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Napoleon Bonaparte LeadershipNapoleon Bonaparte Leadership


Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)


  • Ruler of France 1799-1814 and then briefly in 1815, when he (pictured right) was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo by the Duke of Wellington, who described him as the greatest general ever.
  • Napoleon's greatest victory was the defeat of the Austrian and Russian armies at the Battle of Austerlitz (1805).
  • Introduced a new legal system for France based upon the Napoleonic Code.


For more detail see... 

The Battle of Waterloo in the History Highlights section.


Why was he a great general?


1. Intelligence, intuition and intensity


a) intelligence

He had a great memory so he could remember

  • every detail of his battle plans 
  • troop deployments.


b) intuition

He instinctively knew the best time to attack .

This resulted from years of experience studying military strategy - see point 2.

He said that victory depended on “the instantaneous flash of an idea”.


c) intensity

He was totally focused on success but had the ability to shut out his problems and so get enough sleep.

Napoleon Bonaparte Leadership


2. Learning and support


a) was a dedicated student of military strategy.

b) learned much from the great generals of the past

(particularly Julius Caesar, pictured right).

He used their tactics and invented only a few of his own like:

  • putting artillery into batteries (groups of heavy guns)
  • using them to support his infantry. Napoleon Bonaparte Leadership 

He also:

  • had the support of brilliant deputies including General Berthier (pictured right), who superbly organized battle signalling, so that attacks were well timed and co-ordinated.
  • learned from experience.



3. Deception

Days before the Battle of Austerlitz, he encouraged his opponents to attack, fooling them that his army was weak and he wanted peace.

They were then surprised by the strength of Napoleon’s army.



4. Attacking the enemy’s weaknesses


a) used spies to find out and exploit the enemy’s weaknesses

b) surprised the enemy by concealing his own battle plan and troop deployments.

“Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake”, he said.



Napoleon Bonaparte Leadership

5. Planning and decisiveness

Successful strategy, he said, was based on:  “Strength, activity and the firm resolve to die gloriously”.

He worked out his battle plan and stuck to it, even if his generals didn’t like it.

At Austerlitz (pictured right with Napoleon on his white horse), they even suggested a retreat.

But he went ahead with his plan to attack the enemy’s severely weakened centre, having encouraged them to divert their troops to his right flank by weakening it.

He always saw a battle as a whole - how?

  • concentrating on co-ordinating his army to achieve his battle plan.
  • delegating tactical details to his commanders.

His problem was (as at the Battle of Waterloo) that his generals sometimes let him down and needed more supervision.


6. Speed and surprise

His plan was always to attack with great speed, exploiting the strength of his cavalry.

At the Battle of Austerlitz he used troops, who marched from Vienna 70 miles away in only two days to support his right flank.

Their speed and surprise arrival were crucial to his victory.

“Strategy is the art of making use of time and space”, he said.Napoleon Bonaparte Leadership

Time was most precious to him, because it could never be recovered So he organized his army into self-reliant corps (of 15,000-30,000 men) to maximize flexibility and speed.

Time's importance was shown at the Battle of Waterloo by his delayed attack on the Duke of Wellington (pictured right) that allowed the Prussian (German) army to help the British.


7. Ruthlessness

He let nothing get in the way of total victory and the crushing of the enemy.

At Austerlitz he bombarded the ice which the Russians were retreating on, and hundreds of them died in the freezing cold water.


8. Hard work and ambition

He believed in:

  • seizing opportunities (in life or battle).
  • closely examining any potential problems.
  • single-mindedly focusing on his career.

“All my life I have sacrificed everything, peace, self-interest, happiness, to my destiny”, he said.


9. Purpose, power and propaganda


a) purposeNapoleon Bonaparte Leadership with support

Supported by his first wife, Josephine (pictured right), Napoleon dedicated his life to his career (see point 8)


b) power

His lust for power and glory made him great.

“Power is my mistress”, he said.


c) propaganda

He effectively used propaganda to exaggerate his achievements and belittle his opponents.


10. Motivating his menNapoleon Bonaparte Leadership

Napoleon (pictured right in Jacques-Louis David's portrait) inspired great loyalty from his troops - why?

They respected him because he:

  • looked after them and spoke in their language.
  • always welcomed comments from them.
  • wore an ordinary soldier's uniform to identify with them.
  • was visible, sharing their dangers and discomforts and reviewing them regularly.

He believed that the most important motivators were:


a) fear 

(whilst keeping hope alive).


b) self-interest 

He gave his men good food when possible.

“An army marches on its stomach”, he said.


c) spirit

To inspire someone, he believed, “you must speak to his soul”.


d) reward

He promoted people for loyalty, bravery and competence.

An average 50,000 French deaths per year meant quicker promotion for the rest of the army.


e) short inspirational speeches 

Once he just said “Soldiers, make me proud of you!”.


f) praise for performance 

(with criticism and punishment of incompetence).


Key quotes on leadership

A leader is a dealer in hope.


Key quote on motivation

There are two forces that unite men – fear and interest.


Key quotes on success

Ability is nothing without opportunity.

He who fears being conquered is certain of defeat.


Key quote on death

Death is nothing, but to live defeated and ingloriously, is to die every day. 


Key quotes on war and strategy

In warfare, the mental to the physical is as three is to one.

The art of war is a simple act; everything is in the performance.

Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.

Victory belongs to the most persevering.


Key quote on the learning organization

You must not fight too often with one enemy, or you will teach him all your art of war.


Key quote on influencing people

The people to fear are not those who disagree with you, but those who disagree with you and are too cowardly to let you know.

Greatness is nothing unless it be lasting.


Key quote on happiness

We must take things as we find them, and not as we wish them to be.


Key quote on the past, present and future

The stupid speak of the past, the wise of the present and fools of the future.


Key quote on politics and government

In matters of government, justice means force as well as virtue

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