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Essay: Charles de Gaulle’s leadership

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  • Charles de Gaulle’s leadership
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This paper will analyse the relevant leadership theories and evaluate them against Charles de Gaulle’s leadership. There are two key aspects to the question, these are to analysis and evaluate. To analyse is to break down into component parts and to evaluate, is to judge the impact . In order to analyse and therefore breakdown the relevant leadership theories, the paper identifies two relevant theories and dissects each to analyse the history; evaluate their relevance and how they have contributed to the success or not as the case may be, to Charles de Gaulle’s leadership.

Charles de Gaulle was an extremely charismatic individual and a difficult leader to evaluate relevant leadership theories against. However, two theories emerged from all the others. Charles de Gaulle possessed a number of obvious traits and he exhibited aspects of transformational leadership. In turn, a combination of both contributed to his success as a military leader and the President of France on two specific occasions.

To evaluate de Gaulle’s leadership, the paper will analysis him using the SWOT analytical framework: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats, focusing on his strengths and opportunities. The use of the SWOT framework will allow the paper to evaluate the impact of success against the chosen relevant theories. To make the best use of the SWOT analysis it is essentials to understand de Gaulle and in this paper, the focus is 1940 – 1960. This is still a wide-ranging period of time with many of events taking place. However, there are two key events in which the paper will centre on. The first is when de Gaulle was the leaders of the Free French Army towards the end of WWII, and secondly when he was invited back to power in 1958 to tackle the on-going Algerian war and the creation of the 5th Republic.
The question is centered on leadership theories. Understanding what is meant by leadership and its definition is an integral aspect of the paper and answering the question.

Definition of Leadership

Understanding the definition of leadership provides a metric to measure de Gaulle’s success against. There are almost as many different definitions of leadership as there are persons who have attempted to define the concept . The following components can be identified as central to the phenomenon, Leadership is a process, and it involves influence, occurs in a group context and involves goal attainment. Based on Northouse theory this paper will use his definition to define leadership .

“Leadership is a process whereby an individual influence a group of individuals to achieve a common goal” .

The definition provides key verbs. It states leadership is a process and therefore a series of steps or actions in order to achieve a particular end. The particular end in leadership term is a common goal. Common goals are key to influencing a group of individuals. Goals can be set in many different ways, one of the most common is a clear vision. The group must believe in what they are trying to achieve, without this belief they are unlikely to follow.

One complex definition that has evolved, particularly to help understand a wide variety of research findings, delineates effective leadership as the interaction among members of a group that initiates and maintains improved expectations and the competence of the group to solve problems or to attain goals . There are a number of commonalities when comparing both definitions, both refer to groups and goal attainment. This would lead to the deduction that good leadership requires influence to achieve an end state, whether short term goals, long term vision or political and national identities, which is the case with de Gaulle.

The paper will examine the trait theory and transformational leadership, breaking down their origins, definitions and contesting them against various research, both past, and present. Finally bringing together evidence and evaluating the theories against de Gaulle.

Background of Charles de Gaulle

Charles was born to Henri and Jeanne de Gaulle in 1890, one of five children. Prior to their marriage Henri (Charles father) served as a lieutenant in the Franco-Prussian war, some 20 years prior to Charles being born. Henri was wounded during one of the skirmishes and was forced to leave the Army, something he dearly cherished and was proud to be part of . Henri’s service shaped his parenting. Henri and Jeanne bought up the family to look back at the old France monarchy, which they referred to as the real nation. Charles de Gaulle’s described his father as a “thoughtful, cultivated, traditional man” imbued with a feeling for the dignity of France” . These characteristics stood out in de Gaulle, in particular, his passion and patriotism for France and its people.

