Few have risen as high and fallen as hard as Napoleon Bonaparte, who could have written a good book of cutthroat career advice. I’ve been trying to summarize his philosophy, good and bad, for a class I’m planning to teach.
Here’s what he might tell a business school.
By the way, this is Napoleon’s take, not mine. He was emperor by 35 and dead at 51. I never get beyond the “good employee” phase.
- Invent yourself. Napoleon was a nobody from the island of Corsica who made himself the most famous Frenchman of all time. Every success prompted him to raise his goals.
- Know what you want. He wanted power and fame, and got them.
- Work for yourself. Napoleon was an able subordinate, rising from captain to brigadier general in a year. But once he got control of the rag-tag French army fighting in Italy, he never looked back. He always wanted to be in charge, taking all the risk and getting all the credit. Even as head of state, he usually led his armies in the field.
- It’s who you know. Robespierre of Reign of Terror fame helped Bonaparte get early assignments, and his willingness to marry the castoff mistress of a Paris politico (Josephine) helped land the Italy job. He knew how to work a room.
- Pick your department. When the Revolutionary army wanted to move Napoleon from the artillery to the less prestigious infantry, he simply refused and made himself scarce until he could get the assignment reversed.
- Don’t accept thankless assignments. Early on, Bonaparte was told to invade England when no invasion was possible. Rather than be stuck with failure, he left to play politics in Paris and was handily on hand when they needed “a sword” to give an unruly mob “a whiff of grapeshot.”
- Don’t ask permission. Napoleon did what he wanted when he wanted, including crowning himself emperor. His arrogance made him plenty of enemies, who got him in the end. But meanwhile, he was meteoric.
- Go for the throat. Napoleon always focused on the enemy army, not land or capitals. Crush that, he preached, and everything else will follow.
- Market yourself. Bonaparte was tireless at propaganda and censored all criticism. His exaggerations from the battlefield gave rise to the phrase, “To lie like a Bulletin.”
- Cut your losses to pursue new opportunities. When a naval defeat at the Nile and a land defeat at Acre frustrated early plans to carve out an empire in the Middle East, Napoleon didn’t wait around to surrender. He abandoned his army, fled to France, and seized power in a coup. The general he left in charge was assassinated in Cairo. Bonaparte became First Consul.
- Buy some friends. Napoleon created 23 dukes, 193 counts, 648 barons, and distributed 16 million francs among 824 generals. He passed out countless medals and honors. He was the godfather.
- Build a good team and delegate. His subordinates didn’t all share his genius, but Napoleon had the best military and civilian staff in Europe.
- Learn how to count. Napoleon wanted luck and numeracy in his generals, so they’d get to battle “firstus with the mostest,” in the words of a Civil War general. He was a master at logistics, movement, and concentration.
- Play the role. Napoleon confidently acted what he wanted to be, conqueror and emperor, and his self-assurance led others to accept it.
- Be opportunistic. Bonaparte didn’t waste time wishing; he played the cards he was dealt.
So why did Napoleon ultimately fail?
He didn’t know when to quit. He overreached by invading Russia. He refused to compromise to buy peace. He didn’t pay enough attention to his health and became exhausted: he was not his best at Waterloo in part because of severe hemorrhoids.
He was ruthless, sexist, selfish, mildly sadistic (he liked to pinch people) and hated as much as he was loved. But what extraordinary success for twenty-some years!