Lessons from Napoleon. From a biography by Frank McLynn

I have just finished reading the book “Napoleon – a biography” by Frank McLynn (Arcade publishing), an excellent overview on his entire life, from the parents life in Corsica till his death in St.Helen, condensed in 700 pages. A great job and a enjoying reading, that makes you eager to read more about him.

The book contains also a few interesting lessons, such as:

The book cover
The book cover

1. the brilliance of Napoleon lays also in his understanding of human psychology. He realized that at root human beings are driven by money but that they hate to admit this is what actually motivates them and are therefore grateful to leaders who can mystify and obfuscate the quest. For example, the spanish conquistadores rationalized the quest as the desire to serve God.

Napoleon could not use the religion but he spoke of glory, immortality, posterity and instituted the Legion of Honour, a special recognization for the best soldiers and officers.

Think about the need for recoignance and rewards for your job from  your superiors or clients.

2. the key to Napoleon’s success in the battle plans was his reorganization of the army into a corps system. Each corp was in effect a miniature army, each with its own cavalry and artillery arm, and each capable of operating independently.

Think about having cross-functional, with every role inside; not a separate testing group but every team member capable of doing some unit testing and dedicated persons for the most complex tests.
Also teams and team members who can decide on their own, without having to wait for a ratification from the boss or the project manager.

3. the russian invasion strategy. Napoleon prepared a minimum aims scenario and a best case scenario and a plan accordingly.  It was a good plan but it depended on exact timing, close communication and secure lines, as previous Napoleon’s plans. But his previous victories had all been won with smallish armies operating over smallish spaces; he had never tried to coordinate vast armies over distances od hundreds of miles. Too many things could go wrong and execution could never match conception. In retrospect one can see that the Russian campaign was fatally flawed from the outset and that Napoleon had not thought through most of the problems.

Both militarily and logistically Napoleon would have done better with an army of half the size  he took into Russia, which would have permitted the speed and flexibility that produced an Austerlitz. It never occured to him that a sixfold increase in numbers would augment the problems of command and coordination exponentially. E.g. the problems of roads and food supply were so great that the 1812 adventure was doomed from the start; it was an impossible dream, impracticable before the advent of railways and the telegraph.

Think about having small, agile teams.

Napoleon was a brilliant commander of small armies which he could mould to his will but huge armies spiralled out of his control; he promoted himself to his own level of incompetence.

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