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Napoleon's Military Maxims for Modern Leaders

Updated on February 24, 2016

Napoleon Bonaparte's Maxims for Modern Leaders

"Impossible is a word to be found only in the dictionary of fools." (Napoleon Bonaparte)

"Nothing so comforts the mind as the maxim of a great, but dead, general." (Barbara Tuchman)

Napoleon Bonaparte was a true leader. While his exploits revolved primarily around military pursuits and he was at times a naughty-not-nice man, the maxims he developed to guide his pursuits are fitting for nearly all who aspire to lead.

Most adults are familiar with Napoleon's abbreviated stature and image as portrayed in countless pieces of art, but the fact that he was a brilliant leader escapes many. His maxims -- i.e., fundamental principles, rules of conduct, or proverbial sayings -- display wisdom and understanding that relate to warfare, business, relationships, and life in general. They're worth a look.

Have you been presented with an obstacle that seems insurmountable? Napoleon may suggest a course of action that can overcome that barrier.

Have you wondered whether you should press on and introduce that new product line or shelve the idea for a while? Napoleon knew when to move forward and when to wait for another day.

Has the current economic climate forced you to consider downsizing and restructuring your company? Napoleon may have some sound advice about the span of control in your new organization.

Would you like to inspire and encourage your employees, but your limited budget is forcing you to consider rewards other than monetary? Napoleon dealt directly with this very thing.

As a career military officer who spent the last decade and a half of his career training and educating military officers from around the world (I retired from active duty, but I still teach military professionals) I can confirm the value of the lessons we learn from Napoleon Bonaparte's successes and failures as a leader. His Military Maxims provide a wonderfully concise launching pad for those lessons.

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"The two most interesting characters of the nineteenth century are Helen Keller and Napoleon Bonaparte."

~ Mark Twain in the New York Sun, April 10, 1903

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I hope you enjoy your study of Napoleon and I welcome your input. Please share your comments, suggestions, anecdotes, etc. below. If you have questions, I'll do my best to answer, but would really prefer it if other readers would also chip in with their expertise.

Onward and Upward!

"A good general, a well-organized system, good instructions, and severe discipline, aided by effective establishments, will always make good troops, independently of the cause for which they fight." (Maxim 56)

From Mark Twain

My Favorite Napoleon Resources

The Napoleonic Wars (Smithsonian History of Warfare)
The Napoleonic Wars (Smithsonian History of Warfare)

Great illustrations and comfortable narrative highlight this excellent work. From Napoleon's greatest victories to his ultimate defeat at Waterloo, Gunther Rothenberg gives care to present the pertinent details of the Napoleonic era. This is a great place to start your exploration of this bold and creative general.

 
Napoleon's Military Maxims (Dover Military History, Weapons, Armor)
Napoleon's Military Maxims (Dover Military History, Weapons, Armor)

While it doesn't contain all of Napoleon's Maxims, this is a good starter book for those who just want to get their feet wet.

 
Roots of Strategy: Book 1 (Bk. 1)
Roots of Strategy: Book 1 (Bk. 1)

One of my most frequently referenced books. Not just Napoleon, but also military classics from Sun Tzu, Vegetius, De Saxe, and Frederick. I've nearly worn my copy out!

 
On War, Indexed Edition
On War, Indexed Edition

On War is an excellent resource for those who are really interested in the study of war. Clausewitz masterfully made the connection between policy and war, politicians and warriors. On War sheds a bright light on the evolution of military thought.

There are a few versions out there, but I prefer this one because it is indexed.

 
Napoleon, CEO: 6 Principles to Guide & Inspire Modern Leaders (Paperback) - Common
Napoleon, CEO: 6 Principles to Guide & Inspire Modern Leaders (Paperback) - Common

Just one in a series of similar works by Alan Axelrod, this book focuses on "six areas that constitute the core of what made Napoleon a great leader: Audacity, Vision, Empathy, Strategy, Logistics, and Tactics." Axelrod's fresh approach to this subject successfully binds classical military thought with the rigors and realities of modern leadership.

 

Napoleon's Military Maxims 1 through 3

...for Today's Leaders

PLEASE NOTE: These modules will be a work in progress for a while. I will begin by simply listing Napoleon's Military Maxims in their raw state, most likely in batches of three to five (whatever I can pack into the Squidoo 10,000 character modules), and then populate each with applications related to leaders in general.

If you have ideas, ideas, or anecdotes, please share them in the comments section below.

Military Maxims of Napoleon -- Maxim 1 through 3 (of 115)

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1) "The frontiers of nations are either large rivers, or chains of mountains, or deserts. Of all these obstacles to the march of an army, deserts are the most difficult to surmount; mountains come next; and large rivers hold only the third rank."

While many contemporary leadership experts, motivational speakers, and personal coaches insist that we ignore obstacles or pretend they are opportunities instead, Napoleon Bonaparte recognized natural barriers-rivers, mountains, and deserts-for what they really were.

In Napoleon's mind, these barriers were not obstacles to be ignored or mere figments of his imagination. Instead, he viewed them as part of the terrain that had to be overcome in order to meet his objectives. He didn't use them as excuses, but chose instead to identify them, study them closely, prioritize them, and then develop tactics to overcome them; always with the end state in mind.

What obstacles are standing between where you are right now and where you want to be?

Don't ignore these obstacles. Instead:

- Identify them. Determine the nature of your obstacles and name them. I don't mean you should give them names like Fred or Nancy, but rather that you should label them. Are they competitors? Markets? Finances? Weaknesses in your product or service?

- Study them. Learn as much as you can about them, but realize you will never know all there is to know about them and get ready to pull the trigger on your plan as soon as you can.

- Prioritize them. Once you've identified and studied the obstacles standing between you and your goals, prioritize them from most to least difficult to overcome, just as Napoleon did. After all, why would you want to cross a desert when you can reach your objective more easily by fording a river?

- Develop your tactical approach. Build your game plan.

Do all these things with your end state in mind. Visualize what victory will look like. Maintain your focus on that image and don't let obstacles prevent you from accomplishing what you've set out to do.

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2) "A plan of campaign should anticipate everything which the enemy can do, and contain within itself the means of thwarting him.

"Plans of campaign may be infinitely modified according to the circumstances, the genius of the commander, the quality of the troops and the topography of the theater of war."

Napoleon directed a nearly impossible task in the first portion of this maxim and then added flexibility in the second.

Unless we have a severely limited enemy-for our purposes, consider the enemy to be whatever person, entity, condition, or situation stands between you and your objectives-there is virtually no way you will be able to develop a plan that anticipates everything it can do.

Fortunately, Napoleon provided an out, and it's a critical one that is all too frequently forgotten.

We must understand that we can and should modify our plans according to the circumstances, our own genius-which we continually feed through study, observation, and introspection-the quality of our resources, and the terrain upon which we operate.

Consider your plans.

How long ago did you make them?

How have things changed since you created or last modified them?

What new strengths and capabilities have you developed since you built your plans?

How have the obstacles between you and your objectives changed?

What can you do differently now to take advantage of your strengths and exploit your opponent's weaknesses?

Anticipate as much as you can when you build your initial plans and make them as complete as you can, keeping in mind that it is virtually impossible to prepare for every possible circumstance.

Begin your campaign. Planning alone will not help you achieve your goals. Far too many leaders remain in planning mode. Step out. Leave the camp. Move whichever way your plans dictate, remembering that you must sometimes move sideways or even backwards to get to reach your objective.

Keep your plans in a constant state of improvement based on changing circumstances, your own genius-which you've relentlessly fed-the changing nature of your resources, and your terrain.

Execute.

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3) "An army invading a country may either have its two wings resting on neutral countries or on great natural obstacles, such as rivers or chains of mountains; or it may have only one of its wings thus supported; or both may be without support.

"In the first case, a general has only to see that his line is not broken in front. In the second case, he must rest on the wing which is supported. In the third case, he must keep his different corps resting well on his centre and never allow them to separate from it; for if it is a disadvantage to have two flanks in the air, the inconvenience is doubled if there are four, tripled if there are six; that is to say, if an army is divided into two or three distinct corps.

