When I entered the Millennium Gate Museum in Atlanta to view the Churchill exhibit, I was filled with much emotion. After all, he was arguably one of the most important political figures in the 20th century and perhaps the most influential person in the outcome of the Second World War. But it wasn’t a war or political exhibit I had come to see. It was “The Art of Diplomacy: Winston Churchill and the Pursuit of Painting.” I had learned he was an artist only a few days before. Let me tell you how I came to know this.
If you read the November issue of Dean & Provost, you might recall Part I of this article. If not, let me bring you up to speed. Last summer I toured the Chicago Institute of Art. Gallery by gallery, I kept being reminded of leadership principles. In the European gallery, paintings of battles left me feeling unsettled. I included Churchill’s “victory at all cost” quote, making the point that leaders often face unsettling circumstances, but there are things worth fighting for, and winning is sometimes all-important to a great leader.
A colleague read my article and sent me another detailing the exhibit that was on display in Atlanta, not far from where I live and work. Within a few days, I drove to midtown and entered the museum. Tears filled my eyes as I turned the corner to view Churchill’s paintings. The first two turned out to be the best of the whole lot in my opinion and my personal favorites. I’m no art critic, but he wasn’t a great artist. But it wasn’t about the paintings to me. It was more about the story line that accompanied the art.
In the background I could hear the sound of an old eight-millimeter film, the kind we would watch after filing into the dark media room on Thursday mornings in junior year of high school during our American history class. “That voice” narrated just about every film I ever watched about World War II. But what I learned from those film clips and from a few paragraphs in the textbooks was all I really knew about Churchill. I didn’t know (or didn’t remember) that he had had a meteoric political rise, but in May 1915, following the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, was politically dead.
Feeling ostracized, he suffered from acute depression, so much so that he named it “the black dog.” It was then that he took up painting. During his lifetime he created more than 500 canvases, 300 of them during the 1930s. He was a voice “crying in the wilderness” throughout the decade as he tried to convince the Brits of the ever-growing danger of the Nazis as an evil empire. Finally, he was able to make his way back into the political spotlight and, when Neville Chamberlain was forced out, Churchill became the prime minister of the United Kingdom in 1940.
Churchill credits the strategic skills he learned as a painter with helping him to be a more effective decision-maker and communicator. “In a painting, each stroke changes the field, informs the strokes that follow, and the outcome is the cumulative product of thousands of tiny, correlated decisions,” he wrote. The Art of Diplomacy exhibit invites the patrons to consider whether painting may have contributed to saving Western civilization.
Once again I found myself being taught leadership skills from art. Here are some of the things I took away:
- Every decision a leader makes informs his next decision.
- Outcomes are based on many combined decisions.
- Even in a leader’s darkest moments, there are lessons to be learned. Churchill said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal.…”
- There is a lot of gray in leadership and decision-making. Churchill said, “At one side of the palette there is white, at the other black; and neither is ever used neat.”
- There are powerful leadership skills to be learned from the arts. It takes strategic thinking and analytical ability to find the lessons.