Steve Ballmer's Winston Churchill moment

Posted by Rob Enderle

During World War II, the United Kingdom was led by two Prime Ministers. One was perceived as famous, while the other was ultimately remembered as infamous.

Winston Churchill was the leader credited helping Britain and the Allies win the war while his predecessor Neville Chamberlain was eventually blamed for helping start the conflict in the first place.  

While this description may be somewhat of an oversimplification, Churchill rallied the British to fight back and win what was clearly an unwinnable war.

In contrast, Chamberlain took the much safer (short-term) tactical path of agreeing to Hitler’s demands. Of course, if there hadn’t been a Chamberlain, Churchill probably wouldn't have been forced to step up and the change in timing might have also altered the outcome of what was likely an unavoidable war.

During the 1990s, Microsoft was considered unbeatable as most believed they had squashed all competitors from IBM to Netscape - leaving Redmond as the only true technology superpower. However, Microsoft's power significantly declined over the last decade, as both Apple and Google took turns beating the corporation in various lucrative markets.

Microsoft entered the 21st century much like Great Britain in the years leading up to World War II: a paper tiger that had been painfully gelded and left largely powerless. But much like their earlier invulnerability, this too was all mostly perception as Microsoft remained one of the most profitable and powerful companies in the world - on paper. What they really needed was a leader who could effectively transform raw power back into a winning formula. 

This goes to the core of Steve Ballmer’s recent interview with CRN where he adopted a very Winston Churchill like position and effectively said to Apple "no farther."

The Power of Perception

One of the fascinating things about the technology market is that few executives in it understand, as Steve Jobs did, the power of perception. If fact, the only living CEO in technology that seems to understand this is Larry Ellison which is why you consistently see him quoted as saying things like "hardware is easy" in what has been an effective effort to cover up the fact Oracle is getting its butt whipped in hardware. (Even those inside Oracle say that Oracle hardware blows). 

When Steve Jobs took over Cupertino (for a second time) he went on record as saying Apple products sucked. But if he didn’t sell the products he would never have turned the company around. So he hyped these horrid devices, got people to buy them again, and won himself the time he needed to turn Apple around. Granted, he also got a little lucky with regard to the iPod - but had he not separated perception from his reality Apple wouldn’t have lasted until the iPod was released. 

If you’ve never read Winston Churchill's classic speech, well, you probably should, as it isn’t very long at 4 minutes and 12 seconds. But it is quite obvious that Churchill clearly understood the need to change the perceptions both inside and outside Great Britain so the UK could buy time to create a viable defense, and this likely was the moment the war turned.

For example: "You cannot tell from appearances how things will go. Sometimes imagination makes things out far worse than they are; yet without imagination not much can be done. Those people who are imaginative see many more dangers than perhaps exist; certainly many more than will happen; but then they must also pray to be given that extra courage to carry this far-reaching imagination."

Clearly, this points to the separation of reality and perception and sets the tone for what was one of the most impressive closings in history: "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 honor and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy...

"Do not let us speak of darker days: let us speak rather of sterner days. These are not dark days; these are great days - the greatest days our country has ever lived; and we must all thank God that we have been allowed, each of us according to our stations, to play a part in making these days memorable in the history of our race."

I still get chills reading the speech (full text with discussion points are here), which is often used as an example of how to properly craft a motivational address. Steve Ballmer, like Churchill, needs to rally his troops and supporters particularly after the recent Vanity Fair piece which positioned Microsoft as the equivalent of Chamberlain’s Great Britain, a coward and a loser by design.  

Ballmer’s Response

Ballmer was recently faced with a Chamberlain vs. Churchill moment and it appears he took the Churchill route, first in a speech in Toronto and then in a related CRN interview. Note the tone: "But we are not going to let any piece of this [go uncontested to Apple]," shouted Ballmer. "Not the consumer cloud. Not hardware software innovation. We are not leaving any of that to Apple by itself. Not going to happen. Not on our watch.

"We do feel empowered to innovate everywhere and bring our partners with us," Ballmer said. "We are just not going to leave any - what’s the expression people like to use - We’re not going to leave any stone unturned, so to speak, as we pursue that."

While the Surface Tablet is his Excalibur, harking back to an earlier and somewhat fictional British leader, the message was equally clear. Microsoft is back, it is pissed, and it has resources more like the US did than Great Britain in that last big war.

Wrapping Up:  Tora, Tora, Tora

Perhaps the reference we should be using is from another leader in the second World War. While it was Harry Truman who led the country when victory was declared, it was actually Franklin D. Roosevelt who made the critical decisions responsible for ensuring eventual victory. Roosevelt was faced with an equally large problem when he took office at the beginning of the Great Depression and he too needed to get people to believe. Had the US collapsed, the war would have been lost since it was the US industrial machine (which sadly has almost been completely destroyed over the years) that made the critical difference. 

His quintessential words closed his inauguration speech and they too will give you chills:

"We face the arduous days that lie before us in the warm courage of national unity; with the clear consciousness of seeking old and precious moral values; with the clean satisfaction that comes from the stern performance of duty by old and young alike. We aim at the assurance of a rounded, a permanent national life.

"We do not distrust the future of essential democracy. The people of the United States have not failed. In their need they have registered a mandate that they want direct, vigorous action. They have asked for discipline and direction under leadership. They have made me the present instrument of their wishes. In the spirit of the gift I take it."

But perhaps the true test wasn’t what comments were made by either leader but were credited (note he may have never actually said them) to Japanese Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto after the attack on Pearl Harbor: "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve." 

It would appear, based on Ballmer’s comments, that Apple may have finally done to Microsoft what Japan did to the US, namely, wake the beast up.