December 28, 2017

Napoleon Bonaparte


Hello and welcome to How to Take Over The World, this is Ben Wilson.

  • For this first episode we’re going to be talking about Napoleon Bonaparte, the French general, king, emperor, and reformer.
  • To start off with why am I doing this, my very first episode of How To Take Over the World, about Napoleon? I think many people know him as nothing more than the short angry guy. So it might seem like a strange place to start. Well there are a few reasons to start with Napoleon.
  • The first is his absolute brilliance and the volume of his accomplishments. I want you to think of what you would consider a successful life. What do you hope to do before you die? Maybe starting a successful business? What about founding a university? That would be pretty big, right? What about becoming president?
  • Well Napoleon went from being a penniless refugee in a foreign country to becoming emperor of the largest empire since Ancient Rome. His empire stretched from Spain to Poland, from Denmark to Italy.
  • He won 54 of his 62 battles, despite almost always being outnumbered.
  • He pioneered new military innovations.
  • He reformed the legal code in France and directly supervised or inspired the same process in a number of other nations.
  • He founded multiple universities and schools spanning two continents.
  • He modernized the French bureaucracy.
  • He founded two newspapers. He wrote novels and political propaganda.
  • And there’s more. The volume of his accomplishment is truly mind-blowing. So I wanted to see and to learn, how could someone do SOOO much in one lifetime?
  • The other reason I wanted to focus on Napoleon is he falls in an interesting time in history. On the one hand, he’s the last great conqueror. You think of these guys who established great European and Mediterranean empires. People like Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, Cyrus the Great. And Napoleon is the last man to single-handedly create an empire out of nothing like that. So in some ways he feels very ancient. It’s easy to project him backwards and compare him to guys like that.
  • But on the other hand in some ways he feels very modern. You know you look at what he was doing all day and most days it was making plans, having meetings, and reading and writing letters. And what does a modern CEO do? Well mostly they make plans, have meetings, and read and write emails. Some of his greatest innovations were in very modern areas, like supply chain and organizational structure. He had the first modern chief of staff, like a CEO would have. So when you listen to his life story, it’s also easy to project him forward and compare him to guys like Warren Buffet or Elon Musk. And he’s the only guy I can think of who’s easy to compare to both Alexander the Great and Warren Buffet. So I wanted to start with him because he’s an easy point of comparison for everyone else we will talk about, no matter the time period.
  • Before we get started, I want to give special thanks to Andrew Roberts and David Markham, both of whose research and writing I use heavily in this episode. The number one source I consulted is the excellent biography “Napoleon: A Life” by Andrew Roberts. And I quote from it extensively in this episode.
  • I also want to briefly note that Napoleon’s life is way too dense and complex to cover in one episode of a podcast. So there is a lot I leave out. I’m 100% focused on teasing out the elements of his personality, habits, approach, and leadership style that made him great. So if you notice something missing, for example I leave out the entire war of the fifth coalition, please know I didn’t just forget about it, but I have limited time and some things had to be skipped.
  • Okay! So having got all that out of the way, I present to you episode 1: Napoleon Bonaparte.


