Known for his military victories in the 19th century, Napolean Bonaparte’s enduring popularity was due to his contributions as an organiser, administrator and manager of the French state
FRIEDRICH Hegel, the famous German philosopher, said, “The only thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history”. This is true, when you consider the fact that the greatest lessons are taught by history. In spite of great strides registered in science and technology, the human nature, skills and qualities required for fruition of endeavours remain the same and this is a domain in which lessons from history are particularly timeless. Hence, a study of great men who made a mark in history helps us fathom some of the timeless ingredients of leadership. In this article, from an in depth study of Napoleon and his life, we identify and present some of his qualities which paved the way for his great achievements.
Reading and learning from books was the only way one could continuously learn in those days. Ever since his boyhood days, reading was Napoleon’s first love. His quest for knowledge continued with the same vigour even at the height of his busy tenure as Emperor and remained aglow till his last days as a prisoner of war in St. Helena. Education, Napoleon believed, should be useful to one’s position. As emperor, he knew that he could not afford to lack the knowledge he needed.
Napoleon maintained a well-stocked home library. In 1808, in the midst of hectic military campaigns, he sent a memorandum to his personal librarian to arrange for a portable library of 1000 volumes, printed in small types with no margin, so as not to waste space and loosely bound so that the books would lay flat while he read them on campaigns.
Continuous education was personally important to Napoleon. He never stopped educating himself at any stage of life. He was strongly influenced by works of Rousseau’s Confessions, and La Novella Heloise. Many of his pioneering reforms in education were based on ideas gleaned from Rousseau’s works.
During his last days of captivity in St. Helena, the golden day for him was when the ship arrived with wooden cases of books. In St. Helena, he is said to have collected 3,000 volumes and they were arranged on the bare damp shelves. How many of our leaders today continuously read and educate themselves?
Since Napoleon’s reading was very extensive, he had to be compellingly selective. So he regularly skipped many of the pages (including Rousseau’s) as ‘useless treatises’. He also used to read so fast that a book hardly lasted him an hour and the assistant was kept busy carrying away armful of finished books brought from the shelves.
In today’s world characterized by information explosion and overload, it is particularly important to be very selective in what we chose to read. It is also critical to cultivate the art of reading and skip unwanted reading, like Napoleon.
The great ‘Life time Manager’
In modern managerial education, time management is considered a critical topic. Time management, as we understand, however, focuses only on the optimal management of a calendar day.
But Napoleon offers himself as a great role model by the way he conducted his ‘whole life time management’ in a masterly manner. His gross life lasted 51 years, seven months and 20 days. He was taken as a prisoner of war after his decisive defeat at Waterloo and was deported to the island of St. Helena, notorious for its insalubrious climate and remained as captive for six years till his death. His net active life, therefore, was only 45 years. Within this short span of his life, he lived an extremely productive life, leaving indelible footprints on the sands of time.
Napoleonic era lasted only for 16 years from 1799 to 1815. In these limited number of years his achievements are extraordinary. Compare this with our individual life and career. With greater time at our disposal, we are unable to leave a mark. Napoleon used to admonish, “space we can recover, time never”.
Living the ‘Present Moment’
For Napoleon, the most important moment was ‘now’. When an issue was taken up for consideration, he would plug all the corners and crevices in his mind, clear all other extreme thoughts and concentrate on the issue at hand. “It is in your moment of decision that your destiny is shaped”.
In public, Napoleon loved dazzle, splendour and pageantry. However, he was a stickler to thrift in his own private life. To his courtiers, his advice was: “Be economical and even parsimonious at home, be magnificent in public”.
Before he established a splendid royal palace as Emperor at Fontainebleau, his accommodation consisted of a bedroom, bath room, study, dining room, conference room, audience chamber and a large ante chamber. His eating consisted of two simple meals a day. His wardrobe was limited. He would drink half-a-cup of strong coffee twice or thrice in a day. He was having only two (Napoleon trade mark) velvet caps at a time and everywhere he will put it on in a diagonally tilted posture.
Savings from his personal income was a priority. In his last will and testament the entire cash apportioned represented his savings from his civil list payments for the last 14 years. Other items, including items like furniture and pieces of art, were all purchased from his own savings.
Leaving a mark
Napoleon had the innate ability to create a favourable impression in the minds of people with disparate backgrounds. Augustin, brother of Maximilien Robespierre, fiery leader of the French Revolution wrote to his brother during early spring of 1794, “I add to the names of patriots, citizen Bonaparte, an exceedingly meritorious General in Command of the Artillery”. Sir Neil Campbell, the English commissioner at Elba, wrote in his recollections, “I have never seen a man in any situation in life with so much personal activity and restless perseverance”. Even his rival British commander Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington used to say of him, “His presence on the field made a difference of 40,000 men”.
Napoleon Bonaparte is not great by virtue of his words, his speeches, his writings or by virtue of a love of liberty; he is great in that he created a solid powerful government, a code of laws adopted by various countries, courts of law, schools and a strong active and intelligent administration, which forms the basis for our living till today (Napoleonic Code is adopted in all European countries even today).
While Napoleon is known for his military victories, his enduring popularity, however, is only due to his everlasting contributions as an organiser, administrator and manager of the French state. Many a lesson is in store to be learnt from a study of his life for today’s generation.
Raveendra Chittoor is Assistant Professor of Strategy, ISB, Hyderabad