There are people who are said to have been “born leaders”. Meaning, they were born to naturally have leadership qualities, that they know how to command the respect of other people easily. But perceptions are changing, and leadership is now considered to be an attribute that can be learned. For sure, you have come across several leadership trainings and seminars, and courses that focus on teaching leadership lessons.

But some of the best teachers when it comes to leadership are those who have made a mark in history, and using their actions and legacy as points of instruction. No doubt, one of the most notable and greatest leaders in history is Napoleon Bonaparte.

11 Leadership Lessons From Napoleon

© Flickr | Dennis Jarvis

In this article, you will learn 1) about the history and actions of Napoleon Bonaparte and 2) 11 leadership lessons from Napoleon you can apply today.


French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was a huge driving force in history, building and creating France to what it is today, and showing a great example of what leadership is to the rest of the world. He was one of the most brilliant military tacticians and strategists of his time and, unorthodox though his methods were, no one could deny how brilliant of a leader he was. He was fearless in the battlefield, and had enough charisma to draw people in with his words. Of course, there are other words that have been used to describe him: tyrant, motivator, revolutionary, ruthless politician. But one of his most enduring titles was that of a leader.

Before becoming a prominent figure during the French Revolution and the Revolutionary Wars, Napoleon started out from humble beginnings, born to a family of minor nobility in Corsica. He showed early promise when it comes to a career in the military, and that’s what he did. He then rose up, starting out at the bottom of the military ranks until he became a military general and, at the age of 34, the first Emperor of France.

Get a full picture on the life and actions of Napoleon Bonaparte by looking at this presentation.

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You do not have to be part of the military in order to be able to apply the leadership lessons that Napoleon taught through example. The leadership skills and principles he had exhibited are applicable even in business, which is, incidentally, often similar to a war or a battle. A good leader, be it of a fleet of warriors, military troops, or a corporate team, all follow the same fundamentals, and most of them can be learned from Napoleon Bonaparte.

Lesson 1: Aim high

Do not be satisfied with “just enough”, when you can have the “most”. Do not settle for “just all right”, when you can be the “best”.

Aim high. Be greedy. Of course, it goes without saying that the effort you put in should also be at its fullest. There should be no room for half-assed attempts or half-hearted cracks at something. If you won’t aim high, that has very little difference to not aiming for anything at all.

Lesson 2: Be where you are needed, and lead your people there

Being present is already expected from a leader; but being present where you are needed is more important. Napoleon had many people with large amounts of abilities, skills and talents under his command, and he skillfully led them where their skills are needed or required. He made it a point to be there with them, so he could direct them better. He knew where to spot opportunities where his people’s skills and abilities will be put to use, and that is where he took them. The battlefield was his domain, and that was where you will find him, alongside and in front of his men.

Napoleon was a very effective motivator. War time is definitely not a time for upbeat spirits, but with several speeches, he was able to revive the fighting spirit of men who were battle-weary and have been facing the poorest of conditions as they were led by a succession of incompetent leaders and commanders.

Lesson 3: Be the first to do something

Being a leader means having the willingness to get your hands dirty. For Napoleon, no job was beneath him. Even when he was a celebrated general, he had no qualms about getting down from his steed and getting into the trenches. He participated in the work of those that he led. This ensured that he was kept aware of what goes on in the lower ranks even when he was already up there.

For a while, the pictures painted of the quintessential leader was one that sits behind a desk (or on his throne), barking and giving orders to his subjects or servants, expecting them to buckle down and do what he told them at that very moment. This easily makes for a divisive relationship, one where the followers would have no respect for their leader, and doing something because they are told to do so, without them even wanting to do it.

Being hands-on is something that employees are bound to appreciate from their leader. It tells a lot about the character of a leader when he attempts to work side by side with the people he leads. It is easier for both sides to connect and collaborate, and therefore finish the task at hand effectively and efficiently.

Lesson 4: Say what you mean and mean what you say

Empty promises are not what you would hear from a good leader. Giving false hopes, on the other hand, is the same thing.

Napoleon advocated delivering on what has been promised and by this was great at expectation management. This effectively inspired confidence and trust in his people, so they were willing to follow him wherever he led.

It is important for your people – and for everyone else – to see your sincerity as a leader, and by choosing your words carefully, you can show that you mean business.

Lesson 5: Acknowledge that you cannot do everything by yourself

There is a general misconception that a leader must be able to do everything alone. That certainly defeats the purpose of leading a group. You need help? Then ask for it.

Napoleon, no matter how accomplished a soldier and tactician he was, could not have won battles if he were alone in the charge. He needed help from others, and he was not above lowering himself and doing things for others in order to ask for it. In the end, he was able to accomplish what he set out to do.

There is one other thing that Napoleon made a point of, particularly after getting help from others: he thanked them. Whether it was through saying the words out loud, paying his soldiers with gold and silver that he has obtained, or even taking his own medal and pinning it on the coat of one his soldiers, he never failed to thank those who contributed to the cause.

Gratitude is something that is often overlooked, even in corporate settings. There is this common perception that, since everyone in business is out to get something from others (e.g. win a deal, earn profits), then it’s mainly a give-and-take relationship, so saying thank you is not really all that important.

You should give credit to where, when, and to whom it is due. The modern leader who wants to follow Napoleon’s example should set up an appreciation and reward system in place. It is to show his people that he appreciates the hard work they put in, and reward them for a job well done. This is a very positive way to boost their morale and motivate them to do better. On the other hand, employees who feel unappreciated and unrewarded by their leaders tend to feel disgruntled and completely unmotivated to go to work, or even think of ways to be less productive.

Lesson 6: Be different

As a leader, you have to set yourself apart from your people. The greatest leaders did this by accomplishing great feats and tasks, by doing any of the following:

Doing things differently. Breaking conventions and defying expectations was something that Napoleon did during his time. That’s what made him such a brilliant strategist, because he was not afraid to try something different, something new.

Napoleon refused to stick to what was the norm, even in the way he and his men fought. As long as he saw an advantageous position for his troops, he seized it. He came up with tricks on battle formations that even bewildered his generals, but they turned out to be excellent moves, as evidenced by his victory during the Battle of the Pyramids in Egypt, when his 20,000-strong French army systematically defeated the Mamluk warriors, who had 60,000 men.

As a leader, you have to always be on the lookout for other, newer, ways to perform a task. It’s not really a good idea to stick to only one method of dealing with one situation, especially in a competitive environment such as business, where there are competitors at every turn. By doing things in the same way over and over again, you are in danger of being predictable, so they will be able to anticipate your moves better, and you lose any advantage you may have over them.

Doing the impossible. Napoleon was seen as braver than most people, going where others would not dare, doing what others deemed impossible.

Just like in the example stated above, which could only be described by many as an impossible task. Being short of 40,000 men compared to the enemy would have been enough to make other commanders cower, but not Napoleon. Instead, he looked for ways to even up the numbers without seeking reinforcements, and that was through his brilliant strategizing.

Lesson 7: Respect your people

Respect asks for respect. It is something that is earned, yes, even by leaders. Napoleon was able to command the respect of his soldiers by showing that he, too, had respect for them and their abilities and contributions. It did not even matter that it was the lowest-ranked foot soldier, Napoleon respected them as human beings and part of the troops, and not solely for their position in the hierarchy.

Napoleon was able to build an unstoppable army, mainly because of the devotion and loyalty that he was able to instill in his soldiers. But take note that Napoleon did not just earn the devotion of his people to him, per se, but he also made sure that his people became devoted to their cause. He made them want victory and glory in every battle as much as he did.

  • Know your people and understand them. This is also another way of showing that you respect your people: get to know them and understand how they feel. Napoleon also took this as an opportunity to predict outcomes, especially when faced with unexpected circumstances or situations. Planning and strategizing became easier because Napoleon knew his people, so he knew where to put resources in the field.
  • Do not silence your people. Let them speak their minds and say their peace. Do not just hear them out; really listen to what they say. Get their thoughts, ideas, and opinions; you will be surprised at how much you can learn just by letting your people talk and by listening to what they have to say. Putting restrictions or limitations on them will also potentially be limiting to your effectiveness as a leader, and of your group’s goals. More importantly, pay attention to what your people think about how you are as a leader. After all, they are in the best position to say whether you are going a good job leading them or not.
  • Trust your people. This is probably one of the hardest things for a leader (for anyone, really) to do but, by trusting your people, you are also working towards getting them to trust you. People find it easier to give their loyalty and trust to someone who shows that they trust them back. In the Battle of the Pyramids, for example, Napoleon trusted that his men will come through, despite being outnumbered. In return, his men trusted him to come up with a strategy for them to survive and beat the enemies.

Lesson 8: Look people in the eye

It’s a very simple thing to do, yet not a lot of people manage to do it. It’s called eye contact, and it is a quality that every good leader should have.

By looking at another person straight in their eye, you are acknowledging their existence and showing that you are listening to what they have to say. It also serves as one way to gauge the person you are talking to. Sizing up a rival or an enemy will be easier when you look into their eyes, since it has been said all too often that the eyes are the windows of one’s soul. You can tell a lot about a person by watching how their eyes move, shift, or react.

Lesson 9: Control your temper

More often than not, we are our own worst enemy, and anger is not going to help any. Anger is one sure way to cloud one’s judgment and, as a good leader, you are not supposed to let go of the clarity of your judgment.

By managing his anger, Napoleon was able to keep his emotions in check and keep a clear head on the battlefield, where every decision – even the smallest one – could make the difference between life and death.

  • Do not speak in anger. People who let anger rule over them tend to say things that they soon regret later on. In the process, they hurt other people, and they also lose the respect that those people had for them.
  • Do not make decisions when you are feeling emotional. Unless you have a handle on your emotions, do not decide on anything. Deliberation requires a level head, and being emotional – not just plain furious – won’t let you do that objectively.

Lesson 10: Have respect for your time

You might not know it, but you might be disrespecting the time that is available to you by doing things that are irrelevant and will not really give you any satisfaction. Napoleon showed great efficiency in managing time and becoming an excellent organizer.

This was also apparent in how Napoleon was known to focus on the key issues at hand. With so many issues to sort through, he knew which points to pay attention to, and which ones can be ignored or left for another day.

You often hear businessmen say that “time is money”, and there is a lot of truth to this. Time wasted means money wasted in business, which is why business leaders should make sure they manage their time well. The Pomodoro technique is great for managing your time.

Lesson 11: Never stop learning

A leader should never feel and act like he knows everything and, thus, no longer sees the need to learn anything more. There is always, ALWAYS, something new to learn.

Napoleon never stopped seeking to improve himself by acquiring knowledge and learning whatever could be learned, which he then used in his future endeavors. Even as a young boy, he read a lot, focusing on the Classics, particularly those of notable leaders in history such as Alexander the Great.

In the formulation of the Napoleonic Code, Napoleon entrusted the task to equally brilliant individuals, but he still joined the lengthy meetings, astounding everyone with his amazing grasp of all the relevant details. This is proof that, even at the height of his power as a leader, he never stopped learning.

Leaders in business have to be aware of a lot of things, even beyond the scope of the industry that they are in. This is not just a way to widen their horizons, but to also keep their minds alert and sharp, to make it easier for them to spot opportunities once they arise.

Image credit: Flickr | Dennis Jarvis (modified) under Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.

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