  • Let’s start with the background. Who was this Napoleon guy?
  • He was born in 1769. Napoleon comes onto the scene at a time of rapid change. Europe is ruled by Kings and Queens, but that’s about to be up-ended by the French Revolution. Warfare is rapidly changing. You have battles being fought with cannons and muskets, but also with bayonets and sometimes even with pikes and swords. Some of these weapons are very modern, but then in the same battle you will have these cavalry charges where men on horses with swords are charging at the enemy. So those are the times into which Napoleon is born.
  • He was born on the island of Corsica. His birth name was Napoleone de Buonaparte. And if you’re thinking to yourself “That doesn’t sound very French.” You’re right. Corsica is an island that is off the coast of both Italy and France. It’s about the same distance from both. And for most of its history it was, for all intents and purposes, Italian. The language spoken on the island, Corsican, is an Italian dialect. But Napoleon is born a French citizen because Corsica became a part of France in 1769, the same year he was born.
  • So Napoleon was, in many ways, an outsider and a foreigner in France. He didn’t learn French until he was 9 or 10 and always spoke it with a heavy accent. By the way if you’re asking yourself, “You said he was born Napoleone de Buonparte, so why do I know him as Napoleon Bonaparte?” it’s because he changed his name when he became a general to sound more French.
  • As a boy, Napoleon was bright. One of the things that’s interesting to think about is: Are these kinds of people DESTINED FOR GREATNESS? Are they just born to take over the world, or do they develop that ability? And, at least in Napoleon’s case, it seems it was at least somewhat developed. If you read the reliable first-hand accounts from his family members, everyone thought he was smart, but no one had any idea that he would be an emperor or some sort of great man who would affect history. I mean, no one on Corsica had those kinds of dreams. It was an unimportant backwater. And, by the way, while we’re talking about his origins, let’s dispel a myth about Napoleon: He wasn’t that short. He was about 5’7” which was average height for a commoner, maybe a little short for an officer. But Napoleon was sort of medium to medium-short, and the whole thing about him being this short angry man, and the Napoleon complex and all that, was just propaganda. His height was just not a big deal in his life. And this isn’t me just sticking up for a short guy. I’m 6’4” I have no dog in this fight but that’s just the truth. Sorry to disillusion you from what you know about the Napoleon complex.
  • The Buonapartes were a prominent family on the island and that was good enough to entitle Napoleon to a royal education. So when he was nine years old they’re able to ship him off to a boarding school to get a good education in France. And again, he’s viewed as bright. More intelligent than average at an elite institution. But not as the most brilliant guy in the world. The remarks that his examiner gave on his referral papers upon graduation are positive but not ecstatic. He said, in part quote “He has always been distinguished for his application in mathematics. He is fairly well acquainted with history and geography. This boy would make an excellent sailor.” I like his rather modest origins because it gives me hope. I’ve done a few semi-cool things but I’m not a billionaire yet. And Napoleon didn’t do anything all that remarkable until he was in his mid to late 20s. And the point is not that you need to have accomplished anything by your mid to late 20s but rather that greatness can be cultivated at any time in life.
  • So after this boarding school he gains admission to the elite ecole militaire. (Apologize for pronunciation). And he graduates in just one year. After graduation he takes some minor posts of little note. 
  • And during this time the French revolution occurs. The revolutionaries take control of the government, do away with the king, and establish a Republic. And the whole thing is very bloody. They kill the king. They exile or kill most of the nobles. And the kings and queens of other nations in Europe are looking at this and they don’t like it at all. You can imagine if you’re a king in Germany or England or Austria, you don’t like the precedent being set here of throwing out the king and killing him. So many of them declare war on France. They want to stamp this thing out before it spreads and people start getting ideas elsewhere in Europe.
  • These outside countries who are declaring war on France, one of the things they try to do is ally with people still loyal to the king inside France. The revolution isn’t popular everywhere. That’s especially true in the countryside and areas of France that are far from Paris. One place where this plays out is a city called Toulon. And there are a lot of people there still loyal to the crown. So the British are able to sail their fleet into the harbor at Toulon and with the help of some royalists, the people still loyal to the king, take and hold the city.
  • Well, the French send forces to siege Toulon, to try to take it back. And at first things don’t go particularly well. They don’t have very good or very active commanders, so they’re just sitting there. But that’s not going to work because Toulon is a port, and the British are just sailing supplies in so you can’t just starve them out.
  • Well they start to realize, hey we need some new leadership here if this is going to be successful. So they’re looking for new leadership. They’re especially looking for a new artillery commander. Now Napoleon had caught the eye of a couple higher-ups because of a political pamphlet he had written. Napoleon was a very progressive guy and strongly supported the revolution. And he had written this very pro-revolution pamphlet. It had caught the eye of a higher-up named Augustin Robespierre, and he really liked it. So he’s already looking for an opportunity to give Napoleon a chance. And so here at Toulon they say, hey things aren’t exactly working out, let’s put this Napoleon guy in charge of the artillery and see if he can make something happen.
  • And this is where you first start to see Napoleon. You start to see the habits and characteristics that make him great. The first thing he does is come in and takes a look at his cannons and says “This is it?” It’s pitiful. It’s a ragtag group of cannons. And the horses who pull them are poorly trained and the men don’t really know what they’re doing, and there’s not nearly enough gunpowder or cannon balls. And rather than accepting this and saying, “Well make the best of a bad situation, I guess” he decides that this isn’t enough. So he starts doing everything in his power to get better supplied. He starts writing back to Paris where the government is based and saying “Hey, we need more of everything. More gunpowder, more cannons, more horses.” And he keeps pestering them for more stuff all throughout the siege. He also sends men out to the countryside and has them go to the nearby towns and see what they can scrounge up, and they do find a few extra cannons that way. He takes cannons from city walls of nearby cities that aren’t currently seeing combat. He takes control of a foundry and starts manufacturing more ammunition himself. I love this, the guy is so fixated on getting more supplies that when he doesn’t have enough and the army won’t supply it, he says “Forget it. I’ll manufacture it myself.” And all these little things work. I’m reading from the Andrew Roberts biography now, he says quote “The result of all this hectoring, bluster, requisitioning, and political string-pulling was that Napoleon put together a strong artillery train in very short order. By the end of the siege Napoleon commanded eleven batteries totaling nearly one hundred cannon and mortars.” (By the way he used the term battery, which is something you’ll hear throughout the episode, and that’s just a unit of cannons). Well at the same time as all this, he’s training his men and using a very hands on, personal style of leadership. One of the generals who are in charge of the siege overall, who has supervision over Napoleon wrote “I always found him at his post; when he needed rest he lay on the ground wrapped in his cloak: he never left his batteries.” That was one of Napoleon’s skills. His ability to really focus on and obsess over a problem. This isn’t some commander who is telling other men what to do during the day and then enjoying a nice meal with the other officers at night. He’s obsessed with getting this right. He’s working on getting his cannons ready day and night and when he gets so tired he can’t work anymore, he just pulls his cloak around him and sleeps there on the spot by the cannons. Imagine if you’re one of the men working under Napoleon, you’re going to be working pretty hard too, to try to keep up.
  • Well once Napoleon has his battery in order, he turns his eye toward an actual attack. And what is needed isn’t terribly complicated, strategically. There are two high points in the city of Toulon, and if you control them, you have the ability to fire your cannons down on the rest of the city. This is obvious to everyone so the British have heavily fortified these two high points. Napoleon plans, organizes, and launches multiple assaults on these hills. And, true to form, he personally leads the attack, at great risk to himself. At one point his horse is shot out from under him. Another time he is stabbed through the thigh by a pike. In another instance one of the men manning the cannons is shot, so Napoleon picks up his gloves and ramrod and starts helping to fire the cannon himself. He exposes himself to a lot of danger but this inspires his men. You can imagine if you’re a soldier and you’ve got some commander saying “Go take that fort” but he’s not willing to go himself, you’d be more skeptical than with a commander who is leading the charge and be there with you. Well, Napoleon is able to take these two hills. Once they have taken the hills they start firing heated cannonballs down onto the British Navy. They destroy a number of ships and completely eject them from Toulon. As sort of an exclamation mark, one of the cannon balls hits the gunpowder storage on one of the ships at it explodes into a giant fireball.
  • The siege of Toulon ends up being a huge victory for the French and Napoleon is seen by the government as something of a hero. They love the guy. So they make him a general at the very young age of 24. And now his career really starts to take off.