"The line of operations in the first case, may rest on the left or the right wing, indifferently. In the second case, it should rest on the wing which is supported. In the third case, it should fall perpendicularly on the middle of the line formed by the army in marching. But in all the cases above mentioned, it is necessary to have at every five or six days' march, a fort or entrenched position, where magazines of provisions and military stores may be established and convoys organized; and which may serve as a centre of motion and a point of supply, and thus shorten the line of operation."

In this maxim, General Napoleon addresses two key considerations for leaders--knowing your territory and establishing logistical support for your operations.

Napoleon understood both the benefits and constraints posed by the territory in which he conducted his operations, and he used this knowledge to create offensive and defensive advantages for his armies. He didn't waste his time wishing the neutral countries would join in his efforts or that the mountains and rivers weren't in his path. Instead, Napoleon found utility in barriers, whether natural or man-made.

As you survey your battlefield, leader, what natural and unnatural barriers do you see? Do you face regulatory or legal hurdles? Do you see organizations--for example, neutral non-competitors, communications outlets, or government agencies--that you can use as natural barriers for your defense or channels for your offense? Remember, these barriers may also present obstacles or opportunities for your competitors, so keep that in mind as you develop your plans.

Understanding the territory is important, but it isn't the only important planning consideration. Perhaps you've heard the saying that armies run on beans and bullets. Well, it's true and Napoleon was well aware of the need to supply his troops with the necessities for making war. In this, his third maxim, he tells us that regardless of the route we're taking, we must make sure that we have provided for our operational needs.

As a leader, it is crucial for you to consider where you'll get the necessary provisions for your operations. Whether your endeavor calls on you to manufacture and sell products as a multinational conglomerate or simply share thoughts as a lonely individual laboring away on your keyboard, you need material support for your efforts. The manufacturer needs pieces, parts, people, and power, and the writer needs ideas and inspiration. Even the proverbial starving artist needs to eat, right?

Leaders must provide the beans and bullets necessary for keeping their operations moving forward.

Historians have observed that Napoleon would completely immerse himself into the task of planning--studying maps, considering historical examples, and developing, testing, and discarding multiple options--before embarking on his strategic campaigns and prior to each tactical engagement.

Today's leaders would be wise to do the same.

Read more about building the life you've always dreamed of MyHelpSource...

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In Extremis Leadership: Leading As If Your Life Depended On It
In Extremis Leadership: Leading As If Your Life Depended On It

Hungry for More on Military Leadership?

Check out "In Extremis Leadership: Leading As If Your Life Depended On It"

From my review in Strategic Studies Quarterly:

Walk into any bookstore in America and you will encounter aisles packed with books that address leadership in its various forms. Indeed, the leadership-related market is saturated with a tremendous range of topics, with one glaring exception—the special challenges of leading others when lives, as opposed to livelihoods, are on the line. Filling this void, US Army colonel Thomas A. Kolditz successfully tackles the issue of leadership in the most trying situations in In Extremis Leadership. [read the rest at Strategic Studies Quarterly]

If you're interested in real leadership when it counts, In Extremis Leadership: Leading As If Your Life Depended On It by Thomas Kolditz is a must read.

Napoleon's Military Maxims 4 and 5

...for Today's Leaders

4) "It may be laid down as a principle that in invading a country with two or three armies, each of which has its own distinct line of operations extending towards a fixed point at which all are to unite, the union of the different corps should never be ordered to take place in the vicinity of the enemy, as by concentrating his forces he may not only prevent their junction but also defeat them one by one."

Napoleon wisely recognized the folly of merging armies in the presence of the enemy. Even the best trained, most disciplined, most doctrinally sound, and most carefully organized armies are vulnerable when they first meld together.

Unexpected—and fully understandable—weaknesses come to the fore whenever different organizations join forces. Confusion reigns as organizational charts collide, leaders jockey for positions of responsibility and influence, and followers wonder to whom they owe allegiance.

It is just the nature of the beast when forces combine.

Think about this – If the moments when highly trained armies first combine are hazardous enough for Napoleon to dictate as principle that those maneuvers should not take place when opposing forces are near, imagine how much more hazardous such operations are in the disorderly world of commerce.

