Poor starts can be reversed if you remain coachable. Consider Sir Winston Churchill and a torn letter.  

In the annals of history, few leaders stand as tall as Sir Winston Churchill. However, Churchill’s journey as Britain’s Prime Minister didn’t start on a triumphant note. In May 1940, as World War II cast its ominous shadow, Churchill assumed leadership in a time of crisis.

Many who worked closely with him during those early days would later praise his leadership, but Churchill didn’t start well. The weight of the war, the pressure of leading a nation, and the gravity of the decisions he had to make weighed heavily on his shoulders. His initial approach to dealing with people, his subordinates, and even colleagues was marked by a rough, sarcastic, and overbearing manner.

Churchill would soon receive a letter that would prove to be a turning point. A letter not from a political ally or a military strategist but from his wife, Clementine Churchill. This historical event sheds light on a remarkable aspect of leadership— the importance of being open to advice and its transformative impact on one’s journey.

A Torn Letter Returns

A trusted staff member had approached Clementine, complaining about Winston’s overbearing and sarcastic treatment and the resentment it was causing. Clementine would write a letter expressing concerns about her husband’s approach to people, cautioning him about being too abrasive and overbearing. She urged him to be more understanding, empathetic, and diplomatic, especially towards subordinates and colleagues. 

She then tore up the letter before giving it to him.

A few days later, she reconsidered and rewrote the letter. In the letter, she added her own observation, 

“I must confess that I have noticed a deterioration in your manner, and you are not so kind as you used to be.”

The Value of a Signal Catcher

Winston, known for his larger-than-life personality, was not immune to the blind spots plaguing even the most brilliant leaders. Recognizing this, Clementine took on the role of his “signal catcher.” She made it her mission to be a direct line to what people were saying—particularly what his advisors and staff were expressing when he wasn’t in the room.

Do you have a signal catcher, someone in your corner who can pick up on the subtle cues, unfiltered opinions, and unspoken concerns circulating within your team or organization?

So, why is this so vital? Well, it boils down to coachability. A leader who is open to feedback, receptive to criticism, and aware of their blind spots is a leader who can adapt and thrive. In essence, a signal catcher helps you stay grounded, provides a reality check, and ensures you’re not unknowingly steering your ship into treacherous waters.

Five Tips for Having a Signal Catcher

  • Choose Someone You Trust: Select a person you trust implicitly. This could be a colleague, mentor, or even someone from outside your organization who understands leadership dynamics. It might be an internal peer or someone on the administrative team.
  • Communicate Expectations: Have an open conversation with your chosen signal catcher about your goals and the type of feedback you seek. Express your interest in learning what you might be missing and how to improve. Commit to confidentiality.
  • Ask Specific Questions: Provide your signal catcher with specific questions or areas of interest. This could include your leadership style, communication, decision-making, or team collaboration.
  • Regular Check-Ins: Schedule regular check-in meetings to discuss any observations or feedback. Be sure to actively listen and reflect what you hear from your signal catcher.
  • Express Appreciation: Acknowledge the efforts of your signal catcher. Recognize the time and energy they invest in providing you with valuable insights. Expressing gratitude fosters a positive relationship and encourages continued collaboration.

Getting the Letters You Need 

Leadership is a dynamic journey that requires continuous learning and adaptation. Having a signal catcher is not a sign of weakness but a testament to your commitment to growth as a coachable leader. Winston Churchill, one of history’s most revered leaders, recognized the importance of feedback and the influence of a trusted advisor in the form of his wife, Clementine.

Remember, just as Churchill’s poor start as Prime Minister was reversed through the counsel of his trusted advisor, leaders today can overcome challenges and lead more effectively by remaining coachable and having their own signal catchers. In doing so, you elevate your leadership and create a culture of continuous improvement within your team and organization.

So, who will be your signal catcher on your leadership journey?