Napoleon’s Battle Plan

I guess my knowledge of 19th century French history was a little thinner than I had once thought. The birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte in Ajaccio, CorsicaNot that there are many people with scholarly, in-depth knowledge of this topic outside of the Sorbonne, but I digress.

It took my love for an early – and sadly short-lived – Aaron Sorkin comedy named “Sports Night” to bring me to the light. And because today is Bastille Day, a biggie for the people of France and Francophiles everywhere, it’s only fitting to base this latest blog entry on one Napoleon Bonaparte.

Napoleon was renowned as a brilliant military mind. By 1812, he had established French power and influence across Europe and decided he wanted to bring Russia into the fold. Here is the supposed battle plan for his Russian Campaign (per “Sports Night”).

  1. First we show up.
  2. Then we see what happens.

Better yet, let’s have Casey and Dan explain.

Of course, this plan was far from sound. In fact, it was tragic. Roughly 450,000 French soldiers began the campaign in June 1812 (or close to 600,000 depending on your source). Roughly 10,000 made it home six months later. Napoleon’s reputation as a military genius was shattered. European allies withdrew their support. The French army was in tatters and French dominance of Europe was dramatically weakened.

To be fair, Napoleon’s plan was probably far more strategic and thought-out than Casey and Dan’s interpretation. But in some ways, it might have been just as they described. Napoleon’s prior successes, and his rather oversized self-esteem, blinded him. Could he have beaten the Russian Army in 1812? Probably. But he allowed his prior successes to trick him into thinking that they would be easy to beat, and that the campaign would last no more than the summer.

But it didn’t. And the impact of an entrenched enemy, an early nasty winter, the lack of appropriate gear and supplies for the length of stay and severity of weather, and even the wrong horseshoes, did him in. In other words, it wasn’t the Russian winter that led to defeat. It was Napoleon’s belief that he couldn’t lose and that he owned the war.

Sort of like the scenario of a monstrously successful company, or industry, riding a wave of success and influence (read: power) that seems unstoppable. You can come up with an industry of your choice to insert here: auto, financial services, pharmaceutical, technology. There are others, to be sure, all sharing episodes of intentional blindness that create preventable, and tragic, consequences.

The alternative is not to be constantly on guard, nervous and risk adverse. That doesn’t yield a good outcome either. I’ve worked in places that have suffered from both conditions: excessive confidence and deep restraint. Both of these scenarios create their own flavor of intentional blindness, which does nothing for customers, communities, suppliers or employees.

I’ve come to appreciate that the one true way to avoid a short-sighted battle plan is to speak up, and often. No matter the level held, the amount of tenure or the resistance encountered, it is those with conviction, those who can really see, who prevent foolhardy action. Everyone should be a small-scale agitator, committed to making what you do and where you work better

Is this easy? Of course not. Does it automatically work? Unfortunately, no.

Yet getting good at seeing things for what they are and speaking up about them saves companies, industries, armies. At a bare minimum, it keeps you honest in your career, and makes it easier to strive for a place to be heard.

Maybe if the Emperor of the French had people around him who spoke up, and who he listened to, the French would have been back home by fall.




One Comment

  1. maillot de foot August 25, 2013 Reply

    this is great blog, I will certainly be back.

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