Leadership authorities often write about the importance of presence. Some describe presence as radiating authority or demonstrating strength or power. Others focus on aspects of mindfulness and remaining focused on people, place and time. I rarely see discussion of leadership presence that describes how a leader assumes that presence or what one must do to generate it.
This article, an excerpt from my book, CONNECT: Affective Leadership for Effective Results describes how Charles deGaulle's physical presence during the celebration of the Liberation of Paris arguably changed the course of history.
On August 26, 1944, General Charles de Gaulle led a parade down the Champs Elysées to celebrate the liberation of Paris. French and American forces had entered the city only the day before, and no one knew if the fighting was in fact over. More than a million people lined the beautiful boulevards from the Arc de Triomphe to Notre Dame Cathedral.
General de Gaulle had refused to accept the French truce with the Nazis during WWII, and he set up a government in exile in England. After convincing General Eisenhower that it was important to take back the city of Paris, de Gaulle was part of the celebration.
He began at the Arc de Triomphe by relighting the flame at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier and then led the procession to Notre Dame Cathedral (Beevor & Cooper, 2004). As de Gaulle and his entourage worked their way through the excited crowds, shots rang out from hotels, houses, and even Notre Dame’s tower, killing at least six people. As people heard gunfire, they rushed to doorways and inside buildings to find protection. When the shots subsided, they returned to the streets, and then someone began ringing the bells of Notre Dame (MacVane, 2008).
It was unclear if de Gaulle was a target, but he appeared not to hear the gunfire. When he entered Notre Dame, more shots were fired and people dropped to the ground and hid behind the massive pillars of the magnificent cathedral.
Malcolm Muggeridge, a British intelligence officer, who was in the cathedral that day later wrote, “The huge congregation who had all been standing, suddenly fell flat on their faces. There was a single exception; one solitary figure, like a lonely giant. It was, of course, de Gaulle. Thenceforth, that was how I always saw him—towering and alone" (Beevor & Cooper, 2004).
During this episode, de Gaulle created order out of potential chaos by remaining calm and interacting with others. He strode to the high altar where a Te Deum began. Others were standing, but all eyes were on de Gaulle; he alone attracted the attention of the people assembled there.
As shown in the photograph,his demeanor that day fully demonstrated his control and determination. Whatever one may believe about de Gaulle, for those witnessing this event, this image would stay with them for many years. Few who saw him could question his strength and commitment at that time in his country’s history. For those few minutes, Charles de Gaulle demonstrated incredible control and masterful leadership. His confident behavior encouraged others, changed his own future and, arguably, the future of the world.
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- Barth, N. H. (1944, August 26). Charles De Gaulle, President of the French Committee of National Liberation marching down the Champs-Élysées in triumph. Retrieved June 20, 2009, from The Paris Pages, "Paris Libere!": www.Paris.org . Photograph believed to be in the public domain.
- Beevor, A., & Cooper, A. (2004). Paris: After the liberation, 1944-1949. New York: Penguin.
- MacVane, J. (2008). The liberation of Paris, 1944. Retrieved July 24, 2010, from Eye Witness to history: http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/parisliberation.htm.
This topic is covered in much greater detail in my book, Connect: Affective Leadership℠ for Effective Results.