Scott Monty - Strategic Communications & Leadership Advisor

Scott Monty - Strategic Communications & Leadership Advisor

Intervention of the Sabine Women by Jacques-Louis David, 1799 (public domain - Wikipedia)

"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 honour and good sense." 

— Winston Churchill, 1941

Life can throw a lot at you from time to time. So much that it can seem overwhelming, or that you're constantly moving from defeat to defeat.

How are you supposed to keep going in situations like this?

In the last two weeks of Timeless & Timely, we've covered grief and its stages—how to work through it and help others; and loss, or more particularly job loss. Two themes that encapsulate what the year has delivered to many people thus far.

People are hurting. These may be your employees, former colleagues, friends, and family members. There are struggles happening around the world, both graphic and muted, whether we watch them unfold, turn a blind eye to them, or are simply unaware that they're happening.

Even in good times, life can be a struggle. There's no guarantee that everything goes your way. That's just how it works.

It matters less that you succeed, and more how you respond to challenges.

Or, as the quote that is commonly misattributed to Winston Churchill goes, "Success is all about going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm."

Churchill should know: while he is highly regarded for leading Great Britain through World War II and standing up to Hitler, he suffered a series of defeats in the preceding 30 years, including overseeing the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign in the Great War and making economic decisions as Chancellor of the Exchequer that pushed England into a depression. This led to him taking some years off from government, but he continued to write and to speak, and he was made Prime Minister in 1940, when he was 66 years old.

Tides turned after the war, his party was voted out, and Churchill lost the Prime Ministership. After his leadership ensured victory. How's that for national gratitude? But he returned in 1951 to lead the country again as the Cold War took root. He was 77 years old.

It was at these critical times in history—in the midst of crises—that Churchill found his strength. He summoned his power of oratory to stir he fellow citizens to solidarity and action.

“Our inward power, when it obeys nature, reacts to events by accommodating itself to what it faces—to what is possible. It needs no specific material. It pursues its own aims as circumstances allow; it turns obstacles into fuel. As a fire overwhelms what would have quenched a lamp. What’s thrown on top of the conflagration is absorbed, consumed by it—and makes it burn still higher.” 

— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

For other leaders, the journey and the struggle is more personal than public. Take Harland, for example. He was born on a farm in Indiana and was only five years old when his father died. He dropped out of school at 14, took odd jobs as a farm hand but hated it. So he tried being a streetcar conductor. No luck there either.

When he was 16, he talked his way into the Army by lying about his age, but didn't make it past his one-year enlistment. So he went into blacksmithing. He failed at that too.

So on it was to the railroad, where he became a locomotive fireman. He actually enjoyed that, got married at 18, and on the day his wife told him she was pregnant, he got fired. He bopped around from job to job, studying law by correspondence course, selling insurance, selling tires, running a ferryboat…

Eventually he settled into running a gas station in 1930. Not glamorous work, but respectable enough. And steady—which is what his wife was looking for, particularly as he was in his forties. In 1937, he began cooking for weary travelers who happened upon his station on U.S. Route 25, eventually building a 140-seat café.

Just as things were turning Harland's way, the café was destroyed by fire in 1939. Undeterred, he rebuilt the café across the street and added a motel. But it was the addition of one critical thing that changed everything for him. He began cooking his pan-fried chicken in a pressure cooker, reducing the amount of oil needed and sealing in flavors and moisture.

Have you guessed where this is going yet? Not so fast: we're not done with his setbacks yet.

Meanwhile, his wife had taken his children and left him, and by 1947, they divorced. Fortunately, his mistress was running the café and business was booming. In fact, the reputation of this little roadside café was spreading, with Duncan Hines writing it up in his Adventures in Good Eating guide to restaurants.

But all that soon changed with the relocation of the U.S. Route 25: his properties were literally in the middle of U.S. 25E and U.S. 25W, but authorities created a new U.S. 25E one mile north, in order to allow better access to the road from the forthcoming Interstate 75. Which meant less traffic for the filling station and restaurant.

In 1952, Harland—Harland Sanders, that is—decided to take his secret recipe of 11 herbs and spices of his "Kentucky Fried Chicken" and franchise it. He didn't want to build additional Sanders Café locations; he franchised the recipe to an existing restaurant in Utah. As the highway construction completed in 1955, Colonel Sanders saw the writing on the wall: traffic dropped, and at 65, he was getting on in years. He closed the café and began collecting $105 a month in Social Security.

The old colonel wasn't done, though. What would have been retirement for most other people at that age was when he was just getting started. He got into the franchising business in earnest, making personal visits to every restaurant he wanted to sell his recipe to, often sleeping in the backseat of his car and personally cooking for restaurant owners and employees to sell his recipe.

When he was 74 years old, Sanders sold the corporation to investors and became the brand ambassador for $2 million. By the time he died in 1980 at the age of 90, Colonel Harland Sanders was worth over $1 billion.

Sanders and Churchill could each have thrown up his hands and walked away from things after being dealt such serious defeats. While we remember them both for extraordinary contributions to their respective fields, by the time they reached retirement age, they had a string of failures that would have left them otherwise obscure figures in history.

They knew they weren't done yet. At 65 and 66, respectively, they knew they had more to give. Observant, reflective, and courageous, they had a vision of what success looked like and would not let defeat deter them.

The Colonel and the Prime Minister applied their own unique styles and powers of persuasion—through cooking, writing and interlocution—to sell their ideas to groups that were otherwise predisposed to ignore them.

You might think that being in their sixties and seventies, their faculties were diminished, but the opposite was true.

Because they suffered a lifetime of setbacks they had the powers of patience, empathy, insight, and wisdom to know that they had much more to offer.

They were determined that we should see that.

So, that project you fumbled, that job you lost, that relationship that went south: how are those looking to you now?

Dig deep. Your next success is just around the corner. This isn't even close to being your final act.

This originally appeared in the September 16 issue of the Timeless & Timely newsletter. Paying subscribers get this plus an additional essay with three timely links, three timeless stories and a recommended book and podcast each week. You can choose the option that suits you best: