The 200th anniversary of Waterloo is in the air and without doubt, some of our 1.4 billion Millennials will say, “Gee I didn’t know ABBA wrote a song that long ago.”
For us other folk Waterloo set the ultimate downfall of Napoleon Bonaparte. Over four ferocious days culminating on June 18, 1815, the emperor left the field of battle for the final time.
It’s de rigueur to study a great leader like Napoleon and endeavor to extract life’s truths. Indeed, Napoleon’s Art of War in its various forms is widely available much like those of Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, Clausewitz, and Moltke. A recent book even attempts to take Napoleonic theory to the job search.
Napoleon re-wrote the norms of warfare, still felt today; he established a legal code, still used today; and attempted to unify Europe a bit like the EU today. But, my my, epic failure defined his end. Exiled in perpetuity to the rock of Saint Helena, he lost it all: empire, prestige, wealth, family, health and some would say, sanity.
So why should we study him? Failure is the fulcrum of truth. As the philosopher, George Santayana, wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Or as ABBA sang:
The history book on the shelf is always repeating itself.
What then can we take from Napoleon’s fall to avoid our own Waterloos in life?
We know that by the very nature of our life-roles that leaders (supervisors, managers, business owners, parents, captains, coaches, mentors etc.) must delegate. No single person can be an expert in everything nor can one be omnipresent.
It’s hard to believe that some leaders believe accountability can be delegated too. This of course, is a fallacy. A leader can parcel out a project; even dictate its specific conduct but at the end of the day, outcome never changes hands.
Napoleon had no qualms here. As France’s first consul and ultimately its emperor, he fully internalized blame whenever subordinates failed. But it was his style of delegation that would eventually see him undone.
Foresight was his forte: the ability to grasp, if not predict, the big picture like a chess player who sees the outcome of a contest ten moves ahead. It was an innate power to size up enemies; read their deployments and maneuvers; articulate their psychological predispositions and intrigues.
His marshals, generals, and officials though, were expected to share this sixth sense. He presumed their strategic vision matched his own, that by acting for him they paralleled his enthusiasm and sense of urgency … but for the capricious nature of the human beast.
Often when Napoleon was not at the head of his armies or in his palaces, disaster followed. Commanders shirked, ministers schemed, officials conspired, reagents plundered, and allies switched sides.
Thus delegation is an equation. It’s the sum of the skills, motivations, and capacities of the parties rendered to. Get this math wrong and despite the clearest language and most rigorous agreement, what is envisaged may never be.
To his credit Napoleon was quick to recover. To his detriment, he was too quick to forgive. Historians baffle over his continued willingness to delegate to the very people who’d let him down. Some would squander further victories; others would aim to see him dead.
So be prudent with your trust
Napoleon’s network for want of a better word, matched in its breadth his empire that would soon engulf Holland through Italy, parts of Germany to Egypt. His conquests took him to Warsaw, Vienna, and Moscow—and he longed for London with eyes on India.
There’s a powerful quote by George Washington (from a book on civil etiquette he copied while a teen), that I keep nearby and though written in the gender specific language of its times, it of course, applies to the entirety of humanity:
Associate yourself with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation; for ’tis better to be alone than in bad company.
Napoleon found himself part of a geopolitical contrivance: an age-old imperial machine of kings, queens, and emperors that could never satisfy the requirement for “good company”. It meant negotiating on an ice flow.
A large part of Napoleon’s problem lay with his bona fides. He was the lowborn, self-proclaimed Emperor of France. And though Europe would eventually accept his title, it would never forget that his rise came at a king’s guillotining and subsequent anti-Royalist outrages.
Napoleon’s nemesis was greed. Britain was the culprit. A self-interested bastion motivated purely by cash flow: the fruits of an immense overseas trade between its colonies protected by the largest navy of its age. Britain fueled each of Napoleon’s threats with its gold.
Greed added yet another chink to the Napoleonic facade: the dilemma of administration. Conquests required loyal regents, adept officials, efficient supply commissionaires, and nimble industrial overlords.
Dynastic necessity dictated many of Napoleon’s solutions. Brothers earned kingdoms or high political station. Generals received fiefdoms, while revolutionary cronies and opponents were quieted by positions and titles.
Thing is, people wake to their own destinies once enriched. His brothers soon despised him, regents self-obsessed, supply officials defrauded, manufacturers swindled, police plotted his assassination, and his foreign ministry took British bribes.
