February 16, 2021
Leadership Series: Charles De Gaulle
Charles André Joseph Marie de Gaulle, born 22 November 1890 was a French army officer and statesman.
He began his career in the French Army in after graduating from Saint-Cyr military academy in 1912. He fought in World War I and was wounded several times. A career officer, he led Free French government in exile against Nazi Germany in World War II and chaired the Provisional Government of the French Republic from 1944 to 1946. In 1958, he came out of retirement when appointed President of the Council of Ministers by President Rene Coty. He rewrote the Constitution of France and founded the Fifth Republic after approval by referendum. He was elected President of France later that year, a position to which he was re-elected in 1965 and held until his resignation in 1969.
De Gaulle was imbued with a sense of France’s glorious past. Grandeur, glory, greatness – the French word grandeur, when de Gaulle spoke or wrote it, was sometimes translated as each of these – belonged to the essence of France. He dedicated his life to leading France back to the heights. That upwards climb would give the nation its necessary common purpose. He saw himself as personifying the enduring qualities of the French people, and his leadership role as one of stirring the spirit of France. He saw France as a country fated to experience either dazzling success or exemplary misfortune. France was not really herself ‘unless in the front rank.’ Only a grand national purpose to achieve excellence among the nations, putting France in the vanguard of progress, could overcome the natural disunity of the French people.
Not only did de Gaulle practise a distinctive style of leadership, but he also wrote about it. A man of character also needs grandeur to be an effective leader, he believed. Behind these words lies a tradition of thought about leadership that goes at least as far back as to Napoleon. In an interview with The New York Times in 1965, de Gaulle was reported to have declared, ‘Men are of no importance, what counts is who commands.’ This tradition is echoed in de Gaulle’s short book on leadership – The Edge of the Sword, written originally as a series of lectures at the French War College and then published in 1932 (when de Gaulle was a forty-one year old army officer little known beyond the army). In it, he defined three key leadership qualities.
1. To chart the right course, a leader needs intelligence and instinct; to get people to follow him along that path, he needs authority. De Gaulle noted that leaders have always understood the importance of instinct or intuition. It is the natural analytical ability to see the essentials of a problem or situation. Only when a leader makes proper use of both intelligence or reason and instinct or intuition, will his decisions have the hall-mark of prescience.
2. Prescience – knowing which way to lead – is an essential element in good leadership. It is not enough to know the uphill path, however, if no one will follow. In his lectures, de Gaulle stressed that a leader ‘must be able to create a spirit of confidence in those under him. He must be able to assert his authority.’ Authority, de Gaulle believed, stems from prestige.
3. For him, prestige is largely a matter of feeling, suggestion and impression, and it depends primarily on the possession of an elementary gift, a natural aptitude which defies analysis. It is a rare gift, one that ‘certain men have, one might almost say from birth, the quality of exuding authority, as though it were a liquid, though it is impossible to say precisely of what it consists.’ De Gaulle’s recipe for creating or preserving this prestige (or charisma, as it would be called now) was a modern version of the old Persian formula of establishing a proper distance between ruler and ruled. He wrote about creation of an all-important mystique surrounding the leader.
General De Gaulle was seen as a controversial figure. His leadership style and advocacy for French interests was at times seen as petulant both domestically and abroad. He is esteemed by his countrymen as one of the country’s greatest leaders. In 1969 he resigned after his government was defeated in a referendum on constitutional reform, and he died the following year.