What Today's Leaders Can Learn From Napoleon's Mistakes
Napoleon was unquestionably a great strategist and imposing historical figure. His leadership style had many flaws, which eventually led to his downfall.
In the vein of learning from others mistakes, here are five lessons today's leaders can pull from Napoleon:
1. Never stop innovating.
Napoleon introduced many tactical innovations to warfare and statecraft. He believed in lightning military attacks when most European generals were slow, incompetent or incapable of making on-the-ground decisions without higher orders. He struck fear in the hearts of his opponents by bombarding them with canon and grapeshot believing, correctly, that loud noises shook the nerve of his opponents. And he was one of the first leaders to wield propaganda to bolster his position at home and abroad.
But Napoleon never improved on his basic innovations. He never cared to learn about naval weapons, steam power, observation balloons, railroads, bridging materials, troop ships and general advances in canon ammunition. Napoleon never bothered to think about France's large land holding in America. He feared crossing the Atlantic and instead of finding a use for the vast territory, he sold it.
Paul Johnson in his biography of Napoleon, writes, “He thought the improvements introduced in his youth were quite enough, and though he fiddled with the standard equipment, he never changed it substantially."
Napoleon's failure to adapt eventually hurt his military and political campaigns in the long run. By failing to build a navy and look to alternative innovations and business deals he lost his ability to outmaneuver his opponents and with it his edge.
Lesson for leaders: Old tricks may work over and over again, but never overlook new technologies. Overtime they will become crucial.
2. Learn to delegate.
Napoleon's subordinates could pull off miracles, but only when under strict, careful instruction. Those high in Napoleon's favor were those who obeyed orders precisely. Promotions weren't given to those who had independent ideas. The result: when Napoleon's generals had to think on their own or perform without Napoleon's instruction, they were often nervous, fumbling and counterproductive.
Lesson for leaders: Leaders shouldn't simply promote those who can follow orders. Empower employees to think for themselves and they'll do better under pressure, even without orders.
3. Have a little patience.
There are many battles Napoleon could have won if he had been more patient. He might have also attained more power if he had grown more organically, rather than rushing, impulsively into Spain and Russia.
"Bonaparte lacked the temperament to fight a defensive battle, let alone a defensive campaign," writes Johnson. "Had he been able to do so, he might well have fought the Sixth Coalition to a peace of exhaustion, without a single one of its soldiers setting foot on French soil proper."
Lesson for leaders: Focusing all your energy on forward movement might seem like the right thing to do, especially if it's what has led to your success before. However, every leader needs to be expert in controlling active periods as well as calm ones.
4. Take training seriously.
Napoleon selected 50,000 men to serve in his elite, Old Guard. They were tall, strong, standout soldiers who wore menacing bearskin uniforms. During battle they would sit behind the main forces and their presence would give the regular troops confidence.
However, Napoleon rarely had to call on the Old Guard's services since he usually won battles quickly and with skill.
But his success would eventually backfire. When Napoleon finally needed to call on the Old Guard during the battle of Waterloo they were weak, unused to fighting and underprepared.
Lesson for leaders: Don't set aside high-potential employees and keep them above the fray. Leaders need to ensure their teams are well trained in all tasks and don't lose their relevance.
5. Don't lose your temper.
Napoleon had a bad temper. Sometimes he'd fly off the handle over small matters and sometimes he'd plan a fit hoping that his dramatics would inspire his subordinates to action. He used his loud outbursts to inspire fear and respect in the ranks, but they rarely won him points in diplomatic circles.
When Napoleon met with the British ambassador Lord Whitworth, he threw a fit then stalked out of the room so quickly that the doormen hadn't time to open the doors. Napoleon had to wait, seething, until the doors were opened. Such hysterics made Napoleon look uncertain, weak and hotheaded.
Lesson for leaders: Control your temper. Outbursts have very limited mileage and, more often than not, make you look foolish.
SAMUEL B. BACHARACH | Columnist | Director, Cornell's Institute of Workplace Studies
Samuel B. Bacharach is the McKelvey-Grant professor in the department of organizational behavior at Cornell University's ILR School, and is director of Cornell's Institute for Workplace Studies in New York City. Among his books are Get Them on Your Side and Keep Them on Your Side. His latest volume, A Good Idea Is Not Enough: Leading for Change and Innovation, will be published this November by BLG.