UK: Leadership And History: What Can Napoleon Bonaparte Teach Us About HR?

Last Updated: 15 December 2014
Article by Steve Clowes

Most Read Contributor in UK, August 2017

In the closing parts of War and Peace Leo Tolstoy famously asserted that it isn't really our leaders that are important, it's our societies. It is something of the life blood of a people that makes them fight and win – or lose. It is not so much their leadership. So I can only assume that he would probably not have agreed with what I have to say in this blog.

I want to assert that Napoleon, the major subject matter of War and Peace, was of paramount importance as a leader of people. His ability to inspire his troops was clearly a prerequisite to them marching a million strong into Russia from France, and he prepared every minute detail to get them there. Perhaps more importantly however, lest we forget: he was also instrumental in their failure.

But who could have known about that before 1812? After all, it didn't start off so bad. Just look at what he got moving in the first place: the size of the Grande Armée. Quite critical to the mobilisation of a million men and women was not just highfalutin language and expansive statements. It required a bit of a control freak too. Napoleon was the kind of guy who checked the shipments of everything himself, who made sure the equipment the troops had was the very best, who checked the quality of guns and munitions personally, who got the troops (especially artillery) to do all those endless drills, and who'd insist on being involved in them himself (while the bloke he was up against, the Russian Tsar, would reportedly rather be off at some fancy soiree).

This degree of involvement/ interference in the details reminds me a lot of Steve Jobs: a man who lived in an empty flat because he found it difficult to buy exactly the right kind of furniture. He was clearly a pathological perfectionist too. And yet when it came to leading people, Jobs, like Napoleon, communicated a vision that was completely clear and fairly fixed. He "kept it simple stupid".

Last year, Deloitte's Human Capital Trends report told us what we in the business of HR Consulting already knew – that leaders are important. It also told us that globally today HR employees think that leaders are more important than ever; in fact that they are more important than anything else.

This leads me to two conclusions: the first, that Leo Tolstoy must be rolling in his grave for failing to win over the crowd on this (he liked being right), the second that it is time to consider what one of those leaders, Napoleon himself, can teach us about HR.

My guess is something like this:

1)      Always be up to date with the latest technology. It will give you a competitive edge. For years, Napoleon was able to succeed because he was an SME in field artillery. He always had the latest and greatest cannon technology. Failure to look forwards means you go backwards, always losing ground. Today, he would be using the Cloud. That way he would not need to lug his valuable data around on his back. His supply lines would be safe and inexpensive, agile and faster to adapt to change.

2)      Do not do things from 40,000 feet. You need to understand the terrain and use it better than anyone you're up against. You know he'd be using HR analytics too. To get the best he could out of his troops, he'd want to understand what made them tick.

3)      Be an inspiration. Communicate your brand. Be engaged.  Even today, we know who this guy is and what he stood for. Keep the message simple, and have your employee value proposition clear.

4)      Do not forget 1, 2 and 3. Napoleon ultimately lost, in part at least, because he did.

  • He forgot the need to adapt your technology to changing conditions. (His cannon didn't work against the British at Waterloo because it rained.)
  • He ignored what the analytics told him.  It's no use having the tools if all you do is drive reports – you need to influence the board too. And surely Napoleon must have checked the Russian weather report? So why oh why? And in Winter too?
  • He came up against a group with a better employee value proposition. He himself described the Russian troops as "dauntless". Why? Because these mere muzhiks of the steppes were fighting for something they really believed - their very way of life, their homes - whereas Napoleon's men were just fighting for money and remote ideas. The cause of the Russian peasants became a social movement that was centred on the idea – today we'd call it the "brand" or "value proposition" – of the Tsar.

And perhaps most importantly, the (allegedly) diminutive Frenchman might reflect, is the fact that even if you've "kept it simple stupid", never, absolutely never, be afraid to change your course. Your winning formula will always run out on you if you fail to change it. Every organisation or collection of people has to change, and always.

Ah, the Frenchman might conclude. "Plus ca change. You change with the times or you die. That's it. Just take a look at that new technology, and always pay attention to what your analytics tells you."

In the end, like all of us then, he was bad as well as good. And therefore HR Directors please note my little disclaimer on this: I do not suggest that anyone model themselves on Napoleon. And especially not at work.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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