De Gaulle saw active service in both WWs. He had an unsettled start to his military career and was found to be socially awkward. However, de Gaulle’s ability to think strategically at an early stage in his career was seen as a threat by some senior members in his chain of command. This ability was one of his key traits that aided in his success as a military and political leader, together with his intellect the military character was quickly formed. It was not at all a comfortable character. His corners were never rubbed off. He acquired a great ability to express himself in writing, or in speeches or monologues to a response or for that matter an unresponsive audience . He utilised this ability to communicate his vision to the French public from the UK over radio broadcasting as the leader of the Free French Army.

On the 18 June, 1940 de Gaulle flew to London to continue Frances struggle against the invading Germany. This was the start of his political career. He led the resistance for the Free French movement from the UK, against the will of the legal government of France. In the summer of 1944, de Gaulle entered Paris at the end of the War as the commander of the Free French forces. He was appointed the President of France for a short period, where he retired in 1946. Charles de Gaulle was invited back to power in 1958 to solve the problem with the Algerian war of independence. These two key periods are seen as significant periods of success in Charles de Gaulle’s leadership.

To evaluate de Gaulle against the trait theory and transformational leadership, the paper analyses him as a leader and individual. To achieve this, the paper has concentrates on his strengths and opportunities that are presented to him, because they best illustrate how the relevant theories contribute to his success as a leader.

When evaluating de Gaulle’s strengths his traits are immediately identifiable to those highlighted by Stogill (1948 & 1974), Mann (1959), Lord, DeVader, and Alliger (1986) and Kirkpatrick and Locke (1991) in their research. De Gaulle was of an above average intelligence. In particular, his strategic conceptual thinking was excellent. For example, de Gaulle knew that for France to remain a global power they must have a nuclear capability. On July 22, 1958, de Gaulle, now president, set the date for the first atomic explosion to occur within the first three months of 1960 . For de Gaulle especially, French attainment of the bomb symbolized independence and a role for France in geopolitical affairs . This was a clear indication of France’s global intent and highlighted de Gaulle’s foresight and long term vision, arguably a key trait to be a leader. He was extremely patriotic and loved his country and what it stood for. He had a strong personality, bordering on arrogance at times and more so in his later years.

The opportunities that contributed to de Gaulle’s success are when he found himself in the position as the commander of the Free French Forces, which he had not planned. He exiles to the UK rather than surrender and negotiated with Germany, a significant showing of the man’s patriotism and duty to his country. This part of his life arguably set the circumstance for de Gaulle to become the President of France. The end of the war, and in particular its success, portrayed de Gaulle as a hero. However, there are some unanswered questions, what if the Normandy landings had failed, would De Gaulle have been so successful? The argument that de Gaulle saw an opportunity, accidental or not, and capitalised. For example, by definition, charismatic leaders are expected to emerge in times of crisis De Gaulle capitalised on every opportunity, proving how determined he was to return France back to being Grand. The Algerian War was another opportunity that De Gaulle was not looking for, however, presented its self and set the environment charismatic leader to succeed.

Identifying de Gaulle’s strengths and opportunities immediately draw attention to the traits he processed and how they might have contributed to his leadership style. In the early 20th century, leadership traits were studied to determine what made certain people great leaders . The theory that derived from this research was known as the “Great Man Theory”.

Trait Approach

Scholarly studies have shown that there is a wide variety of different theoretical approaches to leadership. In a number of their research papers the trait approach continues to appear and therefore it would leave you to believe that there must be credibility in this theory. From the very beginning of any literature on de Gaulle, he and his leadership style are described through his characteristic. The strong referencing of de Gaulle’s characteristics leads to identifiable traits and draw evaluation of de Gaulle through this lens.

The trait theory was one of the first systematic attempts to study leadership . It focused on identifying the innate qualities and characteristics posed by great social, political, and military leaders . It was believed that people were born with these traits and only “great people possessed them .

In the mid 20th century the approach was challenged and suggested that no consistent set of traits differentiated leaders from non-leaders across a variety of situations . Recent years have seen the resurgence in the trait approach; in short, the trait approach is alive and well . It began with the emphasis on identifying the qualities of a great person; next, it shifted to include the impact of a situation on leadership; and most recently, it has shift back to re-emphasise the critical role of traits in effective leadership .

