Napoleon Bonaparte : in retrospect, quite a “cool boss”


Engraving of Napoleon BonaparteI live at about 2km of Quatre Bras and 30km of Waterloo, both epicentres of  Napoleon’s last battle and one of Europe’s most epic battles of history  it was ! I have always enjoyed  reading about Napoleon and this summer took out some time to read  “Waterloo – the last 100 days” from Flemish writer Johan Op De Beek. 

There is no denying that Napoleon remains an enigma –  to some he was a hero and to  others a tyrant.  Fact is that overall, history remains particularly kind to his achievements in contrast with so many autocratic leaders history has born.

Even Wellington who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo turned out to be one of Napoleon’s biggest admirers. He has been instrumental at stopping the Prussians of wanting to execute Napoleon upon his capture after Waterloo. Wellington is claimed to have said :” we cannot be associated with executing one of histories’ most extra ordinary leaders”.

Colossal Leader

Reading the book reminded me indeed how colossal a leader he had been – leadership not only defined by what he  achieved in such a short time but more intriguingly how he engaged his direct staff, his army and his nation to follow him in delivering his extra ordinary acts.

So my particular curiosity today goes to trying to understand some elements of what made  Napoleon that extra ordinary “leader” in terms that resonate in our management “jargon”.
Many people have written about his leadership style being a classical autocratic dictatorship  style. Clearly he had to have a very high dose of absolutism – Lord Acton’s adage “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”  But  you can fool some of the people some of the time but not all of the people all of the time…. So I will only focus on what ingredients that made him last and what today would make him a “cool leader”

 Cool leader behind 5 modern leadership characteristics

CoolBossCover_Final081513 (1)When I talk about a cool boss I talk about a boss that you want to work for not only because he delivers but because he engages  you but as importantly he engages teams and vast groups of collaborators.

Bonaparte, at least for me, today would capture my imagination so I could say if I would work for him he would be able to engage me… hence a ” a cool boss :-)”



1. Right Mix of pragmatic “ad hoc” Strategy and opportunistic tactics :  the foremost military theorist of the age of Napoleon, Carl von Clausewitz, hailed him as ‘the god of War’. Nevertheless, Napoleon did not believe in Strategy as like in a pre-battle master plan that then gets rolled out and perfectly executed throughout all his troops. He believed a strategy was key to understand a priori what “weakness” he needed to exploit to win.  Most of his wars were fought with significantly less soldiers, yet he was a master of understanding what points he needed to secure superiority to  break the opponent. Secondly, strategy was there to define how he was going to “surprise” the opponent with an atypical approach. Speed was his surprise tactical combined with a typically higher dose of risk taking than the opponent was expecting. “Do the impossible” (Impossible n’est pas français).  Once in battle, he seemed to have been exceptional in reading the situation and then leverage speed and fast decisions to react to it. One of his motto’s was : “Ability is nothing without opportunity ”

2. Change agent – sense for innovation and avid to always learn : besides being de facto an agent of the french revolution which wanted to enlightened the people by  breaking  with all royal, clerical and mediaeval old practices that supported only the few,  Napoleon has been an accelerator of structural change on many fronts. We know the new civic code (who is still in great part in use today in Belgium), the structured school system.

When early in his career he moved to Egypt to fight the English, he stunned everybody when he took with him a large group of historians, biologists and doctors. In his army, through the genius help of his head sergeant Larrey (great biographies especially the french biography click here ) – he created the only army that had a full medical staff and introduced the concept of “ambulances” during battle.

Throughout his years people new him as an avid reader of both contemporary as well has historical and philosophical books

3. Motivate his troops behind a higher sense as well as practical sense – Bonaparte was a true “dealer in hope” that all of their efforts was for a better cause of freedom. He was always personally involved in recognition (Legion d’honeur) – regularly reviewed his troops before and after battles. He believed that “imagination rules the world”. At the same time he was focussed on delivering his promise : “deliver what you promise. Say what you mean and mean what you say”.

4. Strong communicator : contemporary were impressed on how much communication Napoleon sent to his troop especially during battle. If he would have lived today he would be an avid email user and probably be an early adopter of Twitter. He understood the importance of the media – “5 newspapers are stronger than a full army”. He created his own newspaper for informing the troops. Even throughout his diplomatic contacts with many different nations and cultures, he showed a big ability to adapt his communication style.

4. Finally, focus on Execution, execution, execution : the art of war is simple “everything is a matter of execution” Be focussed on the use of your time, the most precious asset. He was a great organizer – the food for a horse is about 10times that of a soldier – so you can imaging what logistics were needed to sustain a successful campaign

As a small downside I have to admit that I was quite surprised from his level of command and control  – he personally fought and directed every campaign. Very centralistic with a big apparatus .

So I hope that you pick up some inspiration of this Cool Boss…. 🙂 after all let’s not forget that of the 50 battles he fought he only lost 10 and quite frankly, if I believe the rewritten history of the book I read, he was VERY VERY close of winning in Waterloo….. !

4 thoughts on “Napoleon Bonaparte : in retrospect, quite a “cool boss”

  1. Indeed an inspiring story, Stephane! Especially now that the whole of Belgium is digging up WW1 stories… But yet, I would like to bring the early on-set of WW1 to your attention, just to illustrate (stealing from the works of the great Max Hastings) how transient a leader’s recipe for success can be: in their preparation for the ‘Great War’ especially the French military kept its faith and belief in Napoleon’s approach, that had been based on the short distance man to man battle of his glorious era. Now, there they were, the poor French bastards in their colourful blue coats with shiny armour and decorations, meant to impress and scare the enemies looking them in the eyes, in 1812… But quite an easy target for the Kaiser’s troops and their mid / long range killing machinery 102 years (!) later.
    Maybe just a detail, compared to the mortal stubbornness of Marechal Joffre and his kind, sending his men to the slaughterhouses of Sedan, Verdun or Dieuze (Lorraine), still following the strategic lines of the Napoleonic doctrines of war and leadership

    • Hi Luc, thanks for your post and fully aligned. To your last point you raise the typical point of “innovators dilemma” where, when you have a winning strategy, you think you are able to innovate but in reality you cannot really change the paradigm you work in, like for example moving from short range warfare to midrange warfare. Take care

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