“Never do business with family and friends.” How much more did that truth ruin Napoleon? As the years followed, even those among his dearest generals would take tens of thousands of his soldiers over to the enemy. Waterloo became a cliché for disappointment as orders were tossed in a heap.
Pay heed to those in whom you trust. Sun Tzu counseled that a good leader never divulges all plans:
Be extremely subtle … be extremely mysterious even to the point of soundlessness.
Napoleon proved that indeed, sometimes you just have to keep to yourself. As for people of good quality, even Washington couldn’t get that one right.
And know your limitations
Blind faith in one’s calling is a hallmark of leadership: it’s what makes entrepreneurs take risks. It’s called hubris.
It’s just that sometimes raison dêtre gives way to fantasy. Often Napoleon’s steadfastness to the mojo of “I say it, so it will be” paid off. But in Spain, Russia, Germany, and subsequently at Waterloo, hope eclipsed reality.
Napoleon reached his apogee in 1809 with a slamming victory against Austria in Poland. Treaties with Europe’s mainland belligerents followed.
Then disagreement over the isolation of Britain led to war with Russia, Prussia, and wily Austria yet again from 1812.
Napoleon’s beef with Britain lay with access to the sea. Britain’s naval behemoth East India Company choked fair commerce. Thing was, Napoleon’s admirals could no more win naval battles than their ships sun their decks along the River Thames. So embargo—the diplomatic refusal of Europe’s ports to Britain, became strategy.
That meant Spain’s ports too, a country that soon taught him the agony of guerilla warfare as he unthinkingly imposed a French monarchy to secure its rule. Russia’s policy of scorched earth in 1812 next flummoxed him at the gates of Moscow, its nightmare of blizzards and mud, mocking while his tattered army fled and starved. Facing encirclement by Prussia, Russia, and Austria in 1813, Napoleon still attacked Berlin seeking a final peace, narrowly making it back to France. Finally in Belgium 1815, lacking sufficient cavalry for reconnaissance, Napoleon insisted on the attack. But with the dispositions of the enemy largely unknown, the outcome of course was Waterloo.
Success is a function of prudence when accounting for one’s resources, as Sun Tzu said: “Know your enemies and know yourself and you will not be imperiled in one hundred battles.”
Australian political kingmaker and once ardent Napoleonic collector, Michael Kroger, put it another way:
Whether you are a business leader or political leader, you need people around you who are prepared to tell you the truth. That’s the great lesson for me from Napoleon’s life.
The barrier to knowing one’s limitations is pride.
Then never divide in the face of action
Conflict is fraught with tension. But whether by the need to survive or planning new vistas, goals are often set in more than one area, against more than one competitor and in more than one direction.
Napoleon drummed a maxim into his leaders early: “Never divide in the face of the enemy”. Yet, as the years rolled on and campaigning became more distant against foes who refused to fight on traditional terms, he began to back-pedal.
Sun Tzu counseled that success favours the leader who chooses the battlefield and deploys first. Napoleon at his best did just that. In 1805 he positioned early along the hills of Austerlitz and let a numerically massive enemy divide on him. Elsewhere, time and again, he’d march with brilliantly dispersed columns allowing for speed—then confound his adversaries with an innate ability to converge at the point of decision.
But after reversals, Napoleon began to second-guess his instincts. At Waterloo it spelled ultimate disaster.
To prevent the armies of Britain and Prussia uniting on a battlefield not of his choosing, Napoleon split his forces, aiming to defeat the British first and subsequently surprise the Prussians from the rear. The British put up a stoic fight that June 18 and by early evening, with both sides exhausted and local reinforcements nil, hazy eyes glimpsed dark uniforms rolling in from the distant flank: Were they French or Prussian blue?
When the latter poured through the woods, Napoleon realized his egregious blunder. He’d sent half his army away and where, he had no idea. So ABBA sang a song.
Historians argue that combined, Napoleon would have ruled supreme that day. Instead ignominy and the fate of an exhausted France and a furious Europe waited his surrender.
Hence a final lesson:
Unite life as in war and if you’ve found a winning formula don’t doubt it. Especially when the going gets tough.
© 2015 Adam Parker. You’ve just read a Parkerpinion.
Main picture credit: “Napoleon Abdicated at Fontainebleau” by Paul Delaroche (1845) Public Domain. Snoopy excerpt © 2014 Peanuts Worldwide LLC.