This morning I began Volume II of the Last Lion biography of Winston Churchill.1 I missed him. One passage jumped out at me in particular, and I see in it a parallel to my life.

The [breakfast] tray has gone. Remaining within reach are the jam and a weak (three-ounce) scotch and soda—always Johnny Walker Red—which the prostrate Winston will sip occasionally over the next four hours in the tradition of Palmerston, Pitt, and Baldwin. However, the legend that he is a heavy drinker is quite untrue. Churchill is a sensible, if unorthodox, drinker. There is always some alcohol in his bloodstream, and it reaches its peak late in the evening after he has had two or three scotches, several glasses of champagne, at least two brandies, and a highball, but his family never sees him the worse for drink. He remarks: “We all despise a man who gets drunk.” And, after an exchange of views on drinking: “All I can say is that I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.” He encourages absurd myths about his alcoholic capacity, however, partly to furbish his macho image, which needs it because he cries so often in public (“ I’m a blubberer,” he cheerfully tells friends), and partly because Europeans still like to think that their leaders are men who can hold their liquor. Winston tipples off and on all day but never gets drunk.2

Leaving aside whether or not Churchill needed to demonstrate either manliness or the mastery of drink, there is validity in the idea of shaping the external view of one’s own personality. This is even more true in the case of a leader, and in one way or other we are all leaders.

Speaking for myself, I will generalize and say I am an executive. As such, I have discovered that my moods greatly affect those around me. By personality, I am introverted, and, though not prone to black moods, I often become quiet when not in a particularly good mood. This is not ideal for anyone, since I am in charge.

If I, by all outward appearances, spend the morning sulking, the train of folks moving through my office sense disapproval, irrespective of my actual words. This ripples outward, causing successive visitors to begin each discussion on the defensive, maybe holding back some information in order to avoid my ire seemingly bubbling just below the surface. Each question I carelessly ask seems like a criticism, and a quiet, “sounds good” reads as damning with faint praise.

After noticing this effect, I began doing two things. First, I make every effort to be as ebullient as possible, feigning a good mood when one isn’t naturally occurring. Because I am not a tireless actor, I also employ a secondary measure of nurturing a good mood at the beginning of each day. I do this by beginning each workday reading something I enjoy. This used to feel like I was shirking, but now I know this is far more important than getting going on my to-do list or checking email.

While I will certainly never be a Churchill, my mood shaping has worked quite well within my sphere of influence. Life at work and at home is far better when no one thinks they need to walk on eggshells around me. Accomplishing this self-consciously means that it doesn’t tax my mental reserves.

How about you? Are you projecting the image you intend? I hope I am. I am starting to second-guess the scotch and soda I just poured, however. I’m getting some perplexing looks.

  1. Last night I finished I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons, the third of my 3-book break between large volumes, but I’m not ready to write about it yet. ↩︎

  2. Manchester, William. The last lion: Winston Spencer Churchill Alone 1932-1940. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1988. p.366. Amazon Link ↩︎