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Napoleon and the Art of Leadership

Napoleon and the Art of Leadership

William Nester
ARRSE Rating
2 Mushroom Heads
Napoleon is one of the military leaders who attracts authors; I assume that – rather like Churchill – any biography or analysis including his name will sell. Similarly, he also possesses an ability to beguile and fascinate military historians of all types and capabilities – some become obsessive. It’s hard not to be fascinated by the transformation of an impecunious Corsican artilleryman into Emperor of (most of) Europe to failure, rotting on St Helena. All achieved in a couple of decades. How the heck did one person achieve so much and then blow it so badly? Clearly he needed to be able inspire people to follow him, stay with him when the going got tough and, if necessary, die on the many battlefields and the long trek to Moscow and back.

It was therefore with some anticipation that I opened this book, hoping for an insight into how Napoleon led. What was it that he did to inspire? How did he command? What techniques did he use? I suppose my expectations were too high – those are wide questions to cover in 350 pages of prose and another 150 of end notes and index.

The author has pretty much recorded Napoleon’s life in more or less chronological order. The account is peppered with excerpts from Napoleon’s written instructions to his minions (which may be a rather dismissive term for the likes of Talleyrand) and achingly few comments from them. There is little analysis or comment. I should imagine that the various blockaded French Admirals who, post Trafalgar, were instructed to break through the blockade with their rotting ships and inexperienced crews must have been somewhat underwhelmed by the impossible orders that they received. Sadly the author has unearthed no contemporaneous correspondence or diaries from the recipients.

The image that emerges is of a martinet, arrogant, micromanager who sought to build a dynasty with poor quality family members. Despite working harder than a one armed wall-paper hanger, issuing detailed instructions to his Empire from his various campaigns. For sure in the post-revolutionary turmoil he brought order and the Code Napoleon, which still is relevant today. Certainly he won some staggering military victories (not described in detail in this book). Yes, his grip embraced the military, civil, economic and diplomatic arenas and yes, he mesmerised, but ultimately he failed; spectacularly and disastrously for France - in particular for its young men whose bodies lay from Lisbon to Moscow.

There is lamentably little direct discussion of leadership, management or the character traits that turned incisive brilliance into bombastic hubris. The book’s title is misleading.

It’s also quite dull, finishing it took real commitment and, with hindsight, was not time well or happily spent. The chronological leaps back and forth don’t help and the lack of maps is a disgrace. If you’re interested in either leadership or Napoleon there must be better books.

2 mushrooms.

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