The qualities of a leader: Churchill vs. Hitler

Walking through the Churchill Museum, there was not one man on my mind but two: Churchill, and Hitler. The parallels between the two are sometimes striking: Both had charisma. Both made an effort to surround themselves with smart men. Both took similar steps to consolidate power in an effort to win the war. Both even liked to paint. Stories of interpersonal conflict – demanding a great deal from subordinates, taking umbrage with ideas they didn’t like – seem to differ only by a matter of degree. Both men became leaders in large part because of the time in which they were living, the aftermath of World War I and the strains it put on their societies.

Some philosophers have noted the similarity between the two men, and categorized them under the same phrase, guru:

“If a society is sufficiently disrupted, or seriously threatened, politicians who promise to restore order or save the society from its enemies become transformed from men of affairs into magical, guru-like saviors.” (Anthony Storr, Feet of Clay)

For all the parallels we draw between Churchill and Hitler, however – which do give us some sense of what it is that people are drawn to when choosing a leader – we should remember that at least one of those guru-making qualities is one that Churchill could legitimately claim, and that Hitler had to rewrite history to claim for himself: vision.

At a time when most politicians and civilians had lived through one devastating world war, and wanted desperately to avoid a second one, Churchill was the only prominent leader who spoke against the policies of appeasement under Prime Minister Chamberlain. He believed that Hitler would not be satisfied with the German-settled areas of Czechoslovakia, that he could only be stopped with a show of force. By the time Poland and Norway had been invaded, most had to agree that this view was true – and Churchill had been the first politician to voice it.

Hitler, or others in the Nazi regime around him, recognized the value of being a visionary. In Mein Kampf, Hitler claimed to have developed his anti-semitic views living in Vienna, before World War I, and yet there is no evidence to back this up; no others could recall particularly strong anti-Jewish sentiment by Hitler, and the evidence is that he relied upon several Jewish shops to sell his paintings. The historians of Inside Hitler’s Germany conclude that Hitler developed such strong anti-semitic views at the same time as many of his other countrymen, in the aftermath of World War – but to be a leader, one must be visionary, and so he claimed to be one of the first to have recognized this “problem”. Likewise he would later claim to be the seventh to join the Nazi party, when in fact there were several hundred members before him.

Why are people drawn toward vision? In part, a little flaw in our thinking; seeing that someone has been right before, we tend to overestimate the possibility that they will be right again in the future – and in the midst of a war, we naturally want someone who will make the right decisions so that we can win. Often, we are incorrect with this assumption, failing to realize that being right then was a fluke, or a matter of specialized expertise that won’t apply to other decisions, or something that cannot be kept up under continuous pressure and wartime demands. Other times we are fortunately correct, as the British seem to have been with Churchill; I doubt the man can lay any claim to perfection in his decision making, but the end result was victory, as promised. These rather dramatic cases when our biases are correct – the visionary continues to predict outcomes successfully, and becomes the victor – explain why these biases persist, and tell us what people might do the next time they are threatened and seek a leader.


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