Leadership lessons do not only rise from the present. Yes, we can learn a lot of what to do and what not to do from the likes of Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Andy Stanley, Warren Buffett, and Bono. But we are fools to forget the lessons from the past – lessons from leaders like Napoleon Bonaparte, the French leader who emerged in the 18th century and become one of the most powerful leaders in the world. Here are 7 lessons from the history of Napoleon that are worthy of our attention.
1. Effective leaders can rise up at a younger age than you think.
Napoleon became Emperor before he was even 30 years old – controlling large regions of Europe as well as a massive army. At times, we can use the excuse of “needs more experience” to hold back younger men and women from having the opportunities to show their true leadership capabilities. The Apostle Paul said to his young friend Timothy – Don’t let anyone look down upon you because of your youth! As leaders, we too should remember this.
2. Power and control can be addicting.
Napoleon’s success fed an ego that craved more power and prestige. He once said “I have tasted command, and I cannot give it up.” When a leader uses the power conferred upon him or her for the interest of serving others, power can have meaningful outcomes. When power feeds the worst part of who we are inside, it will result in both pain and pathology.
3. An insatiable appetite for more can have devastating consequences.
Napoleon accomplished some amazing military conquests, some of which would have appeared to be nearly impossible. Yet, like an alcoholic in need of one more drink, he was never satisfied and needed one more victory. He always wanted MORE, as reflected when he said, “My power depends on my glory, and my glory on my victories.” While passionate pursuit for growth is not inherently a bad thing, it can lead to an unhealthy fixation and result in dangerous risks and ultimately a life of never being content.
4. Strategy matters.
In many battles, Napoleon was an exceptional strategist. He also introduced a few new strategies to war and executed them with devastating effectiveness. One was the ability to move his army over 30 miles per day in difficult terrain at a much faster speed than his enemies were expecting. This speed along with extreme force and insightful strategies resulted in many wins. Never underestimate the importance of good strategy to lead your organization to a win.
5. Some leaders can acquire extraordinary loyalty from their followers.
Napoleon had that unique ability to motivate his followers by building strong emotional connections and inspiring them towards his vision. While the outcome of such persuasion is damaging when a leader is narcissistic, it can produce great results when a leader has a noble cause, one that is based upon values that are just and good. Want loyalty? Care. Connect. And provide a compelling vision.
6. Success can feed a belief in your invincibility that has devastating results
“Conquest alone made me what I am. Conquest alone can keep me there.” This quote from Napoleon is a sad but true reminder of what drove him and ultimately what destroyed him along with over 3 million soldiers. His success lead to a downfall similar to many leaders – no longer listening to advice and believing you are too great to fail.
7. Even damaged leaders can produce at least some redeeming outcomes.
In spite of his narcissistic tendencies and insatiable appetite for domination, Napoleon’s leadership also produced beneficial things as his Civil Code, the Bank of France, major infrastructure of roads and bridges, banks, libraries, and schools. Similar to Napoleon, we as leaders are also damaged. At times, any of us can be self-centered, demanding, or worse. But God can still use us to produce good – even if it is in spite of us rather than because of us.
Jay Desko is the Executive Director of The Center and serves on the Senior Leadership Team at Calvary Church in Souderton, PA. Jay brings experience in the areas of organizational assessment, leadership coaching, decision-making, and strategic questioning. Jay’s degrees include an M.Ed. in Instructional Systems Design from Pennsylvania State University and a Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior and Leadership from The Union Institute.