3 Lessons From Napoleon On Strategy

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As my friends know all too well, I have a bit of an obsession with Napoleon (the Bonaparte, not the Dynamite).

This obsession has served me well – I met my beautiful wife at a Napoleon conference in his home town of Ajaccio, Corsica.

Cameron Napoleon medal legion of merit 2008 2

These days I tend to think about Napoleon most when I am helping my clients work on their business and marketing strategy.

As I’m sure most people know, Bonaparte was a brilliant strategist both in terms of his domestic political success as well as his better known international military success.

British general Wellington said: “I used to say of (Napoleon) that his presence on the field made the difference of 40,000 men.”

General Sir Archibald P. Wavell write: “If you discover how  (Bonaparte) inspired a ragged, mutinous, half-starved army and made it fight as it did, how he dominated and controlled generals older and more experienced than himself, then you will have learnt something.”

Yes, yes – invading Moscow in 1812 didn’t turn out as well as he would have hoped. As it turns out, we can learn from him failures as well as from his successes.

So, what can we learn from Napoleon that has application in the 21st century business world?

 

LESSON #1: QUITE SERENE

Here’s the first quote of his that comes to mind:

“There is no man more pusillanimous than I when I am planning a campaign. I purposely exaggerate all the dangers and all the calamities that the circumstances make possible. I am in a thoroughly painful state of agitation. This does not keep me from looking quite serene in front of my entourage; I am like an unmarried girl laboring with child.”

For those of you, like me, who don’t know what the word “pusillanimous” means, it means “timid”. Napoleon was timid?? Surely not! He was always a pillar of strength and calm!

Of course, that’s the point. He was afraid and nervous about going into battle. He wasn’t insane – he understood the risks, not only to his own person but to his troops and to the people of France. However, he managed to keep his fears private. As far as the troops and marshals were concerned, he was in complete control and knew exactly what he was doing. Would you follow someone into battle if you thought they weren’t sure of what they were doing?

The same applies for business leaders. It’s fine and normal to be worried about your strategy – just remember try to keep it private or with your business advisors. In front of your team, you need to look “quite serene” as Napoleon puts it. A worried leader worries the troops. If you look worried or stressed, they will absorb it by osmosis. Your team can’t be effective if they are worried about the fact that you seem worried. That doesn’t mean you should project false bravado either. I don’t believe in CEOs acting like they are infallible. As much as people don’t want to work for someone who is a stress head, they also don’t want to work for a deluded psychopath. I’ve also worked alongside business owners who just seemed angry all of the time. They build an emotional wall around themselves by keeping everyone scared. That also isn’t going to creative a productive culture.

It’s better to project the idea that you’ve developed a strategy that you believe will succeed and, if it doesn’t, the world isn’t going to come to an end. If your strategy includes a disciplined approach to testing, quantifying and revision, it’s unlikely to lead to an ELE (Extinction Level Event). You will just revise and continue. I think of it as being the Captain of an ocean liner. You set course for your destination but if, say, an unforeseen event blocks your path, you just route around it. If the Captain of the ship seems worried or lost, then the passengers will start to worry and, eventually, abandon ship.

If you are the sort of person who struggles to prevent pressure from manifesting as stress, then you need to find a philosophy of life that works for you. Stress is entirely psychological. It is all in the mind. Stress is what occurs when a person doesn’t have a healthy framework for dealing with life’s inevitable pressures. If you are one of those people, check out my short book “The Three Illusions” (threeillusions.com).

 

LESSON #2: TWO STRATEGIES

Perhaps the most famous Napoleonic historian, the late David Chandler, wrote: “At the level of strategy Napoleon had no contemporary peer. To make the utmost use of the superior mobility and inspiration of his armies, he developed two major strategic systems. When facing a foe superior in numbers, the strategy of the central position was employed to split the enemy into separate parts, each of which could then be eliminated in turn by adroit manoeuvring to gain the French a local superiority of force in successive actions by bringing the reserve into action at the critical time and place. … Conversely, when the enemy was inferior to the French, Napoleon would often employ a manoeuvre of envelopment – pinning the foe’s attention with a detachment while the bulk of the army swept against the hostile lines of communications to sever the enemy’s links with his bases. … On occasion, Napoleon would merge features of these two classic strategies.” (David Chandler – “Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars” p 19)

“Two major strategic systems” – Napoleon had two basic ideas that he could deploy at will in the field, depending on the size and relative strength of the enemy. His tactics included speed, mass, and aggressive manoeuvring. In an era when armies tended to march slowly in formation against each other, in an orderly, gentlemanly fashion, Napoleon marched his armies at breakneck speed into position, taking the enemy by surprise, surrounding them before they even knew he was there. He innovated the field of 18th century warfare. He knew how to focus his troops on his opponent’s weak spots, and how to distract and confuse the enemy.

