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Leaders from History

Published on January 9th, 2010 | by Jonathan Gifford

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Napoleon Bonaparte: the best of leaders; the worst of leaders

I must confess that I have a bit of thing about Napoleon. A quick check on Amazon will show you (reassuringly, perhaps, for me) that I am not alone. There are a lot of books about Napoleon. If you are a student of leadership, then you come up against Napoleon like a student of modern art comes up against Picasso. There is simply no way around the man.  But why?

Firstly, Napoleon had a very large canvass to work on. The French revolution was a truly remarkable event. It began as an essentially liberal revolution, but was hijacked (as revolutions so often are) by homicidal fanatics: Robespierre and his fellow Jacobins. When Napoleon seized power in a nearly botched but nevertheless bloodless and generally welcomed coup, he became the leader of a nation that was beset on all sides by the old monarchies of Europe, desperate to snuff out this terrifying, king-killing, unthinkable republic in its midst. The French people were equally desperate to retain their new and bitterly hard-won freedoms from the essentially feudal rule of the Bourbon kings and the Ancien Régime. A significant sector of society was also keen to keep its hands on the financial benefits that they had accrued by buying up, at a very good price, the lands and estates previously owned by the monarch, the aristocracy and the church. Napoleon found himself at the head of nation that was predisposed to welcome his proven military skills, which could be usefully deployed in the defence of France and its newfound freedoms.  But then Napoleon proved himself to be much more than merely a successful general.

Saviour of the Revolution

Napoleon general en chef de l’Armée d’Italie, by Sébastien Rouillard

Napoleon’s rise to pre-eminence in France had been due to his astonishing ability, as a young general in France’s revolutionary ‘citizens’ army, to protect France’s borders against the  professional armies of Austria and other hostile powers.

He had proved himself a useful and ruthless military ally for the revolutionary government (Le Directoire: ‘the Directory’) that emerged after the end of the appalling Reign of Terror by putting down a royalist insurrection (see Napoleon’s Whiff of Grapeshot) and later dispatched one of his generals to assist members of the Directory in a coup d’état against more moderate and royalist elements of the government. It was perhaps inevitable that Napoleon would one day move onto the political stage, lending his support to a coup that overthrew the Directory and emerging as ‘First Consul’ – most powerful man in France.

Once he had gained political power, he famously crossed the Alps in Hannibal’s footsteps (with far less effort or ingenuity, but with great daring nevertheless) and surprised the Austrians in northern Italy, which they had largely regained from French control while Napoleon had been campaigning in Egypt, prior to the coup that brought him to power. Napoleon’s unexpected arrival across the Alps threatened Austrian supply lines along the river Po. Napoleon won a decisive victory at Marengo – thanks, on this occasion, more to the military brilliance and dedication of his senior generals and to a substantial element of luck, rather than to Napoleon’s own contribution on the day. Napoleon was convinced that the Austrians were retreating after a previous defeat, and had therefore dispersed his army in an attempt to cut off the supposed retreat: the unexpected Austrian attack took him completely by surprise.  A dogged defence by his generals prevented a French rout, however, and another of Napoleon’s star generals, Desaix, who had been despatched to the south to search for the supposedly retreating Austrians, marched his troops back towards the sounds of the guns. A French counter-attack aided by a strong element of luck won the day. The Austrians withdrew from Italy and signed a peace treaty which led to the only significant period of peace in the whole Napoleonic era. In France, not surprisingly, hero-worship of Napoleon was about to begin in earnest.

Administrator of genius.  Emperor of Europe.

Bonaparte, First Consul, by Ingres

It was during this heady spell of peace that Napoleon proved that he was more than just a general; he embarked on a remarkable programme of civil development and legal reform. It was his legal reforms that – justifiably – have had the most lasting legacy. In four years, Napoleon took the three hundred and sixty different sets of local codes that had regulated nearly every aspect of French life (and which had themselves also further been subject to exemptions and privileges granted by the king and other feudal lords) and turned them into the national Code Civil, better known as the Code Napoléon. Napoleon entrusted the drafting of a series of legal codes to the Second Consul, Cambacérès, a brilliant lawyer and experienced administrator. At this stage of his career, Napoleon was still able to delegate the delivery of a significant piece of work to a trusted and better-informed colleague. He attended over half of the meetings drafting the Code; the lawyers were struck by Napoleon’s grasp of the relevant detail. On these occasions, meetings might last until five in the morning: Napoleon would not let a matter drop until his mind was settled. After the Civil Code came the Code of Civil Procedure, Commercial Law, Criminal Procedure and the Penal Code. The Bank of France was created and given complete control of the national debt and the printing of money. Napoleon took the Directory’s new secular educational system and turned it into another of his enduring legacies: the Lycées or state secondary schools.

