When one thinks of good qualities in a person there are many that may come to mind: integrity, intelligence, common sense, willingness to work with others, even, one might say “niceness”. Certainly, a majority of people would agree that most or all of these are good qualities in a person. However, there is a quality that we don’t think as much about, one that can be good or bad, but one that we tend to think of as bad, especially when it manifests itself in a very public figure, and especially when that public figure goes against the established way of thinking.
We’ll call this quality persistence, but it is really more complicated than that, and one could perhaps in a descriptor of this quality also add the word stubbornness. The dictionary defines persistence as: “firm or obstinate continuance in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition.” Stubbornness is defined as: “dogged determination not to change one’s attitude or position on something.” We don’t always like people with these “qualities.” They annoy us. Sometimes with good reason. They can be impossible to work with, which can do more harm than good in many situations. And yet, there are examples where this quality has been of supreme helpfulness, and times where all of us could benefit from a dose of this character trait.
As a specimen of this quality we will take a leader from the 20th Century: Sir Winston Leonard-Spencer Churchill. He was famous, or infamous for his possession of this quality. Yet the world is fortunate that he possessed it—for it was this quality that almost certainly above all else, pulled him and the world through what for a longtime seemed like a hopeless war with Adolf Hitler and National Socialism.
Churchill was not necessarily known for being the best “people person” at times. He wasn’t always exactly a “nice” person. Even his own definition of “tact” illustrates this: “Tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.” He was known to be a rather disagreeable character at times, and for often being much too blunt, at least for some people’s thin skins. It is accurate to say that Churchill was stubborn. It’s accurate to say that he could at times be a person that was not necessarily pleasant to be around. Yet his stubbornness had a root. His persistence possessed a foundation. A little, innocuous thing. Four little letters, a word that we claim to profoundly dislike today: truth.
He placed an enormous value on truth, saying of it: “The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is.” If he was persistent in something it was because of conviction. It was a deep-seated confidence in the truth, and in its importance. A confidence we are pitifully lacking in today. Churchill even quipped, “Truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” Persistence, even mind-boggling persistence, is of the utmost value when it has a foundation in truth, in conviction, and in belief.
Contrast this with much of the persistence demonstrated today. We persist in what we are comfortable in. We persist in what we think will result in the most monetary gain for us in the least amount of time. For an extra five or ten thousand dollars a year, many people are willing to condemn their souls to the dull, meaningless existence of what may as well be a prison. Leaders persist in a course of action or an idea as long as it profitable, or as long as it is election season, then mysteriously lose both their conviction and their resolve.
Churchill in the early years before the outbreak of war was not popular for his predictions of what Germany would become, and what the result would be. Yet popularity has very little to do with truth. Anti-Semitism was quite popular for a time, but very few today would dare to claim that its basis was upon any sort of truth. Even when war broke out, Churchill’s views and courses of action were very unpopular. Few wanted war, and most viewed it as unnecessary, far easier to attempt to appease Hitler, and Neville Chamberlain attempted this approach, to ultimate failure. And when war was certain, and Britain stood alone—Austria, Poland and France gone, the United States unwilling to get involved—Churchill held out. Surrender wasn’t an option. He was quite prepared to himself die should invasion come, though only after taking as many of the Nazis with him as he could. Slowly—in an incredible feat—he infused this view into the general population, this persistence. His speeches reflect this willingness to go onto the end, to stick with conviction. At Harrow School on October 29th, 1941, Churchill uttered these famous words:
You cannot tell from appearances how things will go. Sometimes imagination makes things out far worse than they are; yet without imagination not much can be done. Those people who are imaginative see many more dangers than perhaps exist; certainly many more than will happen; but then they must also pray to be given that extra courage to carry this far-reaching imagination. But for everyone, surely, what we have gone through in this period – I am addressing myself to the School – surely from this period of ten months this is the lesson: never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never-in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy. We stood all alone a year ago, and to many countries it seemed that our account was closed, we were finished.
Churchill wouldn’t give up. Everyone told him that it was useless to attempt to resist the ascendant Nazi state, now in control of most of Europe. Churchill wouldn’t swallow this line. He would fight. The island of Britain would fight, as he stated so eloquently after Dunkirk:
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.
Churchill’s intention, and the intention that he eventually brought the majority of the nation to, was to fight. He would not give up. He would persist. And as elaborated on in his speech, even if the island of Great Britain fell, the Empire would go on fighting. He, and the Empire, would fight until the very bitter end. In retrospect of course, we admire his persistence. At the time it might have been a little harder to see the value in it. When German bombs were falling on London every night, this persistence might seem like foolhardiness, or even an evil. Margery Allingham wrote thus of Churchill:
Mr. Churchill is the unchanging bulldog, the epitome of British aggressiveness and the living incarnation of the true Briton in fighting, not standing any damned nonsense, stoking the boilers with grand piano, and enjoying it-mood. Also he never lets go. He is so designed that he cannot breathe if he does. At the end of the fight he will come crawling in, unrecognizable, covered with blood, and delighted, with the enemy’s heart between his teeth.
A perhaps less than comfortable description. One that one feels the average politician today, or the average person, would not really like to have used of them. Yet here again it was a persistence based firmly on Churchill’s perception of the truth, on “convictions of honor.” He had seen, and continued to see, the nature of his enemy clearly—and he saw what the consequences of submission would be, and thus, whether it meant continuing on alone, or with support, he continued the fight. A striking contrast to many people, leaders, and politicians of today—and even of his time.
People of today would do well to learn from his persistence, and from the foundation his persistence was based on. This persistence founded in “convictions of honor and good sense” is something that is sadly and profoundly lacking in many today. How many major problems of the past and the present, could have been resolved while still small problems if this was a common quality. And how many large problems could still be confronted and resolved in the end if Churchill’s perhaps most remembered quality was something we endeavored to study, to imitate, and to put into practice.