Note that Napoleon used these two strategies over and over again. He didn’t develop them on the battlefield – they were developed before he got anywhere near the enemy. they were developed in private, through a combination of study of military history and personal analysis. By comparison, how often do you see businesses trying to work things out on the fly? It’s very common to see people running businesses by throwing shit at a wall and hoping some of it will stick. There’s no science behind it – no customer research, no competitive analysis, no deep planning. They just hope that if they keep running as fast as they can, enough will work and they will survive. Often they will – for a while. This kind of “no strategy strategy” may get you through a few good years. Eventually though, the competitor with a scientific strategy will beat the business without one.

Make sure your business has developed a couple of strong basic strategies that can be applied over and over again. The problems most businesses face can be reduced to simple algorithms. More of A plus more of B with less of C = Profit. Working out what A, B & C are is the part that often takes a lot of work. Once you have those worked out, however, it usually isn’t too difficult to work out how to increase or decrease them.

For example, increasing sales is often a result of getting your message in front of more qualified prospects. How you go about doing that depends on your line of business, truly understanding what you do better than the competition, assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the competition and, of course, how much budget you have. Working out what those levers are, and how to pull them, is the work of your business strategists.

It’s also important to remember that Napoleon innovated. He didn’t fight battles the way everyone in his era was expecting. He used a combination of speed, mass and aggressive manoeuvres that hadn’t been seen in warfare for generations. If you want to beat your competition, it’s important to innovate. What can you do faster than your competitors? How can you apply mass by focusing your resources on a particular issue? How can you aggressively manoeuvre your team to address an opportunity? Working out how you apply speed, mass, and aggressive manoeuvres ahead of game time will allow you to marshal your forces quickly when an opportunity presents itself.

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LESSON #3: SURROUND YOURSELF WITH COMPETENT GENERALS & PASSIONATE TROOPS – BUT LEAD FROM THE FRONT

It takes a team to fight a battle. Napoleon  couldn’t have won major battles for 15 years by himself.

American military historian George Nafziger wrote “It was the French, and most probably Napoleon himself, who brought the first truly modern military staff into existence.”

Before the French Revolution, almost all of the officer class had been drawn from the aristocracy, the ancien regime. After the Revolution, most of them left the country and the Directory (the post-Revolutionary government, pre-Napoleon) had to re-build. On 14 August 1793 Lazare Carnot was elected to the Committee of Public Safety, where he took charge of the military situation as one of the Ministers of War. The creation of the French Revolutionary Army was largely due to his powers of organization and enforcing discipline. He rapidly build a new military and became known as the Organizer of Victory. However, the senior ranks of the army were still often stuffed with incompetents and were interfered with by representatives from the Directory, as Napoleon directly experienced in his early years at the Battle of Toulon.

In 1800 Bonaparte, now Premier Consul of France, appointed Carnot as Minister of War. Together they designed a system for training and promoting the most professional military staff in the world.

In Napoleonic France, a solider rose through the ranks purely based on skill and bravery, not based on who his father was. From that point on, Napoleon’s Marshals (generals) were the best in the world.They would lead their soldiers into battle and win the majority of their skirmishes. However it was Napoleon who was directing the strategy – and he was always on the battlefield. The rest of Europe’s monarchs avoided going into battle themselves – they were content to send their generals out to do the fighting, while they stayed at home in the comfort of their palaces or hid themselves far away from the fighting. This wasn’t Napoleon’s style. He was always on the march with his troops because he knew that he couldn’t direct strategy from a palace. He had to see the battlefield for himself so he could call the plays in the moment.

