“Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities . . . because it is the quality which guarantees all others.”

Courage is a quality that few can define but most recognize when they see it. It is unquestionably a kind of strength that allows men to perform extraordinary feats in the face of overwhelming opposition. It cannot be taught, though it can be inspired, and it normally springs from something like faith or resolve, a commitment to something larger than oneself. It can burst forth instantly, as though awakened by a sudden jolt, but more often it waits in silence until aroused by some pressing challenge. What is certain of courage, though, is that true leadership is impossible without it.

Throughout most of his life, Winston Churchill was a man of exceptional courage. This is hard to account for, though, because his bravery certainly was not a product of physical strength or towering stature. Nor was his childhood the type that produced heroic men. To the contrary, he was neglected, ridiculed, and misused by friends and family alike. In addition, he was brought up in an environment of political machinations and leisure class intrigues that seldom produces principled men of vision. Yet, from as early as his companions could remember, Churchill conducted himself with hardly any regard for personal safety, seemed almost oblivious to criticism where his principles were involved, and repeatedly stood firm before the most concerted opposition.

He once said of himself that he “had a tendency against which I should, perhaps be on my guard, to swim against the stream.” This was an understatement. His moral courage was staggering. In his first speech before Parliament he praised his nation’s enemies and criticized a senior official of his own party. In one of his first books, he took to task none other than the legendary Lord Herbert Kitchener, most esteemed of all British Army officers, for allowing his troops to desecrate a pagan idol. He was a mere Subaltern at the time. He thought nothing of “crossing the aisle” to change political parties, only to change back again when his principles demanded, or chastising his own social class for their heartlessness.

His physical courage was equally astounding. He was almost completely unaware of the chances he took with his own life. In 1897, he risked death to rescue a fellow soldier during fierce fighting on the North-West Frontier of India. In the Boer War, while serving only as a journalist, he not only volunteered for a dangerous intelligence mission at the Battle of Diamond Hill, but was later captured while trying to rescue men who were trapped during a Boer attack. Early in the First World War, when the Germans were about to occupy Antwerp and the Belgians were planning to evacuate, Churchill risked his life by going to the city in support of its defenders. Later, when he was dismissed from the Admiralty after the Dardanelles disaster, Churchill resigned from the cabinet, took a commission as a colonel, and assumed command of a battalion fighting in the trenches on the Western Front. He was over 40 years old at the time.

While he was staying with friends at an ancient country home near Ockham, a heating system exploded into flames during the night. The screaming guests were led to the lawn for safety. All except one. Churchill’s friend, Eddie Marsh, later wrote, “Winston commandeered a fireman’s helmet and assumed the direction of operations.” Churchill mounted the roof of the blazing structure and led firemen in a valiant but futile attempt to extinguish the blaze with a tiny fire engine brought from the nearby town. Despite their efforts, the house was lost. Guests eventually forgot the tragedy, but never the vision of the little man who stood on the roof of a burning house dressed only in a bathrobe and fire helmet.

During the war years, he repeatedly inspired the British people with his nerve. His favorite place to wait out Nazi air raids was on the rooftops of government buildings. During one Christmas, he flew to Athens where he brought together the warring parties of the Greek civil war, all the while under pressing hostile fire. Once when his car was passing through Hyde Park, several suspicious men began to approach. Inspector Thompson, Churchill’s bodyguard, noticed the men immediately and the car was stopped. The momentary silence was broken when Churchill, fingering the Colt automatic he always kept with him, calmly but firmly declared “If they want trouble they can have it.” Before the Prime Minister could act, though, Thompson told the driver to “Step on it; drive like the Devil.” The crisis was averted, but Churchill was, as usual, both ready and fearless. On November 14, 1940, as Churchill was driving out of London, a motorcyclist stopped the car to say that the Luftwaffe was headed for London. It would have made perfect sense for the Prime Minister of England to remain outside the city until the attack was over. Instead, Churchill ordered the car back to London, back into the falling bombs.

Churchill holds an honored place in history largely because he inspired steely courage during a catastrophic global conflict. To assume, though, that he was merely giving voice to the British lion, that somehow he demanded virtues of his people that he did not possess himself, is to miss the most important dynamic of his brand of leadership. Churchill only asked of others what he required of himself. He asked people to risk their lives to protect their civilization as he had done. He asked them to suffer for their principles as he had time and again. He asked them to stare terror in the face without flinching, something he knew all too well how to do. For Churchill, leadership was not theater, not the assumption of a role far different from who he really was. His was leadership by example, by an authority gained through superior commitment and sacrifice, and by courage thoroughly tested in the fires of experience.

Taken from “The Character and Greatness of Winston Churchill: Hero in a Time of Crisis” by Stephen Mansfield.