Winston Churchill once said, “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.” There’s no doubt that Churchill left an indelible mark on history. While we think of Churchill for his wartime leadership, his experience holds many lessons related to personal branding for lawyers as well.
Churchill was on the outside looking in when it came to the political power structure in Great Britain in the 1930s. Mired in intra-party squabbles with former political allies, Churchill was left out when a new government was formed in 1931. By mid-decade, as he was entering his 60s, Churchill was widely perceived to be all washed up, exiled to the political wilderness. Churchill biographer Robert Rhodes James, writes: “By the end of 1933 Churchill was widely regarded as a failed politician, in whom no real trust could be reasonably placed; by June 1935, these opinions had been fortified further.”
But as we now know, Churchill was not done; far from it, in fact. By 1939 he was appointed to a cabinet position within the government, and in 1940 he became prime minister. It was an amazing turnaround from political outsider to the heights of power.
So how did Churchill engineer this amazing feat?
For one, he saw something that others did not: the increasing, and increasingly grave, threat to Great Britain, Europe, and the world more broadly, posed by Nazi Germany. Conventional wisdom at the time was that accommodation and negotiation were necessary to deal with the Nazis. Churchill thought otherwise. Throughout his time out of power, he urged resistance and confrontation, not appeasement. His stance was not popular, nor seen as viable, until it was. His foresight about the Nazi threat ultimately brought him back to power and helped cement his enduring reputation as a brilliant wartime leader.
But it wasn’t just his stance that mattered. While there were certainly other “warmongers” (a term often used to describe Churchill during his political exile) in Great Britain, none were as effective in getting their message across. Churchill had a platform from which to spread his message, and unmatched writing and oratorical skills that, ultimately, made his message resonate with people around the world. He cultivated those skills throughout this life. He was a prolific writer and speaker from a young age, and because he relentlessly practiced and improved these skills during the entirety of his career, he was able to shift public opinion while writing hundreds of articles and delivering hundreds of speeches during the 1930s when it really mattered.
Winston Churchill is a perfect example of someone who achieved great success while making a lasting impact by building a powerful personal brand. And the steps he took to do so are virtually the same as those required to build a personal brand today.
First, he identified a niche that he was passionate and knowledgeable about. He beat the drum relentlessly, and almost exclusively, about the Nazi threat for nearly a decade. In today’s parlance, Churchill would be called a “one issue” politician. When people thought of Churchill during this time period, they thought of his strong stance against what he (correctly) perceived as a growing threat.
Second, he used the tools at his disposal to spread the word, not just in Great Britain but around the world, about the dangers posed by Naziism. He didn’t simply start speaking and writing as a means to stay relevant during this period when he was out of power. He honed these skills throughout his lifetime, so when his message really mattered, he was ready to deliver it. Because he had already built a platform, he had a means to speak directly to his audience.
Third, through his speaking and writing during the 1930s he was able to establish trust and credibility. This didn’t happen quickly. It took many years in the “wilderness” before his message landed. He didn’t move towards public opinion, public opinion moved towards him. Because of this he earned hard won respect, then power, and he was able to wield that power effectively because he had built up a huge bank of reputational capital. He stuck to his message when it was unpopular, so people had confidence that he would carry through on it once it became popular.
The rest is history.
Building a powerful personal brand, therefore, requires three things:
- A focused message
- A platform to spread the message
- Consistent communication of the message
By consistently and compelling spreading a focused message, the messenger builds trust and loyalty among his or her audience. This career capital can then be used to ignite action among the audience members.
Whether you’re a politician trying to lead a movement, or a lawyer trying to build a book of business, the process of building a personal brand is the same. Stand for something. Build a platform from which to spread your message. Communicate consistently in order to build trust and rapport. Reap the rewards.
In many ways, personal branding for lawyers is simple, but it’s not easy. You may know what you need to do, but like Churchill you need to summons the conviction to follow through.
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