5 Things Napoleon Can Teach You About Strategy

BG and I love documentaries and she has been on a "royals" kick. This week is a tad different, with Netflix delivering a four-hour documentary on Napoleon.

Needless to say, our Friday night was exciting. War, intrigue, ambition, wine (OK, lots of wine).

You all know how much I prize classic strategy. I've quoted Sun Tzu. I sleep with a copy of Machiavelli's The Prince on my bedside table. (True story.)

Honestly, I didn't know much about Napoleon before this video. But I was particularly impressed with one of his first major battles as a General.

He'd been promoted to Commander of the Interior and given command of the French forces at the Italian front. No one expected much. The promotion was likely arranged by his new wife, he was largely untested, and this army had been in disrepair for over two years.

Things could not have looked more dire.

However, as you might expect, Napoleon turned this all around, starting with a rout of the Piedmontese who were aligned with the strong Austrian force just east of Nice. Napoleon entered this battle out-manned, out-gunned, and out-classed. There was no reason for him to win, but he did.

Here are some of the reasons for his victory. It's amazing to see how many can be applied to online marketing and the strategic efforts we make everyday.

  • He is cunning - Napoleon wanted to outnumber the enemy, even if he didn't have the bodies to actually do so. He separated the Piedmontese from the Austrians and went after the weaker of the two. Before the battle, he spread his forces out. Not knowing where exactly he is, the Piedmontese do the same. And at the last minute, Napoleon brings his forces back together and makes a crucial push - at that instant with more men on his side than the enemy's. How are you planning for success? How are you preparing for the next brand crisis or industry shake-up?
  • He is fast - Napoleon's army moves at 30 miles per day. The Piedmontese at 6 miles per day. With greater speed, Napoleon also understands the power of shock. He attacks when it is unexpected. How are you insulating your brand from the unexpected? How are you moving faster than the competition?
  • He is relentless - From the documentary: "He attacks everyday. He attacks when it snows, he attacks at night, he attacks when it's cold. It's not the way the game is played." Later, Historian Jacques Garnier says "He looks for the enemy, fights it, and when they assume he's going to stop - he continues! And the next day he fights again. It surprises them." When was the last time you surprised your competition with your relentlessness?
  • He is ruthless - Napoleon doesn't seem like a man who lost sleep over winning. A historian reports that a Peidmontese officer would later complain, "They sent a young madman who attacks right, left, and from the rear. It's an intolerable way of making war." When was the last time you felt blood on your teeth? How do you press forward ruthlessly for your clients?
  • He gets results - After defeating the Piedmontese, Napoleon insisted on silver and gold, with which he paid his army - the first money they'd seen in months, if not years. Results garner loyalty. He made no apologies for success and he expected his soldier to take risks, but he also rewarded those risks as well. Are you encouraging your staff? Do you recognize their sacrifices? Aligning them to your objectives can pay off royally for everyone.

Perhaps even more persuasive - and more ubiquitous - is Napoleon's near-insane ambition. But how refreshing too! I'd much rather hear about someone too ambitious than someone afraid to even try. On which side do you fall?

He was crass, intelligent, homicidally ambitious, but a professor of the highest order. There is a great deal marketers and strategists can learn from Napoleon.

When was the last time you were crushing, fast, relentless, ruthless, and delivered results? How about any one of these five?

One can easily poo-poo Napoleon. But wiser wo/men will learn the lessons that delivered him victory. How are you applying these lessons?

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(Image courtesy of Vivek 181088 via Flickr)