The mere mention of Napoleon Bonaparte stirs the emotions. The events of his life have fuelled the imaginations of historians, literary figures, commanding officers, film makers and students alike; contributing significantly to the expansion of the Napoleonic legend. This essay seeks to analyze those command and leadership strengths and weaknesses, which have made him revered, as one of the 'greatest military minds' in the history of warfare.
Born Napoleone Buonparte on the island of Corsica on August 15 1769, Napoleon's ascent to the throne can only be described as meteoric. Napoleon was promoted to Brigadier General at the tender age of 24 and eventually became Emperor of France by 34. His genius stemmed from his use of the 'tools at hand'. Indeed he had the capacity for deriving maximum benefit from a situation. Through his military tactics he was able to expand France's overseas empire and introduced a series of judicial, financial and administrative reforms, many of which have survived until today.
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Standing at only 5'2" Napoleon was a brilliant military strategist who was both admired and feared. He possessed an unbelievable range of intellectual ability with enormous powers of concentration and memory for details and facts. This insatiable thirst and ability to absorb knowledge gave him the ability to work for long periods continually. His genius lay in the fact that he did not revolutionize the warfare itself but excelled at refining the existing art. Drastic changes in reforms were not proposed; rather he employed new ways to make things work. Taking interest in the smallest measures under his command he used his mental abilities to think out military problems days or even months in advance, a trait that proved invaluable on battle fields where he perplexed the opposing armies with his military strategies'. The most outstanding feature of his system of warfare was its flexibility and limitless variation. Fusion of battle with maneuver was his greatest contribution to the art of war. Insisting on speed and mobility; the basic features of his campaign, he introduced a system of army corps capable of holding off superior forces until help arrived.
One significant impact throughout his career was his personality. Napoleon was always conscious of was how to portray himself and his achievements to his personal glory. He had a great ability in propaganda, the art of getting the masses and elite to understand and support what he wanted them to. He skillfully used self promotion such as proclamations, bulletins and letters to government all written with his interests in mind. His campaigns in the eyes of the public became crusades of good against evil. He even went as far as commissioning artists and offering prizes for portraits and sculptures celebrating key moments in his career. Truly a master manipulator, he strategically managed to project an idealized image of himself that he carefully fashioned to suit the purposes of his ambition.
The most important factor of Napoleon's personality was his genius to inspire others. This greatly affected his abilities as a military commander. As a leader, Napoleon first won the trust and loyalty of his men; from the lowest soldier to the highest ranking general and aristocrats. Indeed his greatest strength, he accomplished this by promising them victory and glory. A charismatic speaker with irresistible charm he was able to influence not only those that he led but also those that he did not lead. A great motivator of the people he understood that he had to fill the needs of the people first, in order to excite them enough about the art of war. This was the only way that they would have the passion to complete succeeding missions.
An inspiration to both Frenchmen and foreigners, Napoleon had the unique ability to persuade people to believe in his cause and adapt to his way of thinking. Thus he won a significant amount of credibility and favour by simply involving himself in warfare, particularly on the battlefield alongside his men. He never lost sight of his responsibility to get the job done. No job was beneath him and he took on tasks that could have easily been delegated to others. In the eyes of those under his command this was extremely commendable. He made his soldiers feel as though he was one of them and not above them and here in lay the indeterminable strength of his army. Napoleons army not only fought for France, they were entirely devoted to their commanding general making it impossible to stop them. He understood that he had to make others confident in his ability to succeed this was the only way they would believe that they held the same ability.
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A wise leader is greatly aware of the impact of morale on modern warfare, Napoleon was such a leader. He believed in the maxim, "Morale is to the physical as three is to one." and that, "Moral force rather than numbers, decides victories." Thus he derived a system of awards and preferment, appealing to the soldiers "soul in order to electrify the man." Napoleon understood the importance of showing gratitude; a sure way to gain the favor of the people. He paid soldiers using the gold and silver he attained from battles and created the Legion of Honor to reward their accomplishments. Often he honoured the best or bravest soldier by removing his own medals or merits off his coat and placing them on the soldier's in question which 'spread like wildfire' and inspired them all. He promoted those who performed well regardless of their social background. Hence, he inevitably linked the fortunes of his officers to his own continual success and maintenance of power. Letting his soldiers know from time to time how much they meant to the organization and how much he valued their effort was a sure way to keep the respect and admiration of the people. This ensured their total devotion and loyalty.
A great leader however, is not without his flaws and towards the end of his empire Napoleons weaknesses became more evident. His once iron will turned to stubbornness as he became obsessed with warfare and territorial acquisition. This insatiable lust for power caused ceaseless demands on the resources of France. Troops were increased, so much so, that they became cumbersome to maneuver and more static. The scale of warfare increased and the key factor became firepower, in particular artillery. The end result was that the "one time God of battles was overthrown by the dynamics of warfare that he had unleashed but failed to comprehend" He abandoned the principle of concentration and destruction of armies, a system that had given him a great advantage over his opponents during the early empire. Underestimating his enemies, he set the path for his downfall. After being exiled to Elba he suffered a loss of confidence and a deterioration of his physical health. This lack of confidence slowly trickled down to the soldiers, resulting in their defeat.
Some may argue that perhaps Napoleon's main weakness lay in the fact that he did not know when to quit. He made mistakes that many leaders and potential leaders could learn from. His megalomaniac personality would not allow him to adapt to the changing shape of war. He became too powerful which lead to a growing distrust of those around him, believing in things which held no reality. Always there were spies listening to the conversations of people in Paris, taking away their space and freedom. Thus he did not empower those around him to do more because they were constantly looking over their shoulders. He pushed hard working men to pursue too much too soon without doubting or allowing those around him to question enough the merits of certain decisions. Having no tolerance for liberty he attempted to silence the speech of those around him. In doing so he limited the feedback he got about his leadership skills; stunting his ability for growth and improvement.
Another crucial flaw in Napoleon's character was his belief in his own destiny that he was set apart from ordinary men. This only served to warp his judgment. His incredibly inflated ego and overbearing nature insisted on controlling and influencing all aspects of legislative agenda with a tight grip. He needed to be involved in the development and execution of all plans, failing to delegate tasks, and empower both his staff and subordinates. This caused the work of the staff to be uncoordinated many times and low situational awareness became a popular characteristic throughout the army.
A failure as a political leader Napoleon simply could not rule on a long term basis. He set up new administrations and imposed constitutions to fit them. The result however, was that none lasted for more than a few years. Control of the empire was unstable and uncontrollable because of his level of detail in providing advice and instructions. He made strategic failures of decisions to invade Spain and Russia and he angered the people he conquered with his tyranny. The fighting was seldom well managed when Napoleon did not direct it in person. His presence in later campaigns became a necessity. He insisted on micro-management of the army and put too much trust in his lieutenants. Many of these lieutenants were not capable of commanding when they were out of the gaze of their master, which proved extremely detrimental. These limitations in his personality were a predominant factor of his eventual fate.
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Napoleon, the passage of time has not dimmed the power of his name. A century and a half after his death, Napoleon remains the greatest military genius of the modern world. Although he clearly had some flaws both personally and politically, Napoleon possessed qualities and ideas that set him far beyond characterization as a mere military man. For better or worse, he epitomized the age of the French revolution, leaving a more lasting legacy than his victors.