Reflections on Napoleon’s leadership at the Battle of Waterloo

The bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo celebrated last week rekindled my curiosity in British military history. Accounts revealed just what an appallingly bloody battle it was, and one of the defining events of European history. Waterloo not only brought to an end the extraordinary career of Napoleon Bonaparte, whose ambitions had led directly to the deaths of up to 6 million people, it also redrew the map of Europe.

Napoleon’s Waterloo campaign dramatically demonstrates how one of history’s greatest commanders had a clear set of strategic principles underlying his decisions. The narrative accounts, combined with analysis of the decision-making and actions upon which the outcome of the struggle turned, provide for a tense leadership allegory.

Today’s business leaders can learn a great deal about the art and science of decision-making by studying Napoleon’s Waterloo campaign. Although the methods of warfare have changed, fundamentals such as planning, project management, delegation, risk analysis and tactics remain.

The story of the battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815 – the third engagement between Wellington’s Anglo-Dutch forces and the French following that at Quatre Bras on June 16 and the much bigger battle of Ligny on the following day – remains tense and gripping.

Doubtless some of the reports and anecdotes were embroidered, but they convey in extraordinary detail and colour the horror, the heroism, the terror and the leadership of fighting men in extremis. In all probability, Napoleon could not ultimately have won the war, but what gives the story its enduring power is the fact that the outcome of this battle was far from certain. As Wellington said later, it was ‘the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life’.

Returning from his nine-month exile on Elba, Napoleon quickly mobilised an army of 200,000 men to take on the coalition forces gathering to apprehend him. The conception of what turned out to be Napoleon’s final campaign was brilliant. The plan was to split the forces commanded by Wellington from the Prussian army led by the redoubtable Gebhard von Blücher and then defeat each separately. However, its execution depended on a speed and decisiveness.

So what caused the defeat of one of history’s greatest commanders, and how can we draw lessons from this into our business thinking? Napoleon’s initial planning, aside from selection of his ill-suited deputies, had been flawless. His campaign strategy, and build up of his battle strategy, are judged by many historians as brilliant.

His defeat was not the result of flawed strategic planning, rather decision-making in the heat of the battle, when it mattered most, fell short. Fighting in the fog of war, under conditions of extreme uncertainty, there are a number of decisions Napoleon made which highlight his strategic thinking and planning, but ultimately shortfalls in tactical execution led to his demise. Let’s look at these decisions, and the traits they reflect.

Be consistent. Napoleon decided to attack as his campaign strategy against the allies. He chose to seize the offensive, consistent characteristics throughout his 23 years and 60 battles of his military career. He went for the quick knockout blow, the defensive was an anathema to him, and his foremost objective was always the destruction of the enemy’s forces

Chose able deputies and learn to delegate. Historians are near unanimous in disparaging the selections of Marshals Ney and Grouchy. Ultimately Ney’s inexplicable hesitation in taking the strategic crossroads of Quatre Bras, the key to dividing the coalition armies, and the failure of initiative by Grouchy that allowed the regrouped Prussians to outflank him and arrive at the critical moment to save Wellington at Waterloo, were key failures in the battle.

Why did Napoleon choose so poorly? Marshals Davout and Suchet were his two most able deputies, but he left them behind. Hindsight shows that the issue was the inappropriate role assigned to Ney and Grouchy, and an insistence of Napoleon retaining overall command and his presence at every critical engagement. Without delegation and empowerment, there was no tactical leadership when it was needed most.

Timing and taking your time. Having made a decision, timing of execution is everything. The choice of time and place of his initial engagement was a masterpiece of speed and secrecy, striking the enemy unaware and unprepared. Strategic surprise is a key principle of business decision-making.

But there are many aspect of Waterloo that Napoleon could have won if he had been more patient rather than rushing, impulsively into battle. Bonaparte lacked the temperament to fight a defensive battle. Focusing all your energy on forward movement might seem like the right thing to do, especially if it’s what has led to your success before. However, every leader needs to be expert in controlling active periods as well as calm ones.

Make smart, bold and decisive moves. Napoleon’s tactics were to drive the allies two armies away from each other, causing each to fall back and isolate them, breaking lines of communication. This captures the excellent tactical application of the principle of ‘manoeuvre’ another characteristic of Napoleon’s style of combat.

Maintain momentum. At this stage in the battle, it appeared Napoleon had achieved victory, but the advantage was not carried through. He should have ordered immediate pursuit to exploit his initial success and ensure he reduced the allied armies to a disorganised table. But he delayed this decision until daybreak. This was an usual lapse for Napoleon, and was to be ultimately costly.