When peace collapsed, Napoleon again surprised the new alliance massing against him by marching his newly organised Grande Armée into northern Europe to defeat the Austrians before their Russian allies could join forces with them.  He went on to lead France to become the pre-eminent nation in Europe and to rule an empire stretching from Italy and Spain to the borders of Russia. However, his unprovoked and unreasonable conquest of Spain – an ally of France which had allowed French troops into Spain to allow them to attack the Portuguese, who persisted in trading with their old business partner, the hated English – turned into a bloody and costly distraction. His invasion of Russia was, famously, a misjudgement that was to lead to his downfall. It was also driven by the same preoccupation: an attempt to undermine the economic strength of Britain – which had funded and assisted all of the various alliances against Napoleon – by forcing the countries of Europe to end all commercial relations with ‘perfidious Albion’.  In the meantime, Napoleon had had himself crowned as the Emperor of France, and had retreated into regal isolation, removing himself from the wise council of his previous comrades at arms and of his masterly Foreign Minister, the great diplomat, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand.

Great strengths and fatal flaws

The strengths of Napoleon’s character and his mental abilities are daunting but recognisable. They represent skills and abilities that any potential leader can strive to develop: a piercing intellect constantly focussing on the key issues of the day; the mental stamina to analyse a problem from every perspective until a solution was decided upon; the determination to put that solution into effect; the force of personality to inspire other people to undertake the process of change; the ability to store and recall huge amounts of information needed for the implementation of the plan; the mental toughness not to be distracted from the main objective by set-backs and material changes; the mental flexibility to adapt the plan, but not the objective, in the face of changing circumstances.

Napoleon on his Imperial Throne, by Ingres

The success of Napoleon’s leadership strategies is undeniable: in both military and civic affairs there are clear lessons to be learned from his methods. What makes Napoleon an exceptional and invaluable study for any aspiring leader is that his defects are as instructive as his strengths: the flaws in his character are exactly those that are most likely to be an aspect of any forceful and ambitious personality – in short, of any potential leader. Napoleon offers a text-book study of character defects that one should guard against, not because they are necessarily bad in themselves (we are all human) but because, as Napoleon’s career so classically demonstrates, they lead to bad outcomes and unworkable solutions. Worse still for an aspiring leader, they almost inexorably lead to one’s eventual downfall.

Funnily enough, it is arguably as a military leader that Napoleon offers the best role model for any potential leader.  This brilliant military strategist, one of the greatest that the world has seen, set the grand strategy and the objectives, devised a detailed plan of action to achieve those objectives and then delegated their fulfilment to a highly-skilled team of commanders. These commanders were given a great deal of independence: they were empowered to react quickly, on their own initiative, to a rapidly changing military situation. Napoleon’s military genius was to take the basic elements that had been in place throughout the eighteenth century – infantry with flintlock musket and fixed bayonet, cavalry, artillery – and transform what had become a static and highly formal style of battle between rigidly-controlled lines of troops into a fluid, mutually supportive, highly reactive arena where quick decisions could be made to achieve a superiority of force at a critical point that might suddenly present itself in the course of a battle.  It is, perversely, a very good model for modern corporate structures.

Increasing centralisation and control

In stark contrast to the relatively democratic structure of his army and of his way of conducting military campaigns, Napoleon’s civic leadership demonstrated his innate tendency to centralise control.  On the battlefield he had the vision (remarkable for its day) to see that independent units working in concert to achieve the grand plan could outmanoeuvre an opponent following a rigid plan dictated from the centre. In administrative affairs he could not see why he should not dictate everything, as he was always right and everybody else’s judgement was suspect.

