The Selfless Friendship of Winston Churchill

Many people believe that Winston Churchill was one of the most effective leaders of his time. As Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, his leadership helped rally the British people –and many nations around the world, to defeat the Nazi regime during World War II. This next post in my series, New Year; New Types of Friends describes the selfless approach to leadership and friendship of Winston Churchill. It’s a trait that can help anyone earn the trust and respect of their good friends.

In the book, Comprehensive Judgement and Absolute Selfishness: Winston Churchill on Politics as Friendship, John von Heyking makes the case that “friendship plays a central role in [Churchill’s] moral vision of politics.” 

About Winston Churchill 

Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill, (November 30, 1874 – January 24, 1965) was born in Oxfordshire, England. He was a direct descendant of the 1st Duke of Marlborough, General John Churchill (1655-1722). His father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was elected a Member of Parliament in 1873. His mother, Jennie Jerome, a noted beauty, was the daughter of Leonard Jerome, a wealthy New York businessman and horse racing enthusiast.

Churchill became a British statesman who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1940 to 1945, during the Second World War, and again from 1951 to 1955. 

Many believe that young Winston was greatly influenced by his nanny, Elizabeth Everest. Throughout much of the 1880s, Lord Randolph and Jennie were effectively estranged so the Churchill brothers were mostly cared for by Mrs. Everest. Undoubtedly, Winston saw that through serving others, one learns to listen, empathize, and gain the trust of the individual or individuals being served.

Churchill wrote after Mrs. Everest’s death that “she had been my dearest and most intimate friend during the whole of the twenty years I had lived”.

Churchill Sought Friends of High-Character

The author of several books, John von Heyking has studied friendship as defined by Aristotle and Plato. His analysis is that Churchill “sought the virtue-friendships that Aristotle describes of those who exercise the highest moral and intellectual character.” These are the “friends of the good” that I wrote about in The Philosophy of Friendship.

Von Heyking, professor of political science at the University of Lethbridge in Canada, concludes that Churchill’s “concern for friends and for friendship always seems to hover above, or in the background, of his statecraft and in his thinking about statecraft and politics.”

“When he made friends,” writes von Heyking, they were the “types of character who could serve as allies with whom to fight political and military battles, but also as companions with whom to enjoy the greatest action and dramas that life has to offer.” 

Churchill’s friendships included David Lloyd George, Canadian-British newspaper publisher; Lord Beaverbrook (Max Aitken), a Conservative Member of Parliament and barrister; F. E. Smith (later Lord Birkenhead); and U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Each may not have always agreed with his political philosophy. But all played a crucial role in helping Churchill become a great leader.

What’s unique about Churchill’s friendship?

Despite his ambiguous relationship with Christianity, a selfless morality defined Churchill’s political career. Von Heyking indicates Churchill’s ability to “forgive injustices and insults against him” as one of his greatest strengths.

Von Heyking also finds a unique tie-in to his beliefs during the crisis with Adolph Hitler. Churchill’s famous Sermon on the Mount comparison to then-prime minister Neville Chamberlain highlighted his “meekness and humility” that correctly notes Christian ethics wasn’t in conflict with a desire to defeat Hitler and bring an end to the Nazi regime.

The selflessness of Winston Churchill was also evidenced by his reference to the “flame of Christian ethics” in a speech 6 months before Hitler’s death. 

“The flame of Christian ethics is still our highest guide. To guard and cherish it is our first interest, both spiritually and materially. The fulfilment of spiritual duty in our daily life is vital to our survival…Let us then move forward together in discharge of our mission and our duty, fearing God and nothing else.”

— Winston Churchill, March 1949 speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Von Heyking also said Churchill “saw a connection between political prudence or phronesis and conversation and friendship.” Churchill mastered the fine art of being a good conversationalist. His conversations with friends didn’t necessarily establish winners and losers since politics included a fair amount of agreeing to disagree. But putting others first “enables one better to exercise political prudence that sees the variability of nature and its conflicting circumstances, and to tolerate its smudging.”

Friendships of Political Alliances 

Winston Churchill’s friendship with Lord Beaverbrook was a “political alliance” that both helped with the war effort and transcended the game of British politics. Beaverbrook, the Conservative, and the Prime Minister were great communicators, loved to tell stories, and genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. Their bond typifies the works of Aristotle, eudaimonia, the highest form of human good. It means the condition of ‘good spirit’, commonly translated as ‘happiness’ or ‘welfare’.

In contrast, Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt had different political ideologies. Their goals and strategic visions wouldn’t naturally make them the best of friends. However, von Heyking suggests they were virtue-friends, which seems like an accurate assessment; these two great-souled men “formed and sustained their mutual work and alliance, and even…weld[ed] their two nations’ military staffs into a single operational unit.”

Von Heyking believes the Prime Minister and President “genuinely loved each other.” However, he says their relationship “must be understood within the context of the tough game of statesmanship that each great-souled man played.” They were friends while also each leading independent nations, each with its own national interests. The two managed to represent their different national interests while enjoying “a productive working relationship.” 

Most importantly, Roosevelt and Churchill forged a bond that helped unite the world. In his eulogy to the president, the British prime minister said, “In FDR there died the greatest American friend we have ever known.”

The “Other Club”

Founded in 1911 by Winston Churchill and Fredrick Edwin “F. E.” Smith, The Other Club was a British political dining society that met during periods when Parliament was in session. According to unverifiable tradition, its formation came when both men were simultaneously blackballed from joining the exclusive dining circle known as The Club, which traced its roots back to 1764. 

While neither cared for the traditional world of formal gentlemen’s clubs, both men enjoyed stimulating talk around the dinner table. Smith was a British Conservative politician who attained high office as Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain. He was a skilled orator, noted for his wit, pugnacious views, and hard living and drinking. Smith was perhaps Winston Churchill’s greatest personal and political friend until his death at age 58 from pneumonia caused by cirrhosis of the liver.

A Lonely Leader but Selfless Friend?

Von Heyking notes there are many statues of a solitary Churchill, but only one with President Roosevelt. He says the famous sculpture by Lawrence Holofcener on Bond Street in London is central to Churchill’s approach to politics and statesmanship. The key was Churchill’s ability to build strong, long-lasting friendships by putting the needs of the other party first. By doing so, Churchill earned a sounding board and a means of defending his politics and principles. 

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GodBuddy Focus

The selfless friendship of Winston Churchill shows how a “servant leader” puts the needs of others before his own agenda to gain support.

First coined by former AT&T executive, Robert K. Greenleaf in his 1970 essay The Servant as Leader, “the servant-leader is servant first…it begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.”

In a paper titled, Servant Leadership and Sir Winston Churchill, Benjamin Hardy concludes that Churchill explicitly points out that he views himself as a servant of his followers. Hardy cites the example in a speech Churchill gave after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor: 

“I am a child of the House of Commons. I was brought up in my father’s house to believe in democracy. ‘Trust the people’—that was his message….I owe my advancement entirely to the House of Commons, whose servant I am. In my country, as in yours, public men are proud to be the servants of the State and would be ashamed to be its masters.”

Winston Churchill, ‘Masters of Our Fate’ Speech to Joint Session of the U.S. Congress, delivered 26 December 1941

Like Churchill, GodBuddies learn to become servant leaders and others-focused. It means they are not arrogant but humble. They think about the needs of others ahead of their own. It’s what C.S. Lewis writes in his book Mere Christianity, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” 

GodBuddies also surround themself with friends who help shape their moral compass and teach them about selflessness. It’s a trait that is especially helpful when you have difficult decisions to make or alliances to create. 

My next post is about the close friendship of Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed.

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