Churchill or Chamberlain. Who was the better leader? On one level it might seem obvious. Neville Chamberlain was the one who gave in to Hitler’s never ending demands, while Churchill was the one who could see the Nazi threat from afar and realised that appeasement was dangerously flawed. It was Churchill’s determination and passion that led a nation and the world during the dark days of World War 2. (see previous post).


In his book,  “A First Rate Madness -Uncovering the Link between Leadership and Mental Illness,” the psychiatrist Nassir Ghaemi points out that had Chamberlain retired in 1937 he would have been widely regarded as a huge success.

He was a highly respected self-made businessman from Birmingham. He rose to become a popular mayor and an esteemed chancellor of the exchequer. He was charming in personality, level-headed and incredibly astute. Chamberlain in other words was logical, predictable and rational.

Winston Churchill, by contrast, rose to prominence during the Boer War and the first World War. He was described by others as temperamental, cranky, talkative, bombastic. In short, Churchill irritated and bothered many people.

During Churchill’s “wilderness” years of the 1930s, while the charming Chamberlain got all the adulation, Churchill’s own party turned its back on him. Churchill struggled with his dark moods punctuated by periods of extreme energy and irritability.

Chamberlain, the emotionally more stable and reasonable man, believed he could appeal to Hitler rationally and with logic and fairness.

When Chamberlain returned from signing the infamous Munich agreement with Hitler in 1938, only Churchill and a small loyal group  refused to stand and cheer in parliament, eliciting boos and hisses from the other in the House. The fact was that the depressive Churchill saw the events of his day with a clarity and realism lacking in saner, more stable men.

So the question who would you choose as a better leader really boils down to one of context and timing. Here is how Ghaemi puts it:

“When times are good and the ship of state only needs to sail straight, mentally healthy people function well as political leaders. But in times of crisis and tumult, those who are mentally abnormal, even ill, become the greatest leaders. We might call this the Inverse Law of Sanity.”

Another way of looking at it relates to the Hebrews during their dark days of slavery in Egypt. They were  supernaturally rescued under the leadership of Moses, but then wandered in the desert for 40 years often complaining and bitter. That can be summarised as:

“The skills that will get you out of Egypt are not the same skills that will get you to the Promised Land.”

It is the long-term perspective that counts. Churchill himself spoke at Chamberlain’s funeral during the dark days of 1940, less than a year after the war had started. He was remarkably generous to Chamberlain:

“In one phase men might seem to have been right; in another they seem to have been wrong, and when the perspective of time lengthened, all stood in a different setting.”

In an age of sound bites and instant news and connectivity, one of the important skills we are losing is the ability to reflect and take this long term perspective.

I close with a final reflection by Ghaemi,

“Great crisis leaders are not like the rest of us; nor are they like mentally healthy leaders. When society is happy, they toil in sadness, seeking help from friends and family and doctors as they cope with an illness that can be debilitating, even deadly. Sometimes they are up, sometimes they are down, but they are never quite well.
When traditional approaches begin to fail, however, great crisis leaders see new opportunities. When the past no longer guides the future, they invent a new future. When old questions are unanswerable and new questions unrecognized, they create new solutions. They are realistic enough to see painful truths, and when calamity occurs, they can lift up the rest of us.
Their weakness is the secret of their strength.”


Do feel free to leave your reflections and thoughts in the comments section of the website.