Be alert to options. At this stage Napoleon had three possible courses of action as tactical next steps. However, he remained committed to his strategic intent, and thus he look to simply secure his gains, rather than press home his advantage. He thus lost momentum and the upper hand by not being alert to options.

You need to make your planning and risk analysis commensurate with the size of your project. This was a large project and, even though Napoleon did unprecedented planning, it still wasn’t enough. Take the time to imagine what can go wrong, think about the ‘What if?’ scenarios, and develop solutions to address each option.

Be open-minded and balanced. Napoleon surmised that Wellington was planning an attack on 18 June, and so relaxed his attention. He overruled his generals. Historians have made much of this decision, since this failure contributed to the ultimate defeat. His stubborn refusal, coupled with apparent emotional outbursts against his generals, suggests that his close-minded attitude and temperament were impacting his leadership and he lacked a clear-headed approach.

Napoleon also had a bad temper. Sometimes he’d fly off the handle over small matters and sometimes he’d plan a fit hoping that his dramatics would inspire his subordinates to action. He used his loud outbursts to inspire fear and respect in the ranks, but they rarely won him points in diplomacy. Such hysterics made Napoleon look uncertain, weak and hot-headed.

Don’t knee-jerk. At 11am on 18 June, Napoleon changed his mind on his strategy, and went for a single, massive, frontal offensive supported by a small number of preliminary attacks. The straightforward assault lacked guile and subtlety, and he was confident, ‘we have 90 chances in our favour, and not ten against us’. However, there was no fall back position, and they attacked without success. Their momentum exhausted by dogged English defence, Napoleon has no response when the English plunged back directly into the central France army.

Listen to your people. Napoleon now had two options: he could call off the attack and regroup, or he could go again, and fling everything he had against Wellington. His generals implored him to retreat, they knew their troops needed to regroup. But Napoleon saw no reason to retire, and his decision was to continue the battle – and at any cost to push home and win. The French thus attacked in frenzy, but without discipline and with communication lost in the melee, their effort fractured.

This is the critical moment in the campaign, Napoleon, with the first signs of disarray in his troops, failed to listen to his generals and in fact went directly against them with his battle orders. This time spent arguing gave Wellington time to think, plan and execute his placement and defensive line. Many historians think that if Napoleon had been more strategic and thoughtful at this moment, the battle may have been won.

Reflect, don’t be stubborn. At this point, around 7pm, Napoleon should have withdrawn further, but retreat was not in his concept of war. Moreover, he was not physically situated such that he had little choice but to continue the conflict. In his mind, the moment to snatch success was a hand, the fate in a single instant. He thought this was the decisive moment and he personally took forward eight battalions to attack the English centre. At 8.15pm Napoleon order a general advance but the French were crushed. The elite Imperial Guard had never failed in an attack, and moved forward Wellington’s men met them head-on and fierce hand-to-hand combat ensued.

In identifying the gaps in Napoleon’s judgement, nothing should be taken away from Wellington, who was unmatched in the art of defence and who had experienced and competent subordinates, and a British infantry who were hardened veterans of the highest quality, factors that Napoleon almost certainly underestimated in his strategic calculus.

Napoleon was a master at the art of project management in general, and military strategy in particular. Was it a case of Napoleon being overconfident and ignoring his own valued principles that cause his demise at Waterloo?

Some specific lessons to be learned are: Napoleon seemed to commit a series of mistakes that sealed his fate. In summary, he began too late; he did not follow up his initial assaults; he did not retreat when needed; he could attend to only one thing at a time; he failed to control his generals; he was nether calm nor alert, and more than anything else, Napoleon’s defeat stems from his failure in controlling the timing aspect of his decision making.

I think they key learning is don’t become over-confident, especially after many successes, and never attempt a difficult endeavour in isolation. Always remember the basic leadership principles of ideals, ethics and responsibility to others. Napoleon began his career with strong ideals meant to restore equality to the people. He crafted the French Civil Code, which is a basis for all civil codes today, and was responsible for much of the architecture you see today in Paris. Yet at Waterloo, he seemed to operate in a self-centered manner, driven by ego and self-belief above leading his team.

Napoleon was ambitious to a fault, and total control became his focus. Power corrupts. His power blinded him into taking both extreme risks and arrogant, lazy decisions at Waterloo, which failed despite his unprecedented planning. It’s worth noting that there is a fine line between being overly ambitious and having confidence. 
In his memoirs, Napoleon went on and on about what he could have done to win at Waterloo, it seems he never truly reflected on lessons to be learned.

There is no doubt that Napoleon was a military genius and dynamic leader, and many of his lessons can be applied to business leadership today. One only has to read about his many successes, and stories of the dedication and admiration of his troops. However, it’s equally important that we learn from his downfall. In the end, he failed not because of his principles and maxims, but despite them.







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