Napoleon’s early civic achievements were impressive and enduring. Napoleon was a formidable taskmaster, who drove his administrators relentlessly and with apparently inexhaustible stamina. Nevertheless, in these early days, Napoleon was able to delegate effectively. He made things happen, on a dramatic and impressive scale. Later, the centralised bureaucracy that Napoleon slowly created and began obsessively to control started to grind to a halt, producing mountains of paperwork but no action; he became indifferent to talent in his ministers, looking for mere stamina and amenability. As is the case with all highly centralised bureaucracies run essentially by fear, administrators were more afraid of taking the wrong action than they were of taking no action at all: there was always some bureaucratic excuse for the latter; the former was dangerous. Simple decisions that should have been taken at local level were referred to the centre. Everything had to be approved.

Over time, and in every civic field, Napoleon set out to control and administrate, eventually stifling innovation and experiment. It is notable that Napoleonic France did not produce any scientists, economists or industrialists of stature. In the arts only painting – suitably reverential – flourished.  For all of his deep envy of Britain’s great wealth (which bankrolled all of the seven international alliances against Napoleon’s power) he failed to create a parallel French industrial revolution. He also completely failed to challenge Britain’s control of the seas, essential to any hope of significant international trade. Surprisingly, he even failed to exploit new technologies that could have proved useful to his military machine: the observation balloon (which would have saved the day at Waterloo); the exploding shell; the rifle (used to great effect as a skirmishing weapon by British regiments such as the Green Jackets.)

Napoleon built a mighty empire on the strength of his military success.  He astounded the world by defeating all of his mighty monarchical neighbours but, in victory, he failed totally to forge new and useful alliances. Defeated nations were stripped of territory and cash; they became embittered and humiliated enemies of France, dreaming only of revenge. As a result, while Napoleon could arguably have sustained an expanded French empire within a Europe of powerful but relatively well-disposed nation states, his insistence on complete control led to his own downfall.

There is a profound lesson for modern leaders in this: success will be built more securely on a network of mutually beneficial relationships than it will on an empire tightly controlled from the top – tempting though the latter model is for any tough-minded leader.

A final chance – the one hundred days

Napoleon in exile on Saint Helena

The classic trajectory of Napoleon’s career offers one final, fascinating example.  Against all odds, he made a come-back, returning from his exile to the Mediterranean island of Elba after his final defeat by another alliance of the European powers, to be broadly welcomed once again by a nation that had resented the restored monarchy and was willing to give Napoleon – the mighty defender of the enlightened values of the French revolution – one last chance.  The nation wanted constitutional government and peace; Napoleon made a poor pretence of offering the former and plunged the nation straight back into war. His achievements in financing and raising an army in the ‘one hundred days’ were astounding, but war was inevitable: for the allies in Europe, Napoleon himself had become the problem.

Napoleon might even have won the ensuing battle of Waterloo – a contest that the victorious Duke of Wellington famously described as ‘the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life’.  Napoleon had already pulled off one of his trademark military coups – defeating the Prussian army before they could join forces with their British allies, intending to defeat piecemeal a army that would overwhelm him if combined – but his Marshalls, and Napoleon himself, were unusually slow to exploit their advantage and strangely indecisive. They made uncharacteristic mistakes. Luck and the weather was against them. Marshall Ney – indefatigable hero of the appalling retreat from Moscow; ‘the bravest of the brave’ – wasted and destroyed the French cavalry, unsupported by sufficient infantry or artillery, in pointless repeated attacks against the formidable defensive squares of British infantry. At the end, and too late, Napoleon’s elite Guard were thrown into the fray, only to be cut down by disciplined, close-range musket fire.  The Guard broke and recoiled – it was all over.

The great Napoleon, hoping to find refuge, ironically, in England, was never allowed to disembark onto English soil from the English frigate on which he had surrendered, and was shipped to the island of St Helena, a desolate spot in the middle of the Atlantic ocean, where he died.

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About the Author

I write and blog about the human aspects of business and leadership, with an interest in the lessons that we can learn from history, including recent history.
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I live in Oxfordshire, England.



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