I recently completed a biography on the 19th century French leader Napoleon Bonaparte and was reminded what a great leader he really was. Winston Churchill described him as “the greatest man of action in Europe since Julius Caesar.” Napoleon had an extraordinary ability to inspire his soldiers of what he called his Grand Army, and they would follow him anywhere. This would eventually include the sands of Egypt, through almost every capital in Europe and through Russia’s frozen wastelands.
His ability to inspire was so powerful, the Duke of Wellington considered Napoleon’s mere presence on a battlefield worth the equivalent of twenty thousand men. A French sergeant recalled in the battle of Leipzig in 1813 that Napoleon’s entrance onto the battlefield was like an electric shock. All shouted to Napoleon and charged blindly into the fire.
What was the source of his influence? Napoleon possessed many of the qualities of an effective leader, but four attributes stand out:
He Communicated a Clear, Simple Mission
First, he had absolute clarity about the mission and communicated the mission clearly to his troops. The mission was never ambiguous; everyone knew where they were going and what was expected. This clarity liberated and emboldened his generals to act decisively on their own initiative when circumstances dictated. The result was lightning speed. Napoleon preached speed and action. But more importantly, his men embraced and acted with speed.
He Connected the Mission to a Bigger “Why”
Second, he was masterful at communicating a compelling “why”. He understood that he needed to capture his men’s hearts. Yes, he appealed to their desire for victory on the field of battle. But reasons also included ideology and personal honor. His men saw every engagement as part of something bigger, and they saw themselves as an integral part of that bigger story.
He Recognized and Rewarded
Third, he was lavish in recognition. The French Revolution had produced a new ethos in Europe, that of meritocracy. Soldiers for the first time were rewarded and honored for their personal performance rather than rank. Napoleon said, “the soldier demands glory, distinction, rewards.” Thus, medals, promotion and pensions were granted liberally. Napoleon believed in rewarding service, and honor was the primary sentiment. If he personally witnessed an act of bravery, he would often remove a medal from his own chest and reward it on the spot. Acts of familiarity like this caused his men to love him.
He Communicated He Cared
Fourth, Napoleon genuinely liked spending time with his men. He frequently addressed them in person, challenging and motivating them to great achievements. He was able to memorize names and faces and frequently singled men out. He was famous for asking them questions about their needs and welfare, and then acting to meet them.
A few other notable leadership attributes:
- Surrounded himself with the best people and demoted the non-producers
- Mastered the art of working with colleagues and fellow officers as a team
- Learned to control the message and stay focused
- Possessed high energy and expected action and speed from others
- Exhibited great attention to detail
- Maintained rigorous control of his emotions
- Disciplined in training and developing his people
- Developed an intuitive ability to see how campaigns would develop
Overall, Napoleon is perhaps one of the best leaders I have studied. Even though he was ultimately defeated at Waterloo by the Duke of Wellington, his incredible military and civilian record of high accomplishments stands. He was able to articulate a clear mission and inspire his men to follow – leadership qualities that still apply today.
Team Trek is a world-class provider of leadership training, team building, coaching and culture programs. Go to www.teamtrek.com/subscribe to receive the next Journal in your inbox.