General Bonaparte

  • After Toulon, Napoleon is brought back to Paris where he helps plan grand strategy for the French military. And while he is there in Paris, something really important happens. As I previously mentioned, not everyone was happy with the French Revolution and in many ways it had not been going particularly well so far. In particular, the Revolutionary government had implemented some reforms that were antagonistic toward the Catholic church, and these were extremely unpopular. So some people want to throw out the revolutionaries and put the king back. Other don’t want to go that far but they’re united by this idea that the current government has to go. Eventually the government realizes that they are in serious danger and that there’s about to be another revolution in Paris. So they come to Napoleon and tell him “you’re in charge of saving the government. Keep us safe, stop a counter-revolution from happening.” Well, Napoleon flies into action. The first thing he does is ask where the cannons are. Well, stupidly, they’re not in Paris, they’re a few miles outside. So Napoleon sends out his cavalry and tells them to ride as fast as they can and bring the cannons into Paris immediately. They take off, and get there to retrieve the cannons just before the royalists show up and bring the cannons back to Paris. This is one of those moments that, looking back, could have changed everything. I mean the cavalry literally get there within minutes of the rebels. If they’re 15 minutes later, there’s a chance the Napoleonic saga never occurs. When it came to the choice between extensive planning and immediate action, Napoleon almost always chose immediate action.
  • Now to understand Napoleon’s mindset with what is going to happen next, you have to understand that he had actually been there at the Tuileries palace when the king was taken at the beginning of the French revolution. And the King had refused to let his men fire on the mob because they were his subjects and he didn’t want to shoot his own subjects. Well for his kindness he had his head chopped and all of his personal bodyguards were massacred. Napoleon isn’t about to let that happen again, because he’s on the government’s side now. And understandably, he wants to keep his head.
  • With this in mind, Napoleon sets the cannons up in the streets outside the government buildings. And the mobs start to pour out of the side streets and toward Napoleon and his men. Keep in mind there is no army in Paris, so Napoleon only has a few men. And he has the cannons loaded up with canister shot. You think of cannons as firing cannon balls but at close range you could basically use them as shot guns. Instead of loading a cannon ball, you load a canvas bag packed with tiny metal balls. It was informally known as grapeshot because these tiny cannon balls were about the size of grapes. And at short range it was just devastating. Instead of the area of one cannon ball, it could wipe out an entire swath of people. 
  • Well legend has it that Napoleon says, as this mob is advancing toward his men “Give them a whiff of grape shot.” It’s likely he never actually said that, but it’s quite poetic. And it does reflect some of the realities that Napoleon believe about warfare. He later did say quote “If you treat the mob with kindness, these creatures fancy themselves invulnerable; if you hang a few, they get tired of the game, and become as submissive and humble as they ought to be.” His viewpoint was it’s better to be very harsh and kill some people at the beginning of an insurrection than to let it carry on and turn into a full on war in which a bunch of people are going to suffer and die. In any case, this whiff of grapeshot works. Only about a half dozen of his men die. About 300 revolutionaries are killed. After Napoleon’s men shoot a few rounds of grapeshot they scatter and their revolution dissolves. The government is saved. And Napoleon is a hero.
  • Well the government is extremely grateful to Napoleon. They’re very glad to still have their heads. So because of this episode, they reward Napoleon by putting him in charge of an army for the first time. He gets put in command of the Army of Italy. Now really quickly I should clarify the way these things are named because some of you are probably thinking “Wait what? Why is he in charge of the Italian army now?” The French were fighting on a few different fronts at this time with a few different enemies because a bunch of people were trying to come after them. The forces in each distinct area were referred to as an army, and the armies were called by the location they was fighting in. So if it was fighting in the alps, it was called the army of the alps. If it was fighting in Germany, it was called the Army of Germany. You get the idea. So the army of Italy is the French army, fighting in Italy. And why are they fighting in Italy? Well the Austrian empire was one of the great empires of the day, they controlled most of central and eastern Europe, and they are trying to cross Italy and punish France for their revolution. So the French are fighting them there, in Italy.
  • Napoleon comes into command of the Army of Italy and he immediately sees that, like Toulon, they’re in bad shape. They are poorly equipped. They lack shoes and sufficient ammunition. The men are upset because they haven’t been paid what they’ve been promised and they never get paid on time. They haven’t been moving or fighting for quite a while so the men are complacent and lazy. It’s a bad situation all around.
  • And what Napoleon does with the army of Italy is, in my opinion, one of the greatest examples of his leadership. He’s only 26, he’s got very little experience, and he’s supposed to take over this huge army that has a number of commanders who are nearly twice his age with way more experience. Some of them have been commanding armies for almost as long as he’s been alive, and he’s supposed to be giving them orders! And furthermore he got this post not through being a great battlefield commander, but by putting down a mob in Paris. So the generals who he’s supposed to be commanding are not favorably disposed toward him. I’ve been put in situations like this, where I started a job with a new company as a manager. You come into a new organization as a leader, and you have very little experience in this particular organization, it’s tough to get credibility. Especially if you’re young. Well this is what he does when he comes into command. Here’s a quote from one of his fellow officers who was there when he first comes and takes command, quote “I can still see the little hat, surmounted by a pickup plume, his coat cut anyhow, and a sword which, in truth, did not seem the sort of weapon to make anyone’s fortune. Flinging his hat on a large table in the middle of the room, he went up to an old general named Krieg, a man with a wonderful knowledge of detail and the author of a very good soldiers’ manual. He made him take a seat beside him at the table, and began questioning him, pen in hand, about a host of facts connected with the service and discipline. Some of his questions showed such a complete ignorance of the most ordinary things that several of my comrades smiled. I was myself struck by the number of his questions, their order and their rapidity. But what struck me still more was the sight of a commander-in-chief perfectly indifferent about showing his subordinates how completely ignorant he was of various points of a business which the youngest of them was supposed to know perfectly, and this raised him a thousand cubits in my opinion.” Now you might be wondering, shouldn’t you show confidence as a leader? Why is he basically admitting to being ignorant. Napoleon has this confidence. He knows he’s smart. At this point, he’s pretty sure he’s a good leader. So he doesn’t really care about looking stupid. He doesn’t have to pretend like he knows things he doesn’t know. Think about it this way, if you’re interviewing someone for a position, who’s most likely to be totally honest about their flaws? It’s the guy who knows he’s qualified. He knows he’s got the goods. He doesn’t need to embellish, he can just say “Here’s who I am. Weaknesses and strengths.” So Napoleon isn’t afraid to admit to where he has gaps in his knowledge. Here’s another quote from a different officer on what happened as soon as he took command: “He questioned us on the position of our divisions, their equipment, the spirit and active number of each corps, gave us the directions that we had to follow, announced that, the next day he would inspect all the corps and that the day after that they would march on the enemy to give battle.” It’s such an interesting decision, isn’t it? His army is undersupplied and in bad spirits and he says “Step 1, we’re going to go attack the enemy. Right away.” Now he is still doing exactly what he did at Toulon at the same time, you know he’s flying into a rage, writing back to Paris “DO YOU WANT US TO FAIL? THIS IS A DISGRACE! WE NEED SHOES WE NEED UNIFORMS, WE NEED GUNPOWDER” and he writes these letters, pestering them for more supplies over and over again. But he doesn’t wait for all the supplies to arrive. He marches right away. I think there are a number of reasons for this. He was extremely impatient. He loved speed. He always wanted to move faster, surprise the enemy. He was obsessed with moving his army quickly. But a big part of this was morale. The spirits of his troops. Napoleon later said quote “In war, moral factors account for three-quarters of the whole, relative material strength accounts for only one-quarter.” Now your first thought might be well wait a minute, how is marching these grumpy, underpaid, undersupplied soldier right into battle going to improve their morale? If anything you think it would decrease it. We’re undersupplied and underpaid and now we’re also getting shot at and killed?? But he knew that inactivity bred inactivity. He wanted his troops to get used to marching and fighting. He didn’t want them to stay lazy. And fighting might hurt morale if you lose, but there are few things that improve it as much as fighting and winning. And he had confidence that he was going to win.
  • Well it turns out he’s right. He marches his little army into Italy and really has no problem kicking the Austrians around. One way he does this is by adopting what comes to be called the strategy of the central position. There’s a quote from Napoleon that gives a pretty good summary of the philosophy behind it, quote “During the Revolutionary wars the plan was to stretch out, to end columns to the right and left, which did no good. To tell you the truth, the thing that made me gain so many battles was the evening before a fight, instead of giving orders to extend our lines, I tried to converge all our forces on the point I wanted to attack. I massed them there.” So the Austrians are trying to spread out their army while Napoleon is trying to concentrate his. What happens time and again is Napoleon will march toward the Austrians with a smaller army. Let’s say 30,000 men against their 40,000. And their strategy is to try to envelop him. So they send 20,000 to the left, and 20,000 to the right, thinking to attack him from both sides. Well as I previously mentioned, Napoleon is a fast marcher. He was obsessed with covering more miles per day. He did a number of things to get his men to be able to move faster: He had them live off the land instead of waiting for supply wagons. He would force march them. Have them sleep under the stars instead of taking the time to set up and take down tents. Sometimes he would even march his men all night. So when the Austrians split up he just marches right into the middle of their trap and very quickly, turns, beats one half of their army, which isn’t too hard because now he’s got more troops, and before they have a chance to spring the trap he then turns around and marches back and beats the other half of their army. And this strategy is totally revolutionary at the time. 
  • So he’s beating up on the Austrians in Italy and they start to retreat from him. And as they do he has one of the most important battle of his career at a place called Lodi. As the Austrians retreat, they leave a small rear guard in this town, Lodi. This town sits right on a river and only has one narrow bridge. So they think they can keep Napoleon from chasing them with a small detachment because you can defend a bridge with very few men. And you can understand why. Think about what it would be like to charge across this bridge. They’ve got cannons set up at the end, and you are going to be marching right at them. If you’re at the front of the charge, you’re basically marching into certain death. They’re firing grapeshot and mowing down you and your friends as you come across. If you make it through the cannon fire, then they’ve got infantry firing muskets at you. And if by some miracle you make it through the musket fire and get across the bridge, then you’re going to be charged by cavalry who are going to run you over and stab you. And if you somehow survive that, well you still haven’t even started fighting yet, you’re just at the other side of the bridge. You still have to fight a battle. Well at the battle of Lodi, Napoleon is spectacular. He’s on the ground in the action. He’s personally leading attacks. He’s helping to position and fire artillery. It’s at this battle that he gains a new nickname. Here’s this big important general and he’s literally on the ground positioning cannons himself, so they call him Le Petit Corporal. A corporal is a very low ranking officer so they’re jokingly saying “He’s like a corporal out here moving around artillery.” It’s a term of affection. They view him as a soldier’s commander. Someone not afraid to get his hands dirty. By the way, he loved the nickname and encouraged it. So Napoleon is out there on the ground positioning cannon, and it comes time to storm the bridge. He gives this great speech to his men and whips them into a fury and sends them across this bridge. They are thrown back a number of times in this brutal, bloody crossing, but eventually they make it across and take the bridge. Napoleon later said of this battle “I no longer regarded myself as a simple general, but as a man called upon to decide the fate of peoples. It came to me then that I really could become a decisive actor on our national stage. At that point was born the first spark of high ambition.” You wonder why it was this moment. I think it’s because before this, he knew what he personally could do. But now he sees that he can inspire other men to do great things. And so for the first time starts to think “Huh, maybe I am special.”
  • Well he goes on and continues to kick the Austrians around Italy. One of my favorite stories is of a battle where the Austrians counter-attack the French. And for a while it’s looking a dicey, but this French division, the 32nd demi-brigade is able to just barely hold the line and eventually beat them back. When Napoleon is asked what he was thinking when this happened he says quote “I was tranquil. The brave 32nd Demi-Brigade was there.” I mean think about it if you’re in that demi-brigade. This rising star general who is quickly becoming famous throughout all of Europe says that about you and your brigade. I wasn’t worried. The 32nd was there. He’s deflecting his credit to you. Think of the pride that would stir in you. What would you do for a man who said that? Consequently, they had those words sewn into all their flags and became some of his most reliable and fierce soldiers, as you can imagine. It just goes to show how well he could use his words to inspire men, which was one of his most important attributes.
  • So the Austrians were marching through Italy to attack France, but they’re soon finding the situation flipped on them. And the Austrians had been ruling Italy previously, and as Napoleon conquers these areas, he implements major reforms. He gives them new constitutions with Republican governments instead of princes and kings. And he makes other reforms as well, listen to what he does in just one area, Lombardy. Again from the Roberts biography, quote “He established the Lombardic Republic, abolished Austrian governing institutions, reformed Pavia University, held provisional municipal elections, founded a National Guard, and conferred with the leading Milanese advocate of Italian unification.” How is he able to do all of this at the same time as organizing and leading a major army? I love Napoleon’s own description of how his mind worked. He said, “Different subjects and different affairs are arranged in my head as in a cupboard. When I wish to interrupt one train of thought, I shut that drawer and open another. Do I wish to sleep? I simply close all the drawers, and there I am – asleep.” One of his staff phrased it a little differently, he said quote “We all admired the strength of mind and the facility with which he could take off or fix the whole force of his attention on whatever he pleased.” Napoleon had amazing control of his own mind and could flip his whole attention on something and forget everything else in the world.
  • Well after he kicks the Austrians out of Italy and defeats their forces, he turns his army toward their capital, Vienna. And he only has to march a short way before they come to him and say “You know what sounds pretty great right now? Peace.” And Napoleon negotiates the peace with them. Now this is pretty significant. Remember, he’s just a general. He shouldn’t be negotiating a peace between France and Austria. But he’s starting to get a little political.
  • So he comes back to Paris and the people are ecstatic. He’s the hero of France. And the directory, the government in charge, is pretty anxious to see him out of Paris. He’s way too popular for them to try to make a move against him or anything like that, but they don’t want him in a position where he could potentially overthrow them. Remember he’s both very popular, and with the peace he just negotiated, it’s clear that he has political ambitions. Well there had been some plans lying around for an invasion of Egypt. The purported purpose of this invasion is to disrupt British interests in the Middle East. And all of the sudden this seems like a great idea. Egypt is very far away. It’s a chance to give Napoleon a command that seems prestigious while also getting him as far away as possible. And it’s attractive to Napoleon as well. He adored, practically worshiped, men like Alexander the Great and Caesar. Most of those guys had had military adventures in the near east, and he was anxious to emulate them. So he gets sent off across the Mediterranean with an army to invade Egypt.
  • I’m going to breeze through the invasion of Egypt pretty quickly because it doesn’t contribute significantly to Napoleon’s rise to power, or his fall from grace. Napoleon and his army hop aboard a fleet of ships to cross the Mediterranean. It’s worth mentioning that he’s doing his usual reforming thing on the way. They stop at Malta, which is a little island right in the middle of the Mediterranean, for six days. And this is what he does in six days. Quoting again from the Roberts biography: “In his six days in Malta he replaced the island’s medieval administration with a governing council; dissolved the monasteries; introduced street lighting and paving; freed all political prisoners; installed fountains and reformed the hospitals, postal service and university, which was now to teach science as well as the humanities.” When he lands in Egypt he does pretty much the same thing, building schools and universities, reforming, you get the picture. Capturing Egypt proved to not be terribly difficult. The existing regime there is pretty backwards in terms of technology and organized fighting force. He marches north against the Ottomans who are much better organized and armed than the Egyptians and has a tough time with them. He’s pushed back but is eventually able to settle down in Egypt and hold it. However, there’s a big problem, which is that shortly after the army arrived in Egypt, the British navy showed up and destroyed the French fleet. This leaves them stranded and so they’re not really able to do anything. They have conquered Egypt but they just kind of have to hang out there. And in the meantime, war has started up in earnest again in Europe. And France is not fairing well. It doesn’t make a lot of sense for their best general to be stuck in a sideshow across the Mediterranean, so Napoleon boards a small, quick vessel, and races across the Mediterranean. Luckily, he isn’t caught by the British navy. From our perspective a couple hundred years later, Egypt was sort of a mixed success. It’s really a pointless side adventure that doesn’t accomplish a whole lot. But remember, Napoleon is a master of propaganda. So he returns a year later and he’s telling everyone that it was a smashing success. And the French are so happy to see him return and what it means for their prospects on the home front that they don’t really care. They’re happy to believe that he’s this masterful conqueror of Egypt and they give him a hero’s welcome when he arrives.
  • Back in Paris, the government is teetering. Their finances are not sound, they’re losing ground in the wars they’re fighting, the economy isn’t doing well… And everyone knows the government is on edge. There are multiple plots to overthrow it going on. And Napoleon walks into this environment in a very strong position, and he decides that what France needs is a little more Napoleon. He joins up with a few other co-conspirators and throws a nice little coup d’état. He puts himself in power, and it starts out as a supposedly Republican government but they go through a few iterations relatively quickly and he ends up as a de-facto dictator, though he’s still called “First Consul”, a title that harkens back to the Roman Republic. Remember it’s still only a few years on from the French Revolution, so he needs to keep up the pretense that this is a continuation of it. 
  • Now you might be asking yourself, couldn’t people see through this? Well yes, on a certain level they could. Well then why are people okay with this?  Didn’t they just go through a revolution so they would have an elected government? Well yes they did, but at this point they were so tired of a highly dysfunctional government that they were willing to make some compromises. And remember, at this time, bad government is more serious than it is today. When we think about bad government now, we think about having to wait in line at the post office. When they thought of bad government, they thought of not having enough money to buy bread and starving to death. Even so, not everyone was cool with it, by the way. There would be plots against Napoleon’s life over the coming months and years. Regardless Napoleon becomes first consul and you can probably guess what kind of stuff he does next. He gets busy reforming, as usual. Quote “In less than fifteen weeks Napoleon effectively ended the French Revolution, gave France a new constitution, established her finances on a sound footing, muzzled the opposition press, started to end both rural brigandage and the long-running war in the Vendee, set up a senate, Tribunate, Legislative Body and Conseil d’Etat, rebuffed the Bourbons, made spurned peace offers to Britain and Austria, reorganized French local government, and inaugurated the Banque de France.”
  • Well despite all this, the French are still not doing great on the battle field. The Austrians are back in Italy, and without Napoleon there to lead the troops the Austrians are winning. So what does Napoleon do next? There’s a quote of Napoleon’s that I like, he said “A newly born government must dazzle and astonish, when it ceases to do that, it fails.” And it was time for him to do exactly that. He’s going back to Italy.
  • Now in order to understand what happens next, you need to know a little bit about the geography of the area. France and Italy have a history of warfare going back thousands of years, literally to the time of Julius Caesar who invaded modern day France from Rome. Probably before that, too. And there are really only two ways to get back and forth. You can go next to the coast through a region called Piedmont. It’s a nice, flat plains the whole way; Perfect for marching your troops. This is the route 99% of armies take. To the north you have Switzerland and the alps. And the alps are very high, very treacherous mountains. But it is possible to go over them. It had really only been done twice. Hannibal did it when he was invading Rome, and Charlemagne did it about a thousand years before Napoleon. And the reason no one does it is kind of obvious. They’re big steep mountains and a big snowstorm at the wrong time can really damage your army. Or a landslide. Or any number of things. Taking your army over very high mountains is treacherous. But Napoleon being the master organizer and planner that he is, manages to pull it off. He shows up out of nowhere behind the Austrians. And at first they can’t believe it. They think it must just be a small detachment. Napoleon wrote back to his brother quote “We have struck like lightning. The enemy wasn’t expecting anything like it and can hardly believe it. Great events are going to take place.” Well there’s some cat-and-mouse, armies searching for each other, and when they finally meet, despite Napoleon’s surprise crossing of the alps, it’s going to be in a pretty difficult circumstance for Napoleon.
  • Napoleon is chasing the main Austrian army and they retreat across a river at the town of Marengo. Napoleon has a spy reporting to him, but the Austrians flip him to a double agent. And he gives Napoleon some bad intelligence, he says, “Oh yeah, they’re definitely retreating.” And so Napoleon splits his army to go looking for them - to try to chase them down. Well, it turns out they’re not retreating. As soon as Napoleon splits his army they turn around and attack his main force. He thinks he’s just facing the rear part of their army at first. It takes him a while to realize what’s going on. But when he does he realizes he’s in serious trouble. They’ve got more men and they’re organized and ready for a serious fight. Napoleon only has half his army and they weren’t expecting a major battle. So Napoleon sends word right away for General Desaix who is leading the right wing of his army and still kind of close by, to turn around and come back ASAP. And in the mean time he’s getting his men to fight very stubbornly. They’re way outnumbered, so they can’t actually win but they’re backing up very slowly and fighting very hard just not to be wiped out. And they entire battle, which goes on for basically the entire day, from 7 AM to 4 PM, they are this close to just turning tail and running. So Napoleon is riding his horse everywhere. He’s all over the field, encouraging his men to not run and to stand and fight. One officer recalled quote “The Consul seemed to brave death and to be near it, for the bullets were seen more than once to drive up the ground between his horse’s legs.” At this time, and for most of history, the reasons battles were won and lost was because people turned and ran. Killing people is hard and it was extremely rare for an army to get wiped out and everyone in it slaughtered. Usually what would happen is they start losing and before long people start looking around saying “I don’t want to die.” And they high-tail it out of there. Napoleon expressed this well, he said “More battles are lost by loss of hope than loss of blood.” So he’s running through the ranks making sure his men don’t lose hope. He’s in good spirits. There are even reports that he was joking around with his commanders. In the face of defeat, he’s trying to exude calm, and make it seem like victory is inevitable. Despite this, basically for nine hours straight his men are on the verge of running, and it’s only his superb leadership that is keeping them from doing so. Well towards the end of the day the Austrians can tell the French are finally about to break, so they form up for a final assault. One last charge to break their lines and make them turn and run. Well as they’re forming up, for the first time, Napoleon looks out and sees the dust rising in the distance, and he knows that Desaix’s men have returned just in the nick of time. Reportedly, he turns to his men and says “We have gone back far enough today.” What a moment. Well when the Austrians charge they expect to encounter exhausted men who are just about ready to run. Instead they encounter a mixture of fresh troops from Desaix, and Napoleon’s men who are newly invigorated because they just saw reinforcements arrive. Not to mention Desaix brought more artillery with him. The Austrians charge and it’s a blood bath. They get counter-charged almost immediately by the French, and the battlefield that it took them a whole day to gain is lost in an hour. They’re routed and the army breaks apart.
  • After the battle of Marengo, the Austrians have to sue for peace. The war in Italy is over in less than a month. It’s a master-stroke from Napoleon. And now he is confirmed in his position and named First Consul for Life. His first move is to make peace with everyone in a treaty called the treaty of Amiens. Not just the Austrians but also the Russians and the British as well and for the first time in Napoleon’s military and political career, France is not at war.
  • So things are looking good for our boy Napoleon. He’s wildly popular. Everyone is sick of war and they’re thrilled with this peace. And so this is when he makes his move to drop the pretense of a republic. He is named emperor of France. In one of the most stunning images in world history, he crowns himself. Usually you would have the Pope, or the last king, or someone already in authority crown you. You want to maintain a sense of continuity. You want to seem like the rightful heir to the throne. But Napoleon didn’t want to recognize anyone as having the authority to say who is ruler of France, so during the coronation ceremony at Notre Dame in Paris he has the crown brought to him, and he takes it and places it on his own head. It definitely displays a certain amount of arrogance, but it is a stunning image of the ultimate self-made man. 
  • But over the next year he makes some mistakes. People keep trying to assassinate him and he gets paranoid. There’s this guy, the Duke of Enghein, who may or may not have been involved in some of the assassination plots. He actually probably wasn’t. But Napoleon thought he was. This duke of Enghein lived in a place called Baden, and Napoleon has him kidnapped and executed. This makes rulers throughout Europe very upset because for one, this violates Baden’s sovereignty and secondly because, after the French revolution, they’re pretty touchy about aristocrats being executed. Throw on top of that the fact that he was probably innocent. Additionally there are some territorial disputes going on with the British and so peace breaks down and everyone goes to war. 
  • Now again, the odds are stacked against him. The major players in Europe are France, Britain, Austria, Russia, and Prussia which corresponds kind of to Germany. The British are the first to declare war, and then they get everyone except for Prussia to declare war on France as well. Plus Sweden for good measure. This is called the war of the third coalition. And at this point a normal person would probably give up some concessions to make peace, or, barring that, draw their troops in and prepare some defensive positions. But not Napoleon. The whole world declares war on him and what does he do? He attacks. Now Napoleon has just implemented a totally revolutionary system for organizing his army called the corps system. Typically you would have your infantry, your artillery, and your cavalry, and you’d march them as one army. Well he splits his army up into corps which are units with enough cavalry, cannon, and infantry to survive for one day against the enemy’s main force. This gives him unlimited strategic flexibility. At this time, turning your army and changing front is a very difficult thing to do. But the corps system makes it relatively easy. Well he moves his army so fast and so flexibly that the first Austrian army he encounters, he just marches his men around them, cutting them off from their supply and communication lines and forces them to surrender with very little fighting. There’s a story that a captured Austrian soldier sees Napoleon, and Napoleon is in the mud with the cannons helping to navigate them and giving orders, and he’s surprised. Napoleon is the emperor of one of the largest empires in Europe but he’s wearing a simple uniform that is spattered with mud from having been down with the artillery. The Austrian soldier remarks on this, and Napoleon responds to him, quote “Your master wanted to remind me that I am a soldier. I hope he will own that the imperial purple has not caused me to forget my first trade.” What a cool response. Your emperor wanted to cut me down to size and remind me that I’m just a soldier? Well he was right, I haven’t forgotten I’m a soldier. And a pretty good one, too.
  • Well the Austrians have just surrendered one army but they still have another, and they meet up with the Russians to attack Napoleon and continue the war. And even though he’s captured one army, he’s still outnumbered. And even though they outnumber him, at this point everyone is so scared of Napoleon because he’s such a successful general, that they don’t want to engage him. And Napoleon wants to fight, he wants to end this war and go home. So what does he do? Well in the area where the French and the allied Austrian and Russian armies are operating, in what is now the Czech Republic, there’s this very advantageous area called the Pratzen Heights. And the Pratzen Heights are an elevated plateau, and you really want to possess them because it’s a pretty steep climb to get up there and from there you can fire down on a the surrounding area and organize your army to march down at the enemy. And Napoleon gets there first, he’s got possession of the Pratzen heights. But of course, they’re not going to attack him there. They already don’t want to fight him, but especially not if he has the high ground. So he starts letting on to them, to the allies, that he’s not so sure about engaging them. He does things, like negotiates with a Russian commander and says “Hey we’re not so sure about fighting, maybe we should declare a cease fire?” and as he’s negotiating with this Russian commander, he just so happens to have some order lying around that seem to indicate that they’re about to retreat. They’re not sure they believe it but he retreats off the Pratzen Heights so now they start thinking, “Oh, he seriously doesn’t want to face us.” Because why else would you vacate the best fighting ground in the area? And they’re right, basically no one else would do that. Except for Napoleon. And they fall for it. The closest town to where this battle is fought is called Austerlitz, and the battle of Austerlitz will go down as the greatest battle, the greatest stroke of genius, of Napoleon’s storied career.
  • Napoleon is waiting at the bottom of the Pratzen Heights. Now he’s got a center, right below the Pratzen Heights, a right flank, and a left flank to either side. And he intentionally weakens his right flank to make it an attractive place to attack. But he places good troops there who will be able to defend it for a while even though they’ll be hugely outnumbered, and he places them in a couple of villages where they’ll be able to hide behind walls and in houses and really dig in to defend the place. So on the morning of the battle, the first thing the allies do is attack his right flank, just as he has planned. And the French are defending it stubbornly, just like he wanted. So after a couple hours of fighting the allies decide to send more troops to the right flank to really push through. And most of their troops are at the center up on the Pratzen Heights, so they send troops from the heights towards these villages to attack. Well just below the Pratzen Heights are these sort of rolling ridges. And in the morning there’s quite a bit of fog. And Napoleon has hidden a large portion of his troops at the center, right at the base of the Pratzen Heights, covered in this fog. The allies have no idea that they’re there. Well the timing works out perfectly. Just as the allies move a big chunk of the forces off the Pratzen Heights in order to attack the right wing, the sun comes out and burns off the fog and Napoleon’s hidden forces are revealed. But it’s too late to do anything. He launches a surprise attack on their center and takes the Pratzen Heights. Once he does so, he has effectively split their forces and can bring up his artillery and start firing down on their retreating troops. It’s early December, and some of the retreating Russians and Austrians attempt to flee over a frozen lake, and the French shoot down at the lake, breaking apart the ice and drowning a number of the men. He absolutely smashes their army. Some historians actually think that this is when Napoleon’s downfall started. They think he was so successful at Austerlitz, it was such an incredible success, that he didn’t believe he could lose anymore, and lost his good sense. I don’t find that compelling since he still had a number of incredible victories afterwards, but still it tells you something about just how amazing this victory was for him.
  • Well after Austerlitz, the Austrians have to sue for peace. Which Napoleon grants, but he takes some of their territory as compensation. Russia actually fights on. They still have another army and they join up with the Prussians, who now join the war, to form the fourth coalition. We won’t get into it, but Napoleon marches straight into Prussia, and smashes the allied Prussian and Russian forces in the war of the fourth coalition. He wins major battles at Friedland and Jena, and we won’t get into it because it’s a little anticlimactic after Austerlitz, but they are also impressive, crushing victories.
  • And so everyone makes peace again. This is called the peace of Tilsit, and everyone agrees to it except for Britain, which remains at war with France.
  • This is the height of Napoleon’s power. He has taken land from Russsia, Prussia, and Austria. He controls what is now France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherland, and Switzerland. As well as having satellite states friendly to him that he basically controls in western Germany, Denmark, and Poland. And even the places he doesn’t control, like Austria, are allied with him. So things are looking good for Napoleon, he basically controls all of Europe. And yet this is when things begin to unravel.
  • There is a quote, I couldn’t find the exact wording but it’s something to the effect of “Napoleon was master of Europe, but he was also a prisoner there.” You may have heard of the battle of Trafalgar. It was a naval battle and in it, Lord Nelson completely destroyed the French fleet, giving the British had total mastery of the seas. Napoleon complained that he couldn’t even launch a fishing boat without it being captured by the British. And because of this, they dominated international trade. Napoleon’s thought, and I have to admit it seem pretty rational, is, well if they’re going to cut off trade outside of Europe, I’ll cut off trade for the British inside of it. He develops something called the Continental System. And in it, he tries to get everyone to agree to not trade with the British. European trade is to be totally cut off for them. Of course Europe was a huge market for them, and the intention was to bring them to their knees economically and force them to make peace. Well the problem for Napoleon is you have to shut down ALL of Europe. If there’s even one crack, one port where they can smuggle their goods, then the goods just start pouring into Europe from there. Napoleon is trying to get everyone into this system but there are cracks from the very beginning. The first place where there are major cracks and the British are trading extensively is Spain and Portugal.
  • So Napoleon invades Spain. He places his brother on the throne. He doesn’t have a very hard time taking Spain, but keeping it is a different matter altogether. You may have heard of the term “guerilla warfare”, have you ever wondered where that came from? It’s actually Spanish. Guerilla. It means little war. And the term originates from this war. Many Spanish are not happy about being invaded. And so they start this guerilla war. There’s an insurgency. They’re laying ambushes, taking potshots from behind trees. Intercepting messages. Raiding supply lines. So on and so forth. And so they pin down a ton of French forces without a lot of men or firepower. This saps French strength considerably over the next few years.
  • It’s also the reason the Russians turn on him. The nobles in Russia hate not being able to trade with the British. And they’re mad about the last war so eventually they turn and declare war on France. And rather than defend his empire against the Russians, Napoleon decides he’s going to invade and teach them a lesson. And that is going to be his most fateful choice, and it ultimately leads his downfall.


  • “From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step.” That’s one of his more famous quotes. And for him, that step was into Russia. He invades during the summer. His army is enormous. Remember, his empire is bigger than it is has ever been. He starts with more than half a million men. And it’s a different experience for Napoleon. He’s used to moving fast and being nimble. But this army is rather unwieldly and has very limited mobility. As he marches into Russia he wins a number of battles, but they’re all taxing and slow him down, and none of them is the large scale major victory he’s looking for. He’s finally able to win a fairly big battle at Borodino and he marches all the way to Moscow. He figures if he can take Moscow, which is the traditional capital of Russia, the Russians will surrender and it will be over. But when he gets to Moscow, he finds a ghost town. Everyone has evacuated the city. And by this time it’s getting late in the season and they start having to think about where they’re going to winter. And as they occupy the city, fires start to pop up. The Russians left behind a few criminals to burn the city down. The French are able to save part of the city, but for the most part, it’s gone. Now they have to decide what to do. And in unusual fashion, Napoleon vacillates. After a few weeks he decides there aren’t enough supplies in Moscow, which there weren’t, and they have to retreat. So they turn around and try to march out of Russia as winter falls. There are Russian forces who harass them the whole way back. And an extremely brutal winter starts early that year. They’re being picked off at the sides by Russian Cossack cavalry. It’s so cold and they’re so undersupplied that some men will go to sleep by the fire, and just never get up in the morning. They just stay there to die beside the fire. When it’s all said and done, Napoleon, who started into Russia with half a million men, comes back out with less than 40,000. The Russian winter did what no general could, it decimated Napoleon’s army.
  • Seeing Napoleon’s weakness, all the usual suspects declare war on him again. The Austrians and the Prussians join the Russians and British to form the sixth coalition. And this time it’s too much. Napoleon just has too few men, having lost so many in Russia. He is able to scrounge together enough of an army to defeat the allies at the battle of Dresden, but then he suffers a defeat at the battle of Leipzig. The allies actually offer Napoleon peace, but he is unwilling to make territorial concessions so they continue to fight. He has only about 70,000 men, and the allies have more than three times that number. Nevertheless, he withdraws back to France and continues to fight. He uses this small army to bounce back and forth and win battle after battle after battle in France. His chief rival, the British general Arthur Wellsley (also known as the Duke of Wellington) said of this time period quote “The 1814 campaign has given me a greater idea of his genius than any other. Had he continued that system a little longer, it is my opinion that he would have saved Paris.” Napoleon was always better with a small, fast, highly mobile army. But he can’t keep it up. There are just too many enemies. They go around him and lay siege to Paris, at which point the French force him to abdicate.
  • They exile him to a small island off the coast of France called Elba. While on Elba, he’s under British supervision, and he does his usual thing, from the Roberts biography again, quote “He grew avenues of mulberry trees, reformed customs and excise, repaired the barracks, built a hospital, planted vineyards, paved parts of Portoferraio for the first time and irrigated land. Organized regular rubbish collections, set up a court of appeal and an inspectorate to widen roads and build bridges.” But after a year he’s going crazy. It’s too small of a sandbox. So when he sees a narrow window to escape, he does so, and goes back to France.
  • His return to France is amazing in its own way. He saw the chance and jumped at it. The Allies had restored the king of France to his throne in Napoleon’s absence. And people were very annoyed with the king, he hadn’t been doing a very good job of governing. But there was no widespread conspiracy to bring Napoleon back. So when he arrives, he just heads to a military base and through sheer force of will and personality manages to convince the soldiers that he’s back and they should follow him. So he goes from military base to military base, picking up soldiers and amassing an army as he goes. The King and Queen of France flee. All the usual actors declare war on him AGAIN. And Napoleon leads his army out to attack their forces as you would expect. And they meet at the notorious and famous battle of Waterloo. Napoleon loses at Waterloo. He’s crushed. And what’s most surprising is that he displays none of the characteristic trademarks of Napoleonic leadership. He’s lethargic. His tactics are straightforward and unoriginal. He divides his forces rather than concentrating them the night before the battle. Something he never did and something that flies in the face of his core strategy. It’s difficult to say exactly why his decision-making fails him at this point. Some people have tried to diagnose him with physical ailments. He had hemorrhoids, which made it difficult for him to stay on horseback and scout the ground. He hadn’t had a solid nights sleep in about 6 days. He may have had the flu. Some say he was just getting old. No one really knows, but I think the best thing to do is take him at his own word. He said quote “I sensed that Fortune was abandoning me. I no longer had in me the feeling of ultimate success, and if one is not prepared to take risks when the time is ripe, one ends up doing nothing.” So he’s beaten. And this time the British exile him to the island of St. Helena, which has been described as further from anywhere than anywhere else in the world. It’s in the middle of the Atlantic between Africa and South America. There he lived out his days for about six years and eventually died of stomach cancer. And there our story ends.

Lesson and Takeaways

  • As we have seen, Napoleon was an inspiring leader, brilliant strategist, and tireless reformer. But what was it that made him so special? Let’s dive into what set him apart and allowed him to accomplish so much.
  • There are a few character attributes, things inherent to his nature, that you can’t necessarily replicate, that went into it.
  • The first was his capacity for hard work. Napoleon simply had boundless energy. I think that that kind of capacity for work is something you either have or you don’t. And it’s very rare to have energy on that level. But it made him remarkable.
  • The second thing was he was smart as hell. He had an incredible memory and an extremely keen mind. There is a story of him meeting a veteran late in his career. And Napoleon says I remember you! And he asks him about his two children. During a previous campaign, the soldier’s house had been on the road and Napoleon had stopped there and happened to meet his children and patted them on the head and said some nice words before he left. It had been ten years. That gives you an idea of the kind of ridiculous memory this guy had.
  • But there are many people who are smart and have a large capacity for hard work, and don’t accomplish anything near what he did. So what set him apart, above and beyond his natural skills?
  • Many of his contemporaries used the same word to describe Napoleon: IMPATIENT. Speed was the most important thing. He wanted to do everything faster. He was obsessed with moving his troops faster. It even extended to his personal life. Listen to how the guy ate dinner. He said, quote “if you want to dine well, dine with Cambaceres, if you want to dine badly, dine with Lebrun; If you want to dine quickly, dine with me.” And he meant it. He generally ate dinner in less than 10 minutes. If Napoleon had a life mantra, it was probably “faster”. And it’s not a bad one to abide by. Look at what his impatience did for him. It allowed him to surprise his enemies and keep them off balance and win almost every battle he fought. And not only was Napoleon good at moving fast, he was obsessed with it. He was constantly looking for ways to move his armies faster, from night marches to living off the land, to crossing the alps. I see this as a pattern in life. From sports to business to geopolitics, it isn’t the rich or the strong who succeed most, but those who can move quickly and flexibly. Think of the Facebook motto “Move fast and break things”, that almost sounds like it could be Napoleon’s motto, or think of the Golden State Warriors who have had one of the most successful runs in NBA history in part by having a fast team that is flexible, they can switch almost every position on defense. Napoleon’s impatience made him move faster and this was ultimately one of his greatest sources of success.
  • This leads to one of his strategies that I think is not understood but is one of the most important. If you can master this, you almost guarantee for yourself success. Napoleon was a master of maintaining the initiative. Now what does this mean? Well let me start to explain with two quotes from Napoleon himself. The first is something he said of his warfare strategy, quote: “I engage, then I figure out what to do.” It seems kind of backwards, doesn’t it? Why would you start a battle without a plan? This next quote helps to explain it a little, he said, quote: “It is an approved maxim in war never to do what the enemy wishes you to do, for the reason alone because he wishes it. A field of battle, therefore, which he has previously studied and reconnoitered should be avoided.” During Napoleon’s lifetime, action always occurred on his terms. He could pull this off, in part, because he moved so quickly. Sometimes his plans were not fully formed and he didn’t appear completely ready. But he never waited for the enemy. Why? Well for one thing waiting would allow his enemies to make plans. It’s better to have a good but imperfect plan and your opponent have no plan, than for your best plans to go against each other. This was the story of many of Napoleon’s battles: His hurried plans against their total confusion. For another, having the initiative preserves momentum. Remember, he was a master of morale. He knew how to inspire men. And complacency and lethargy breeds more of the same. Activity breeds activity. Seizing the initiative gives you and the people you lead an advantage in terms of motivation.
  • The third thing is focus. We have already talked about his cupboard-like mind. He could close the drawer on one subject and open it on another at will. He could focus intensely. He had the ability to shut other considerations out of his mind and focus completely on one thing at a time. There’s a true story of when Warren Buffet and Bill Gates met. And their host asked them to write down the most important factor in their success. So they both wrote down one word and when they showed their papers they had written the same thing: “Focus”. This is not one of those urban legends. Well Napoleon also had an incredible ability to focus. He was able to accomplish so much, in part, because he could shift his focus on a dime. If you want to be more like Napoleon, try meditation or read stoic philosophy books. Both of those are excellent at teaching you the ability to control your own focus.
  • Fourth: He used every conceivable advantage. There was no such thing as “enough” for Napoleon in terms of advantage. We talked early about how he would constantly complain for more shoes, more gunpowder, more supplies, more men, more more more. Well he did that his entire career. And those little advantages added up. It’s worth asking “Wasn’t that annoying for everyone else?” and you know what? It was. But people forget about how annoying you were once you’re successful. I’ve seen this a lot in my career. You have one manager who gets along great with everyone, doesn’t rock the boat, and then when her initiatives fail she suffers for it. But everyone still likes her! Then you have the annoying manager who is always asking for more resources, more money, asking people to do stuff for her. And then her project is a success and no one cares how annoying she was. She’s a rock-star. Napoleon was the second type of manager. Be the annoying person who wins in the end because you got the resources you needed. Don’t play fair. Stack the deck in your favor.
  • Sixth: He understood the importance of motivation. Some people look down on motivation as a leadership tactic. They think it’s all about smart leadership and smart strategy. Those things matter but motivation is huge. It’s still true that more battles are lost by loss of hope than loss of blood. For business, you could change that to more companies or more startups are lost by loss of hope than loss of money. Motivation is an extremely important part of leadership. Think of Napoleon whipping his men up to cross the bridge at Lodi. There are times when nothing else will do. So learn how to motivate. 
  • Seventh: He understood minutiae. Napoleon knew about his soldiers’ buttons, shoes, and rations. He knew how is artillery were being trained and what size of shot they were using. Even when he was emperor of half of Europe. When you are leading big initiatives, projects, or organizations, never forget to investigate and understand what is happening at the ground level.
  • Eighth: And I’ll finish on this: He had supreme confidence in himself. Why not? Maybe you’re not AS smart as Napoleon. Maybe you think that that level of self-confidence would be misplaced if put in yourself. But I’ll tell you what, you’re definitely not going to succeed without believing in yourself. If you’re going to take over the world, you need self-confidence. No one will follow you if you don’t believe in yourself.

  • A quick word on why he lost. Because let’s not forget that the guy did die out of power on a small island in the middle of nowhere. So what happened?
  • He had blind spots. Remember, he basically never lost battles, and yet he lost the war of the sixth coalition anyway. How? A combination of the Russian winter and too many enemies at the same time. He succeeded in war, but failed in diplomacy. Don’t let your advantages, the things you’re good at, blind you to your areas of weakness.
  • Second, he risked too much too often. I can think of about 10 times when his entire career was on the line. And 8 of those times it payed off for him. But when you’re risking that much, it only takes once to ruin you. Especially once you’ve found success, you have to find a way to limit your downside, and he never figured that out. This is a tricky one because his willingness to take risks is one of the reasons tha the came to power in the first place, but at some point, you have to figure out how to cap your downside.
  • Third, I can’t remember the exact quote but Napoleon said something along the lines of “Every person has their weaknesses. Myself? I cannot bare insults.” Napoleon could not stand to lose. He cheated at cards and chess. Michael Jordan also cheated at cards, by the way. So maybe that’s an essential element of greatness. He had to win at everything. He could have had peace after being defeated in Russia, but he couldn’t stand to lose even a little bit of territory and continued fighting. He should have swallowed his pride. And all of us need to learn to do the same from time to time.

Just to sum things up:

  • Some things you can’t copy. But some things you can. You can move faster. You can seize and maintain the initiative. You can focus and work on being able to control your focus. You can work on your motivational skills, have confidence in yourself, and remember to swallow your pride from time to time.
  • Not everyone can be Napoleon Bonaparte. But everyone can learn from his life.

Thank you for listening. For links, show notes, and more please visit httotw.com. Follow me on twitter and feel free to give me feedback at @httotw. Thanks very much guys.

About Episode

Today we're talking about Napoleon Bonaparte, the French general, reformer, innovator, and emperor. I explore his life, strategies, tactics, work habits, leadership style, and more.

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