Historian Thomas Carlyle also had a major influence on this theory of leadership, at one point stating that, “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” According to Carlyle, effective leaders are those gifted with divine inspiration and the right characteristics . Research has proven that the “Great man” theory is flawed in some aspects. One aspect being that great leaders are born with traits that make a good leader and they cannot be taught or developed over time with experience. Sociologist Herbert Spencer suggested that the leaders were products of the society in which they lived. In The Study of Sociology, Spencer wrote, “you must admit that the genesis of a great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown….Before he can remake his society, his society must make him.”

There is evidence to support for and against the great man theory. The suggestion that some people are natural leaders and therefore must have been born with some of the traits that make a good leader. However, individuals can learn and develop traits that will make them a good leader. Being self-aware and education goes somewhat to developing an individual. Herbert Spencer’s theory supports the idea that the situation and group characteristic are a key element of good leadership. Stogdill first survey indicated that an individual does not become a leader solely because he or she possesses certain traits. Rather, the traits that leaders possess must be relevant to the situation in which the leader is functioning or found them self in . In today’s society leadership is in general, not a standalone individual. The leader is supported by a team of advisors to guide the leader in making an informed decision. What makes a good leader is how the decision is communicated to the followers.

As we have heard earlier in the paper, Charles de Gaulle was brought up in a patriotic environment. His upbringing shaped his beliefs and his determination to peruse them. Therefore he was not born patriotic, this was learned in adolescence. We have heard that he was intellectual, again a consequence of his upbringing. Encouraged to learn, he followed his mother’s desire to read and digest information. These basic foundations set de Gaulle up in to continue this later on in his military and political career.

Trait Theory Analysis

The trait theory is intuitively appealing. It fits clearly with the notion that leaders are the individuals who are out front and leading the way in our society. This fits with the concept of a hierarchical organisation that is seen in businesses, to include government, where most countries have an elected or appointed leader. However, it could be argued that elected or appointed leaders are not necessarily good leaders and they are not necessary elected for the traits they display. Therefore not all leaders will display traits that are linked to good leadership.

There is century’s worth of research into the trait theory and no other theory can boast of the breadth and depth of the studies conducted, which are continued up to the present day. This has to be a strong indicator that there is something in this theory. The theory is leader-centric and highlights the leader component in the leadership process. This could also be seen as a weakness because as proven in more recent theories, the situation and the leader-follower exchange influences leadership outcome. The approach gives clear benchmarks of what we need to look for in a leader. The benchmarks are assuming there is a process or mechanism for identifying these traits.

There is no conclusive list and the list seems to be growing as more time and research is being conducted. This is a problem because, on the other hand, you would have thought with the number of studies that have taken place over the last 100 years there would be a definitive list. However, this could be seen as a strength because it is not descriptive. Having a short list may lead to a potential leader being dismissed at the early stage in the selection process because he or she does not exhibit one of the traits on a list.

One of the most stand out weakness to take into consideration is the theory does not take the situation into account. The situation a leader finds him or herself in may depend on what trait he or she exhibits to that leadership situation. On the other hand, why does the situation matter? It could be argued that leadership traits could be used to lead in any given situation, they are adaptive. For example, confidence and conviction are two listed traits and could be worthy to exhibit in any given situations. The key is how the leader develops his or her plan to reach the team goal. Influencing the follower requires conviction and the confidence to sell the plan to your followers. So the situation should not matter.

The approach is highly subjective. This is because the findings on traits have been extensive and broad. The research does not give clear direction and leaves it open to interpretation.

