“Little men” compensate for their below average height by propelling themselves into quests for power, ambition and self-confidence. In essence, short leaders have defined key moments in history. In 2015, government scientists conducted research to show that ‘men who feel the least masculine are at risk of committing violent acts’.  For many, this confirmed that the Napoleon Complex ‘really exists’. This article will assess the “Napoleon Complex” and ascribe its principles to three historic leaders. Drawing these men together, an afterthought will evaluate the legitimacy of ‘short man syndrome’ and its impact on fragile masculinity.


The term ‘Napoleon Complex’ was inspired by the French dictator Napoleon Bonaparte. His tyranny and invasions during the early nineteenth century were believed to be a ‘form’ of ‘overcompensation for his height’. Standing at 5 feet 2 inches, Napoleon was depicted as a ‘small man’ by British propagandists. More so, he was ascribed the nickname le petit caporal (the little corporal). Historians have disregarded the presentation of Napoleon as a short Emperor. Further studies have suggested that he stood at 5 feet 7 inches. Others testify that his nickname has been mistranslated and petit was instead used to describe him as affectionate. As shorter men initiate conflicts more frequently, Emperor Napoleon was admittedly not the tallest Frenchman but his ambitions to conquer Europe and the rest of the world were “larger than life”.


The lustful and tyrannical power exerted by Napoleon can also be translated into the totalitarian dictatorships of the 1930s. Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini were both thought to suffer from Napoleonic Complex. Yet, the image of Winston Churchill as a ‘small man’ has not been circulated or scrutinised by scholars and psychologists. John Lithgow’s portrayal of Winston Churchill in the Netflix television series ‘The Crown’ presents Churchill as a 6 foot giant, towering above Claire Foy’s Queen Elizabeth. In reality, having been measured less than 5 feet 8 inches, Churchill’s egoism and his belief that he was the “greatest man in the history of the world” propelled him as a symbolic tall figure in society. Churchill’s self-esteem was driven by an overarching desire to prove something to those who had bullied him at school. Having failed to participate in a variety of sports, his stammer and lisp ensured that he was picked on as a child. This revelation brings his masculinity into crisis. To pacify such images, Churchill was determined show “the bullies in later life” that he was made of ‘sterner stuff’. His wartime policies and unwavering argument that Britain ‘never surrender’ could have been grounded by an aggressive over-compensation for his short stature. Therefore, Churchill’s characteristics and intense war policy make him a candidate for exemplifying the Napoleon Complex.


Twenty-first century Britain readily commemorates Winston Churchill, but this is strikingly odd when his image is evaluated alongside modern day exemplifiers of the ‘Napoleon Complex’. Psychologists have studied the Russian leader Vladimir Putin and have applied the Napoleon Complex to his characteristics and policies. His small stature is striking when compared to other world leaders. Standing at 5 feet 7 inches, Putin measures up to the height of British Prime Minister Theresa May. Meanwhile Angela Merkel, standing at 5 feet 5 inches, is the only world leader smaller than Putin. As recent scientific studies have attempted to suggest that ‘taller’ men are more masculine, Putin overcompensates by openly displaying his ‘macho side’. Thus, Putin is attempting to associate himself with the ultra-masculine qualities that society prescribes onto taller men.


Combining the character and quality of these ‘short leaders’, Mark van Vugt has suggested that history teaches us that ‘major political decisions are often made by short men’. However, this is not always the case. With current US President Donald Trump measuring up to 6 feet 3 inches, his megalomaniac policies are not driven by insecurity in his height. Meanwhile, the Napoleonic Wars were inspired- not by the tyranny of a ‘small emperor’- but by the policies suggested in the 1789 French Revolution. Finally Churchill’s wartime policy was arguably inspired by his failed polices in the First World War, encompassed in disastrous political decisions such as the Gallipoli campaign. Although science attempts to prove that political power, tyrannical ideas and height are accustomed to one another, it appears to be an unlikely theorem in the construction of political decisions. Yet, it is incredibly difficult to disassociate the height of smaller world leaders with their attempts to ‘overcompensate’ in a variety of ways. This overcompensation can include their exaggeration in power-making and vengeful decisions.

Napoleon’s height, as depicted in a British Cartoon. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons).