Enterprise Compliance Today

Napoleon’s Lessons in Strategic Management

Posted by Greg Carroll on Fri, Aug 14, 2015 @ 01:01 PM

With 2015 being the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo and having a man-crush on Napoleon B, I have taken this opportunity to revisit some of lessons we can learn (good & bad) from his 20 year reign as master of the universe.


Leadership in Strategic Management

Napoleon’s lasting legacies include public education, universities, local government, and the Napoleonic legal code much of Europe practices today.

Strategic Management To learn more on how FastTrack Strategic Management can embedd GRC in operational workflows. 

Napoleon’s renown as the consummate strategist, is without question.  Against the combined might of Prussian, British, Austrian and Russian Empires, he took a broken down post revolution France, to command and dominated the European landscape.

Although claiming most military accolades for himself, always the master of self-promotion, a big part of his tactical success can be attributed to a corps of capable marshals (execs) with which he surrounded himself.

Napoleon’s true brilliance lay not in his military success but his genius in Strategic Management. From his classic “an army marches on it stomach” Napoleon dedicated the majority of his efforts in administrative and logistic aspects of army and government. In fact his lasting legacies include public education and universities, municipal government, and the Napoleonic legal code much of Europe practices today.


'It is not enough to give orders, they must be obeyed.'

Too little acknowledged, his meteoric rise started with being given command of the broken down Italian (frontier) army, mostly due to it being a lost cause. Lacking provisions, discipline and self-value, within 2 years if became the most feared force in Europe.

He achieved these results thru clarity of objectives and the epitome of Leadership where his men were willing to lay down the lives for him.  Even after the Russian disaster, where he took an army of 600,000 and returned with 10,000, he still was able to assemble a new force of 350,000 to face a Prussian offensive. His hold on them was not physical (desertion was rampant in the opposing forces) but due to his perceived concern for the rank and file in a time when most leaders thought themselves above the rank and file. Sound familiar?

A key factor was that he appointed a Chief of Staff (COO) who was a superb micro-manager and shared N’s commitment for the wellbeing of his men.  He invented the battlefield ambulance and first M*A*S*H unit.

Risk Management

The torment of precautions often exceeds the dangers to be avoided.”

Thought of as the venerable risk taker, his actions were more the result a details assessment of this opponents and the field of operations. Long before realised as a method of effective risk management in Finance & Insurance, he was using Scenario Analysis to prepare for battles with armies twice his size. Understanding “A battle plan is excellent until the first shot is fired” he drilled those scenarios into his marshals and then gave them the autonomy to act independently.  Risk based decision making worked well for 20 years until previous champions, Marshals Ney & Grouchy, became risk adverse managers at Waterloo.  Maybe there is a lesson there in length of time an executive can remain proactive at the coalface.

Don’t Believe your own BS

'A man has his day in war as in other things; I myself shall be good for it another six years, after which even I shall have to stop.'

Prophetically Napoleon quipped this in 1805; in 1812 he invaded Russia, seven years after the quote.

In naval matters he was a fish out water (pardon the pun). Displaying the antithesis of his battlefield genius, he fell back into the modern inept practice of trying to counter by throwing inordinate amounts of money and resources at it to no avail. To this he added the continual haranguing and removal of his chief officers (also a modern analogy) for lack of success. Taking nothing away from Nelson or Collingwood, the French Fleet was never in the same league, regardless of the will of its overload.


Yes in the end he did meet his Waterloo. But even at 4pm on that day both he and Wellington believed he had it won, even though outnumbered 2 to 1. Sometimes titans clash and on that day Wellington's courage and perseverance in the face of defeat trumped Napoleon's genius.

‘The battlefield is a scene of constant chaos. The winner will be the one who controls that chaos, both his own and the enemies.’



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