The Problem With the Napoleonic Leader

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), typically looking somber and preoccupied

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), typically looking somber and preoccupied

Napoleon Bonaparte, emperor of France, has been hailed as a great military tactician and strategist but is also often dismissed as a failed statesman. Historians will be quick to point out his failures, particularly in Spain, against England, and in his management of the disastrous invasion of Russia as examples of the latter. The more the empire grew, the less Napoleon was able to manage its government and defenses. Napoleon’s most significant flaw was actually his petulant, uncompromising and absolute rule over his own generals. Only those who followed his orders to the letter rose in rank, thus creating a leadership cadre of insecure and indecisive generals. Napoleon’s success on the battle field was through quick, decisive, and violent action, but this was not conducive to governing a growing empire.

After the battle of Marengo in 1805, Napoleon needed to shift his energies away from the battlefield and appoint trusted subordinates to key positions throughout the empire. As a general on the battlefield, Napoleon was extremely successful, but that was because he delegated very little – his instructions were absolute. When he finally did need to delegate to capable and trusted subordinates, he had few he could count on because he had not cultivated independent, confident and skilled public servants. He had only trained obeying soldiers because that is what he needed on the battlefield, but not what he needed to rule.

Following a Napoleonic style of leadership today can lead to quick successes, but this becomes problematic when the environment changes, as it inevitably will after those successes. If the sum of a leader’s skills lie in quick, decisive and authoritarian action, then what happens when they need to delegate? Are they wise enough to give up some of their absolute power to focus on those things they are best at? What if what they are best at is not leadership and they, as well as the people, are better off having another be the leader? Are they wise enough to accept that?

Napoleon did not have the wisdom to see such thing and he failed miserably. The destruction and devastation across France was so crippling that one can argue they never recovered, from it, even today 200+ year later. Can we at least admit that some our own leaders today suffer from the same malady? If so, do we need to weather through the humiliation of a Russian Campaign to see that? If not, will there be a Waterloo to finally bring the message home?

This blog post was previously published in The Gigster 'Zine, our free newsletter discussing new and innovative part-time opportunities & strategies for anyone with a college degree. To sign up for the newsletter, click here.
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