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Does Putin Suffer From the Napoleon Complex?

The psychology of short stature and leadership.

There has been much research into the relationship between height and leadership. Virtually all the research shows that leaders are taller than average. So is there such a thing as the Napoleon Complex? And does it apply to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his hunger for power?

Is Putin a megalomaniac despot or a clever political strategist? Does he suffer from overconfidence due to a narcissistic personality disorder or is he just standing up for the interests of Russia and the Russian-speaking minorities in the neighboring countries? We do not know exactly what goes on in Putin’s mind. Maybe that is just the problem.

When the Cold War ended, the attention of the world slowly but surely moved to the Middle East. We were not really interested anymore in Russia, a former superpower. As a result, at least in the Netherlands, it is difficult to find a place to study Russian and we have a generation of diplomats, politicians, and military officers who understand little of the Russian language and culture.

Fortunately, we can conduct a psychological analysis of the individual Putin, albeit remotely. One striking feature of the Russian president is his small stature. His body height of 5' 7" (1.70 m) is in stark contrast to other world leaders. Barack Obama and David Cameron are no less than 4 inches taller (6' 1"). The only current world leader shorter than Putin is Angela Merkel with her 5' 5", but as we will see, there are different standards applying to women.

The relationship between height and leadership

There has been much psychological research into the relationship between height and leadership. Virtually all the research shows that leaders are longer than non-leaders. For example, a study of the U.S. presidential election shows that the taller presidential candidate wins more often. A recent exception to this is Obama's re-election. He is one inch shorter than his former opponent Mitt Romney but was nevertheless re-elected as president in 2012. In his first election in 2008, he defeated the much shorter John McCain, the same height as Putin (5' 7").

Furthermore, psychological research by Gregg Murray, a fellow Psychology Today blogger, shows that when people are asked to draw a leader on paper, they draw a larger figure than if they have to draw a non-leader.

In our own research at the VU University, Amsterdam (with Ph.D. student Nancy Blaker), participants looked at pictures of businessmen and businesswomen. Half got to see the tall version, for example, a 6' 1" John, and the other half a shorter version of John (5' 5"). We varied their heights by manipulating the background of the picture. When placed in the foreground, John seemed considerably taller than when placed in the background. We found that the tall versions of John and Sophie were rated as higher in leadership qualities. Further, the results showed that the height leadership advantage was greater for men than women.

The Napoleon complex

But what about short leaders? History has had its fair share of short leaders. Think of Napoleon Bonaparte (5' 7") and Joseph Stalin (5' 5") or more recently Nicolas Sarkozy (5' 5") and Silvio Berlusconi (5' 5"). That requires an explanation.

An interesting theory, which may also apply to Putin and his personality, is that short leaders suffer from what can be referred to as the "Napoleon complex." This phenomenon, named after the "little emperor” Napoleon Bonaparte, describes how little men may try to compensate for short stature by extreme drive, ambition, and self-confidence. According to Napoleon complex, shorter men are more likely to have megalomania and initiate conflicts more frequently. Emperor Napoleon was admittedly not the biggest, yet he had a huge ambition to conquer Europe and the rest of the world.*

In animal behavior research, something akin to the Napoleon complex has already been found. Biologists have found in several fish species that the smaller males start fights more often than the big guys. The explanation for this is that the little guys must compensate for their lack of body strength with other tactics, for example, being hyper-aggressive or continuing in a war of attrition until your opponent gives in.

We are currently investigating whether there is any support for the Napoleon complex in humans. Do shorter guys more often pick fights, are they more likely to display overconfidence, and is there perhaps something in the saying, "If you are not strong, you better be smart?”—like the small David against the giant Goliath? If there is some concrete evidence for this phenomenon, we could call this the Putin syndrome.

A well-known leadership phenomenon is a quarrel with their neighbors if they want to strengthen their power position. Psychological research dating back from the '70s shows that if the position of a leader in a group is not stable, these leaders often choose to attack another group. There is nothing better for the unity of a country than going to war. And Putin must know that the conflict in Ukraine provides such an opportunity for Russia.

Machiavellian leadership style

In addition to Napoleon, Putin is probably also influenced by the 16th-century Italian philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli. In The Prince, Machiavelli wrote about the importance of a strong army for any ruler. He also stressed that it was better for a leader to be feared than to be loved. Furthermore, if you wanted to conquer another country, it would be useful to have a group of people on the inside who wanted to support you. Finally, no ruler would be any good if your opponents could guess your intentions. Putin's leadership style is definitely Machiavellian.

Putin occasionally shows his macho side, and that's not for nothing. He is being photographed as he is hunting or fishing, and then preferably bare-chested. He thus demonstrates that he is a "real man." This is an important signal. As we know from our own research: Voters prefer a masculine leader during wartime (and a feminine leader during peacetime). The machismo of Putin also has a sexual dimension. No doubt, he is trying to impress his girlfriend, former Olympic gymnast Alina Kabayeva, who is his junior by 30 years.

It would be quite dramatic for the world if the megalomaniac and Machiavellian tendencies of a man of short stature, who is trying to impress his political opponents, his people, and his younger wife would result in a Third World War. Nothing is impossible, however, because history shows that major political decisions are often made by short men.

This post also appeared in The Volkskrant online (Dutch newspaper).


*Historians have determined that Napoleon was about average in height compared to the Frenchman of his time. He looks shorter because the soldiers who surrounded him were selected for their height in order to protect the emperor well, so on paintings he seems a lot smaller. This was probably also due to British war propaganda as the Brits liked to refer to him as a little man. That’s probably where the image of the "little emperor" originates from.

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