The “Bad Guy” Every Leader Should Know


He was a bad guy with a visionary mind. He saw what others did not. He took action when others would not. He accomplished what others could not. Every leader can learn a valuable lesson from him:

The development and build-up of leadership takes decades not days.

In the early part of the twentieth century, Germany was reeling. Defeated in World War I, the Treaty Of Versailles (June 28, 1919) left her with greatly reduced capacities territorially, militarily, and monetarily.

  • Germany lost 13% of its territory.
  • The German army was limited to 100,000 men.
  • The German navy was reduced to 15,000 men.
  • Conscription was banned.
  • Germany had to make war reparations of 132 billion marks ($440 billion dollars today).

Impeded by such a treaty one wonders how the German Army, in just twenty years, could take on Europe and the world. The answer, according to Winston Churchill, was the German General von Seeckt. In The Gathering Storm, Churchill writes:

The creator of the nucleus and structure of the future German Army was ... Seeckt. As early as 1921, Seeckt was busy planning, in secret and on paper, a full-size German army …. His biographer, General von Rabenau, wrote in the triumphant days of 1940, "It would have been difficult to do the work of [rebuilding the German Army in] 1935/39 if from 1920 to 1934 the centre of leadership had corresponded to the needs of the small army.”

Churchill notes, 

As early as 1923, Seeckt had decided that the future German air force must be a part of the German war machine.” The fact that the Treaty of Versailles outlawed such activities did not stop him. “For the time being he was content to build inside the ‘air-forceless army’ a well-articulated air-force skeleton which could not be discerned, or at any rate was not discerned in its early years from without.

Seeckt boldly engaged in covert operations to achieve his goal, but that is not the point. The point is his prescience.

Seeckt saw what others did not see and took the necessary steps to advance the German cause at a time when others were licking their wounds from WWI or unwilling to consider — much less engage in — the effort that such an enterprise would take. Churchill shares Rabenau's "illuminating comment":

Without Seeckt there would today [in 1940] be no General Staff in the German sense, for which generations are required and which cannot be achieved in a day [underline mine], however gifted or industrious officers may be. Continuity of conception is imperative to safeguard leadership in the nervous trials of reality. Knowledge or capacity in individuals is not enough. In war the organically developed capacity of a majority is necessary, and for this decades are needed.

As I read Churchill's regretful but respectful nod to the genius of Seeckt, I gained a new leadership maxim: Leadership development takes decades not days. Seeckt understood this. Do I?

Churchill wrote The Gathering Storm in 1948. It is the first of his five-volume history of World War II. As he begins to write, he knows he is going to share things that will put some of his countrymen in a bad light. These are men he has “liked or respected." He does not want to do anything that will cast a shadow on their character or leadership acumen, but then he writes this:

[I]t would be wrong not to lay the lessons of the past before the future. Let no one look down on those honorable, well-meaning men whose actions are chronicled in these pages, without searching his own heart, reviewing his own discharge of public duty, and applying the lessons of the past to his future conduct.

As I contrast the sad brilliance of Seeckt with the short-sightedness of some European and American leaders, I must heed Churchill's admonition and "search my own heart." Here are three things I must do to apply the lessons of the past to my present and future conduct:

  1. Look at myself: If leadership development takes decades not days, how far down the road am I looking?
  2. Look at our leadership: I must assess our leadership strength relative to present and future needs.
  3. Look at our process: What are the strengths and weaknesses of our current leadership development pipeline? Do we have the leadership skeleton in place? What needs to change?

Seeckt devoted his life to a war machine of world-wide destruction. Christians, on the other hand, bring a message of cosmic reconciliation. Should not this vision shape the intensity and practicality of our leadership development efforts?

Every Christian leader knows that leadership development is critical. Jesus modeled it. Paul preached it. We must practice it. Our practice will not yield results overnight. It will take years to see reproducing fruit. So we look to that future and take steps today.

What step will you take?

And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.
— 2 Timothy 2:2 ESV


  1. “The treaty of Versailles …” the information here is from World War One: History In An Hour, by Robert Colley. New York: HarperPress. 2012. Also available in “Treaty of Versailles” accessed July 23, 2014.
  2. “The creator of the nucleus and structure …” from Winston S. Churchill, The Gathering Storm, Vol 1 of The Second World War. Cambridge, Mass: The Riverside Press. 1948. Page 44.
  3. “As early as 1923 …” "For the time being ..." from The Gathering Storm, page 111.
  4. “Without Seeckt there would be …” from The Gathering Storm, page 45.
  5. “It would be wrong …” from The Gathering Storm, page iv.