This entry is part 11 of 12 in the series Lead Like Churchill

It’s great being at the top, but with ‘great power there is great responsibility,’[1] as Winston Churchill demonstrated during the Second World War.

On July 3, 1940, Churchill gave the hardest order of his career; to sink the French Fleet. Faced with a choice to turn on our former allies, or allow their navy to fall into enemy hands, thus surrendering the battle on the seas, Churchill pleaded with the Vichy Government to see reason. Britain was outnumbered in both men and munitions, and the French navy was the fourth largest in the world. We desperately needed the fleet, but the French Government was scared of a German backlash if they sailed into our ports. Churchill sent a memo to the leaders who now represented the falling Government, either send us the ships or scuttle them. The request was ignored, and so Churchill responded in the only way he could. ‘If you refuse these fair offers, I must, with profound regret, require you to sink your ships within six hours.’ Churchill warned that, ‘failing the above, I have the orders of His Majesty’s Government to use whatever force may be necessary to prevent your ships from falling into German or Italian hands.’[2] The French Government didn’t believe him, evidently they hadn’t heard his Never Surrender speech. And so, as the leader of Great Britain, responsible for ensuring the best opportunity for victory as possible, Churchill sent the order to sink the fleet, which he later described as ‘a hateful decision, the most unnatural and painful in which I have ever been concerned.’[3] Cabling to Vice-Admiral Somerville, on whose shoulders the responsibility fell, Churchill wrote: ‘You are charged with one of the most disagreeable and difficult tasks that a British Admiral has ever been faced with, but we have complete confidence in you and rely on you to carry it out relentlessly.’[4] The cable was received, and reluctantly Somerville followed it. The French Fleet was sunk, and this action ensured that Britain, now alone in the fight, had the best chance to continue on.

Winston Churchill showed great courage in the risks he took by giving that order. Firstly, Somerville, or indeed any of the troops could have refused to fire upon Britain’s former ally. But they didn’t, not because Somerville was simply following orders, as was the Nuremberg excuse, but because Somerville knew the nature of his leader, and he knew, as Churchill did, it was necessary. Secondly, Churchill risked dissent in Parliament and throughout the world. This action might have been considered a war crime, however, Churchill had done his best to warn the French Government, and had also sought to get as many men off the ships before firing upon them. Thirdly, the backlash he risked from the French was his greatest concern. This was an act of war. Churchill feared that by the following day Hitler would have found a new ally, as Britain later found with Russia. However, shocked though the world was by the action, none of these fears came to fruition. Parliament hailed Churchill a hero, and ‘in a village near Toulon dwelt two peasant families, each of whom had lost their sailor son by British fire at Oran,’ Churchill recounted a story told him sometime later. ‘A funeral service was arranged to which all their neighbors sought to go. Both families requested that the Union Jack should lie upon the coffins side by side with the Tricolour.’[5]

As leaders our responsibility is to act for the greater good of our people and organizations. Whether you represent a small or large entity, Churchill’s leadership demands that we put their interests before our own, even if we do face a possible backlash. If our course is honourable, there should be no fear in the response. Critics will be few, and they will be silenced by the outcome.

Epictetus tells us ‘the proper work of the mind is the exercise of choice,’ the choice to do and think right. ‘Refusal,’ to give into temptation. ‘Yearning,’ to strive to be better. ‘Repulsion,’ of lies, negativity and bad influences. ‘Preparation,’ to look beyond our decisions to the future consequences, good or bad, and prepare for them. ‘Purpose,’ to act with clarity and holding morality above all else. And finally, Epictetus reminds us that we must employ ‘assent,’ so we may be ‘free of deception about what’s inside and outside our control.’[6] These are some of the greatest building blocks of Churchillian leadership, and represent seven functions Churchill applied his mind to with every decision, especially when his choice affected others.

As we go about our daily lives, let’s reflect on Epictetus’ advice, and prepare ourselves for the hard decisions we face not only in business, but with our families and friends. We can all Lead Like Churchill, and take those tough decisions for the greater good.

READY TO TAKE THE TOUGH DECISIONS?, is part of the Lead Like Churchill leadership course, designed to inspire current and fledgling leaders to Churchillian greatness. To find out more about the course, please visit:, call on: (832) 564-3698  or email us at

Lead Like Churchill: Courage, Faith, Integrity

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[1] LANGWORTH, Richard: Churchill by Himself, p.39

[2] CHURCHILL, Sir Winston S.: The Second World War, Volume II: Their Finest Hour, p.235

[3] ibid, p.232

[4] ibid, p.235

[5] ibid, p.238

[6] HOLIDAY/HANSELMAN: The Daily Stoic, p.15

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