the obvious questions and concerns with a telling joke. (This is a quote from memory so it may not be verbatim) “General Weygand said that Britain would have it’s neck wrung like a chicken in two weeks. Some chicken!  Some neck!”

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Build rapport

Churchill’s telegraphic correspondence with Roosevelt started when Churchill returned the admiralty at the beginning of the war and continued until Roosevelt’s death. Many of the messages – which now read like a well-written email trail – were deadly serious, rarely defiant but often urgent imploring. But a few were very funny. There was the moment before a summit when the two leaders exchanged joke codenames for one another – Admiral P and Colonel Q (I think, again from memory) and Churchill telexed “We’d better mind our Ps & Qs”, meaning we’d better behave ourselves.

Praise others

Sometimes a well-told joke can be a way to praise others, especially if it is done with typical British understatement. There’s a lovely footnote early on Churchill’s war memoirs that praise the extraordinary bravery of bomb disposal squads by jokingly undermining it. (Again from memory – sorry no time to go look up chapter and verse) “An unexploded bomb was found deep under a road where it had fallen into the crater of an earlier bomb. Two crack bomb disposal officers descended the ladder with their tools to defuse it but moments later one of them climbed rapidly up and sprinted away from the scene. His colleague, thinking the bomb was about to go off, followed him rapidly. When the bomb failed to explode he asked the first man ‘why did you run?’  The answer: ‘There was a rat down there!'”

Win an argument

Sometimes the best way to win an argument is to come up with the definitive last word. Witness the famous story about Churchill’s encounter with Lady Astor. “Winston, you’re drunk,” she said. “Yes and you’re ugly. But in the morning, I shall be sober.”

For more about the life of Churchill, watch Andrew Roberts’s fascinating talk.

Great insights into the life of Churchill from Andrew Roberts
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