If you are involved in a venture that requires coordination between two or more organizations, fully assemble your force before you enter the market. Your purposeful mission statement, well-defined organizational culture, and broadly-accepted core values are indispensable tools.

Ensure everybody is operating based on the same understanding of your objectives before you introduce your company, product, or service to the marketplace.

To do otherwise is to invite confusion and court disaster.

Read more about building the life you've always dreamed of MyHelpSource...

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5) "All wars should be systematic, for every war should have an aim and be conducted in conformity with the principles and rules of the art. War should be undertaken with forces corresponding to the magnitude of the obstacles that are to be anticipated."

Read more about building the life you've always dreamed of MyHelpSource...

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Read more about building the life you've always dreamed of MyHelpSource...

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Reader Feedback - ...Share your ideas, suggestions, anecdotes, etc.

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    • Guy E Wood profile image
      Author

      Guy E Wood 3 years ago from USA

      @reasonablerobby: Well said, reasonablerobinson.

      Napoleon has many attributes worth emulating along with several which leaders should avoid.

      Unfortunately, far too many modern leaders adapt Napoleon's negative behaviors and attitudes.

      Thanks for stopping by. I've enjoyed prowling your lenses. Your list is extensive and interesting!

      Onward!

      Guy

    • profile image

      reasonablerobby 3 years ago

      Wise words, sadly there are a lot of little napoleons in organisations though!

    • Guy E Wood profile image
      Author

      Guy E Wood 3 years ago from USA

      @irminia: Thank you for sharing, irminia! I would like to go to Slovenia to see that monument, because that country looks beautiful, I appreciate Napoleon's contributions, and I have a former classmate who lives there.

      Onward!

      Guy

    • irminia profile image

      irminia 3 years ago

      Something to add to Mark Twain's favourable opinion about Napoleon - the Slovenians have erected a monument in the memory of Les Provinces Illyriennes, which Napoleon established about 200 years ago in the teritory of the current Slovenia. It was all in the spirit of what Twain has said, merit above all else.

    • Guy E Wood profile image
      Author

      Guy E Wood 3 years ago from USA

      @delia-delia: Thank you, d-artist!

      Your statue of Napoleon sounds wonderful and I bet the books are spectacular. Napoleon had a big impact on our world and we can learn a lot, both from his own writings and those of others who chose him as their subject.

      Onward!

      Guy

    • Guy E Wood profile image
      Author

      Guy E Wood 3 years ago from USA

      @RobertConnorIII: Enjoy the Roots of Strategy book. That's a book that I've had within arms reach nearly every day since I first bought it in 1991!

      Thanks for visiting!

      Guy

    • RobertConnorIII profile image

      Robert Connor 3 years ago from Michigan

      We like the lens and will be getting the book Roots of Strategy -thanks for the tip Guy!

    • delia-delia profile image

      Delia 3 years ago

      Interesting lens...Napoleon certainly was an interesting person, in particular his military's tactics. I have a beautiful porcelain statue of him based on the painting Crossing the Alps, a romantic version by Jacques-Louis David. I also have three books printed in the late 1790's, written by Helen Maria Williams letters during the Revolutionary War..

    • Guy E Wood profile image
      Author

      Guy E Wood 4 years ago from USA

      @Erin Mellor: Thank you, Erin!

      I appreciate your vote of confidence, especially since I've sort of let this fall off my radar for a while as I've worked on my main blog (MyHelpSourc.com) and other social media platforms. I hope this Napoleon thing is a worthwhile concept, but won't really know till I bust out of the lazies and build more content. Napoleon had a lot of great things to say, and most are just as timely now as they were during his lifetime.

      Thanks again for dropping by and taking the time to share your kind words.

      Onward!

      Guy

    • Erin Mellor profile image

      Erin Mellor 4 years ago from Europe

      Popped by your blog, it looks good.

    • Guy E Wood profile image
      Author

      Guy E Wood 5 years ago from USA

      @Sher Ritchie: Thank you for your kind comment and "like," SRitchieable! I will head over to your lens soon! G'day!

    • Sher Ritchie profile image

      Sher Ritchie 5 years ago

      A squidlike! I've added your lens as a 'feature' on mine: https://hubpages.com/education/quiz-napoleon-bonap... .