It isn’t often that we come across a really good quote, from someone who is quoted a lot, that we hadn’t heard before – an occupational hazard of seeing motivational speakers on an almost daily basis – but it happens occasionally. Allow yourself a feeling of superiority if this has a familiar ring to it:

‘The British nation find it very hard to look up to leaders who keep their ear to the ground.’

This is a slightly doctored line from within a much longer review of the War given to the Commons on 30 September 1941, but this version keeps the sense of it with a little careful editing – the full paragraph is below, and the speech from which it is taken is here:

As it’s a new one on us (and hopefully to you), it should bear a bit of analysis, as it tells us something about leadership, speaks to our own times, and contains a good many classic Churchill riffs – not bad in 19 words.


The bulldog is wet-nosed and bright-eyed here. The overall purpose of the sentence is to shut up anyone who is criticising him on the grounds of mere popularity. A few sentences earlier, Churchill says, ‘Nothing is more dangerous in war-time than to live in the temperamental atmosphere of a Gallup Poll.’

It is also a subtle, but clear, compliment to the British people reading the report in the papers: you deserve a leader you can respect – which doesn’t automatically mean one who does what you want them to. The impression we have is of an unstoppable force, and a clarity of purpose. How does he achieve this?


There is a neatness to this sentence, and by tying the ends together, Churchill creates a package so that it’s hard to find a loose thread to untangle the argument with.

1941 was perhaps the darkest year of the Second World War, so we have to be careful about calling what he is doing ‘humour’ – or worse, ‘a joke’. It’s a knowingness, an understanding of the words being used, that if you pluck a note here it sounds a chord there. It isn’t supposed to be laugh-out-loud funny, but it tickles us as we listen. In short, it’s wit.

Churchill takes two everyday expressions and puts them next to each other, achieving two things simultaneously. The most obvious is that it is a good mental picture: it is difficult to be lower than someone with their ear physically on the ground. And there is another thought wound into the DNA of this sentence in the way that it takes two idioms and treats them as literally true: we read the sentence on one level and it makes sense simultaneously on another. It is a play on language.

With the outcome of the war still uncertain, these touches of wit make Churchill’s speeches as easy on the eye as they are on the ear. In style, they are siblings to such classic Churchillisms as ‘if you are going to go through hell, keep going,’ and even, ‘in the morning, I’ll be sober.’

It’s a line dense with meaning, double-meaning, promise, compliment and purpose. The spoonful of wit lightens the mixture for the audience, but doesn’t detract from the message: it IS the message.

Lessons for Leaders:

The upshot for today’s leaders isn’t so clear cut, but what’s new? Churchill’s victory in war became defeat in the election that immediately followed. Churchill gives us many quotable phrases, but his situation in 1946 is best summed up by Dick Tuck’s solitary stab at quotation dictionary immortality: ‘The people have spoken, the b******s.’

Leaders are supposed to listen – indeed, some of the most useful parts of conferences are the Q&A sessions, and a conference without a roaming microphone is missing a trick. Even so, the use of focus groups by political parties is a habit often criticised but seldom overcome. And if government policies are written with an eye on tomorrow’s headlines, who is leading whom? The trouble is, voters vote for the party that does what they want. Leading by focus group may be weak leadership, but it might also live the longest.

Strong principles may be the fundamental quality for a leader, but when principles butt heads with popular opinions, you can read the tea leaves however you wish. David Cameron’s support of gay marriage, for example, is either bravely standing up for principles in the face of his own party’s opposition or cravenly caving in to the demands of the gay lobby. Criticising the leader is usually easier than criticising the policy.

Why isn’t Churchill’s quotation better known? Fashion, perhaps, but also because Churchill offers us such a wealth of treasures, even a diamond like this one can take some time coming to the busiest of precious stone experts or lapidarists as they are not so widely known as!


It has just occurred to me as I look over my draft that I am writing about Churchill in the present tense, though his words are over 70 years old. It’s a mistake. But as I pin my poppy to my lapel, one I think I shall let stand.


September 30, 1941 (Extract)
I hope, indeed, that some of our ardent critics out of doors–I have nothing to complain of here–will reflect a little on their own records in the past, and by searching their hearts and memories will realise the fate which awaits nations and individuals who take an easy and popular course or who are guided in defence matters by the shifting winds of well-meaning public opinion. Nothing is more dangerous in war-time than to live in the temperamental atmosphere of a Gallup Poll, always feeling one’s pulse and taking one’s temperature. I see that a speaker at the week-end said that this was a time when leaders should keep their ears to the ground. All I can say is that the British nation will find it very hard to look up to leaders who are detected in that somewhat ungainly posture. If today I am very kindly treated by the mass of the people of this country, it is certainly not because I have followed public opinion in recent years. There is only one duty, only one safe course, and that is to try to be right and not to fear to do or say what you believe to be right. That is the only way to deserve and to win the confidence of our great people in these days of trouble.

PS Programmes deliver presentation skills, TV and radio media training and crisis media management, tailored to the needs of our clients. This article also appears on