Napolean Bonaparte’s Fatal Mistake

Jan 27, 2014 1 Min Read

France of 1790 provided an ideal place for Napoleon Bonaparte’s unlikely rise to the top. In Napoleon: A Life, Paul Johnson explains “It demonstrated the classic parabola of revolution: a constitutional beginning; reformist moderation quickening into ever-increasing extremism; a descent into violence; a period of sheer terror, ended by a violent reaction; a time of confusion, cross-currents, and chaos, marked by growing exhaustion and disgust with change; and eventually an overwhelming demand for ‘a Man on horseback’ to restore order, regularity, and prosperity.”

Bonaparte epitomised opportunism. He didn’t want a revolution. He wanted change. In a way, his rise, was a product of the revolution itself.

Johnson writes: “Bonaparte would not have possessed the ruthless disregard of human life, of natural and man-made law, of custom and good faith needed to carry it through without the positive example and teaching of the revolution. The revolution was a lesson in the power of evil to replace idealism, and Bonaparte was its ideal pupil.”

In his first invasion of Italy in 1796, an “imaginative and symbolic” success he set the tone for his relationship with his troops.

Naked and ill-fed he gave them hope with the spoils that awaited them. The implicit contract with his troops was clear: win the war and take the loot.

One small and powerful gesture that might be looked over is that Bonaparte made it logistically easy for their spoils to be transferred back to their families.

This also made military sense, for it enabled soldiers to save instead of squandering their trophies on drunken debauchery.

Part of Bonaparte’s success resulted from the difference between him and his enemies.

The Duke of Wellington, who would ultimately be victorious at Waterloo, pinpointed Bonaparte’s advantage.

“I can hardly conceive of anything greater than Bonaparte at the head of an army – especially a French army.

“Then he had one prodigious advantage – he had no responsibility – he could do what he pleased; and no man ever lost more armies than he did.

“Now with me the loss of every man told. I could not risk so much. I knew that if I ever lost 500 men without the clearest necessity, I should be brought one my knees to the bard of the House of Commons.”

Before Bonaparte, Wellington had only seen delegated power in the field. Now he was facing direct power.

Bonaparte, for example, appointed his own subordinates whereas Wellington often had generals foisted upon him.

This reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, David and Goliath, in terms of how the weak win wars. Often they don’t appear to play by what we consider the “established rules”.

When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules: they win more than the underlying statistics would indicate they should.

Bonaparte enjoyed a freedom to take risks that his adversaries wouldn’t or couldn’t take for political or other reasons.

These risks fit perfectly with “his general strategy of swift aggression and offensive battle seeking.”

Soldiers, of course, like this high-risk approach. They viewed the odds of death the same regardless of whether their commander employed a defensive or offensive approach. The offensive approach at least gave them a shot at some loot.

Ultimately Bonaparte’s most useful weapon was fear.

“It was this one,” Johnson writes, that “he employed most frequently. In his aggressive strategy, it gave him a head start – it was as though an invisible army had softened up the enemy’s defences before a French shot was fired.”

When fighting campaigns, Bonaparte, with few exceptions, was usually vastly outnumbered. Often the other side was a coalition of nations.

Rather than wait for his opponents to become organised he struck quickly and divided them before they could join together. By dividing and conquering he defeated them separately.

Bonaparte also showed a great understanding of his era by aligning his instructions with his strategy.

Johnson writes: “No matter how well drilled and disciplined, a unit was likely to lose formation if ordered to carry out complicated movements over distances. Hence, the simpler the plan the better, and the simplest plan as: attack!”

Generals, for their part, preferred simple plans. Often these instructions had to be carried by hand to the front line and innumerable things could go wrong.

In the end Bonaparte’s main advantage was also what caused his failure. His subordinates, almost without exception, were eager to please and thus obey.

They wanted to do as he instructed. They wanted his praise. They wanted promotions.

When things changed, as they often do on the battlefield and in business, they were left to act on their own. Having rarely faced problems without explicit instructions, they were ill-prepared.

If you’re hiring men and women who, while they can carry out instructions lack a general ability to think, what makes you think your results will be different?

Shane Parrish is the editor of He helps companies make better decisions and foster innovation. For inquiries, including speaking engagements please write to Click here for more articles.

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