Lord et al. (1986) reassessed Mann’s (1959) findings using a more sophisticated procedure called meta-analysis. Lord and co-workers found that intelligence, masculinity, and dominance were significantly related to how individuals perceived leaders . In Jonathon Fenby’s book “The General” he characterises de Gaulle as “a very fine military future and detected a collection of qualities rarely combined in the same degree: bearing that inspires respect, a strong personality, firm character, active and cool in the presence of danger, wider culture, great intellectual value . Lord et al (1986), also refers to how dominance was significantly related to how the individual perceived leaders. From the outside, Charles de Gaulle appeared as a monument carved out of some ancient rock, above and beyond ordinary beings . This persona would have aided de Gaulle transforming the country and the people believing in him, especially in times of crisis.

Transformational Leadership

Transformational leadership has been of much focus and research since the 1980s. Transformational leadership is seen as the “New Leadership” and pays more attention to the charismatic and effective elements of leadership. Even though transformational leadership is a fairly new theory, there is no reason why it can’t be evaluated against de Gaulle.

Transformation leadership is a process that changes and transforms people. It involves people’s emotions, values, ethics, standards, and long term goals and includes assessing followers’ and satisfying their needs . Transformational leadership is a process that often incorporates charismatic and visionary leadership. Visionary leadership is key to good leadership. All the great leaders have been people of great vision, men and women able to provide insight into what is possible. Vision is your view of a group’s future, a place you want to be after the transformation is complete . For the followers, vision is their belief in the overall game plan, their obdurate belief that this plan is in their best interest . It is hard to find any literature on leadership, political or business that states a vision is unimportant. Without a vision an organisation and therefore its people are directionless. Everything in the organisation, from the leader to the followers should be coherent and contributing to the vision. So why is a vision so important?

1. Vision shows us where we are headed.

2. Vision provides motivation and inspires us to keep on going.

3. Vision helps to keep us moving forward and move through obstacles.

4. Vision provides focus.

5. Vision gives us meaning and purpose to what we do.

“A leader has the vision and conviction that a dream can be achieved. He inspires the power and energy to get it done.” ~ Ralph Lauren

Charles de Gaulle’s vision was to make France great again. De Gaulle did not create the Free French movement it was born due to a spontaneous reaction against the dishonour of the armistice . De Gaulle gave a voice, an authority, a concrete and sustained majesty to this reaction of French honour. Therefore de Gaulle did not have to create his vision, it just happened. The point is, that although he did not create the vision he promoted it, believed in it and worked towards it. The vision was to free France, this provided motivation, inspired the French people, and provided focus to the resistance.

Transformative leadership is not necessarily dependent solely on the presence of a crisis, however, a crisis would be an obvious situation where such leadership might be particularly effective. Hoffman (1967 or Crozier (1964) .

De Gaulle did effect a transformation insignificant elements of the rules of the game; in major areas of public policy, in France’s position in the world, and perhaps most significantly, in the move away from a variety of deeply entrenched political and cultural traditions, most notably the revolutionary tradition towards economic development high tech future .

He sought solitude; he perceived the world in a long-term, holistic and varied perspective, more a sense of the imminent and immediate reality of history than a philosophy. He projected his own personality into a political project which was at the same time emotional and rational, intuitive and sciously theological .

Significantly he came to power in periods of crisis which disrupted class and interested group politics and put a premium on the reuniting of the nation and the stabilisation and reinforcing of the state power and apparatus . His coming to power was permitted by crises which immobilized an already somewhat fragmented opposition and allowed him to claim a unique link with the continuity of the state itself .

Why was de Gaulle successful?

To gauge de Gaulle’s success, the paper referrers back to Northouse’s definition of leadership. Northouse states that leadership is a process whereby an individual influence a group of individuals to achieve a common goal .

In the case of de Gaulle, the definition supports his leadership rein. De Gaulle’s influence in both the Free French movement and his Presidency with a vision (common goal) significantly contributed to the success of France and his leadership.


Charles de Gaulle had a long successful distinguished military and political a career. The highlights being a leader of the Free French Army in WWII and President of France on two separate occasions.


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