How many CEOs are on the battlefield every day with their troops? How many of them are talking directly to customers, to partners, to clients and suppliers, every day? How many of them are rolling up their sleeves and getting their hands dirty? From my experience, not many. Most are content to hide away in their offices and board rooms and make decisions remotely. It’s no wonder, then, that many lose their way.

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Napoleon also knew how to motivate his troops. He gave good speech. Take, for example, this speech to his Army of Italy in 1796, delivered before the Battle of Lodi, while he was still only humble General Bonaparte, not yet Emperor.

“SOLDIERS! You have precipitated yourselves like a torrent from the Apennines. You have overwhelmed or swept before you all that opposed your march. Piedmont, delivered from Austrian oppression, has returned to her natural sentiments of peace and friendship toward France. Milan is yours, and over all Lombardy floats the flag of the Republic. To your generosity only do the Dukes of Parma and of Modena now owe their political existence. The army which proudly threatened you finds no remaining barrier of defense against your courage. The Po, the Tessino, the Adda, could not stop you a single day. Those vaunted ramparts of Italy proved insufficient; you traversed them as rapidly as you did the Apennines. Successes so numerous and brilliant have carried joy to the heart of your country! Your representatives have decreed a festival, to be celebrated in all the communes of the Republic, in honor of your victories. There will your fathers, mothers, wives, sisters, all who hold you dear, rejoice over your triumphs, and boast that you belong to them. Yes, soldiers, you have done much; but much still remains for you to do. Shall it be said of us that we knew how to conquer, but not to profit by victory? Shall posterity reproach us with having found a Capfia in Lombardy? Nay, fellow soldiers! I see you already eager to cry “To arms!” Inaction fatigues you! and days lost to glory are to you days lost to happiness. Let us, then, begone! We have yet many forced marches to make, enemies to vanquish, laurels to gather, and injuries to avenge! Let those who have sharpened the poniards of civil war in France, who have pusillanimously assassinated our ministers, who have burned our vessels at Toulon—let them now tremble! The hour of vengeance has knolled! But let not the people be disquieted. We are the friends of every people: and more especially of the descendants of the Brutuses, the Scipios, and other great men to whom we look as bright exemplars. To reestablish the Capitol; to place there with honor the statues of the heroes who made it memorable; to rouse the Roman people, unnerved by many centuries of oppression—such will be some of the fruits of our victories. They will constitute an epoch for posterity. To you, soldiers, will belong the immortal honor of redeeming the fairest portion of Europe. The French people, free and respected by the whole world, shall give to Europe a glorious peace, which shall indemnify it for all the sacrifices which it has borne the last six years. Then, by your own firesides you shall repose; and your fellow citizens, when they point out any one of you, shall say: “He belonged to the army of Italy!”

Notice that he starts by building them up, talking about their triumphs (not his) and their courage. He then urges them to continue: “… Much still remains for you to do.” He doesn’t manage them. He doesn’t threaten. He asks how posterity shall view them. He claims that they are the ones who want to keep fighting: “… I see you already eager to cry “To arms!“…” Who can, after hearing that speech, refuse to continue marching? He finishes by asking them to imagine their own future, back home in France, and how they will feel when people recognise them as a member of the army of Italy. He’s always building the dream.

Of course, these Frenchmen were fighting for their country. There is an inherent motivation when you are fighting an enemy who wants to invade your land and force their choice of ruler over your and your family. So Napoleon’s troops had existing motivation – much as your employees want to earn money to pay their bills. However, Napoleon knew this wasn’t enough. He wanted… NEEDED to get the most out of his army. He needed to build the dream. He told them they could all be heroes. In 1802 Napoleon invented the “Legion Of Honour”, a reward to commend civilians and soldiers for Napoleon believed France wanted a recognition of merit. Napoleon famously declared, “You call these baubles, well, it is with baubles that men are led… Do you think that you would be able to make men fight by reasoning? Never. That is good only for the scholar in his study. The soldier needs glory, distinctions, rewards.”

What recognition of merit do you use to motivate your troops?

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SUMMARY

So remember these three lessons from Napoleon that can be applied to every business:

#1. Worry in private. Exhibit calmness in front of your troops.

#2. Develop your strategies for dealing with the enemy in advance of meeting them in battle.

#3. Develop good generals and rewards your troops for merit but always lead from the front.

 

by Cameron Reilly

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