In times of great change it might seem that there are no patterns to discern in the present and nothing to be learned from history. After all, events are unprecedented. But this is an illusion born out of our confusion.
Napoleon came to power in one of the most chaotic moments in history—the French Revolution. The French people had overthrown a monarchy that had existed for hundreds of years and established a new kind of political order. But because it was so new, nobody quite understood what it all meant. The Revolution led to terror and swings of reaction and more revolution, until in 1796, a turning point had been reached. France’s numerous enemies, lead by the Austrians, were threatening to invade the country and reestablish the old monarchy. The fighting had grown particularly intense in Italy. The campaign in Italy was going badly for the French and so in desperation, they named the 26– year–old Napoleon Bonaparte, former artillery lieutenant, commander of all French forces fighting in Italy.
Napoleon began by analyzing the way his enemies waged war and their organizational model. Although armies at the turn of the 19th century might look modern, with the latest rifles and artillery, they were fighting according to a model that was ancient. This was essentially the way wars had been fought since Alexander the Great. He figured out the 3 critical strategic principles that you must adhere to in times of change.
Napoleon's 3 Strategic Principles
Speed is of the essence. You need to be able to adapt quickly to events. To do so, your group must be organized to allow for such fluidity. This means creating a structure that is looser and that leaves room for initiative from within. Your brilliant strategies will mean nothing in such times if your organization is bureaucratic and hierarchical. In military terms, speed is a force multiplier. It brings momentum and surprise into the battlefield—with speed, an army of 25,000 could have the force of 100,000.
2. Build Momentum around an Idea
You must unite this group around an idea, a reason for fighting or advancing, beyond money. You are creating a culture where you are harnessing the creativity and energy of your soldiers. The old is finally dying out and leaving space for something youthful and new. You are riding this tide, this historic fatality as it sweeps the globe. Napolean had grown up with the revolution—rising from the bottom of the military, which had now been fashioned into a kind of citizens’ army. He was deeply aware of the great changes in the world—social, political, technological. He was aware that this altered the psychology of warfare—the French army was fighting for the sake of the revolution, for the sake of an idea.
3. Be in Touch with Reality
Be continually vigilant that any kind of success does not slowly transform you into a Marie Antoinette. The Queen had lived through a period of incredible turmoil in France—famine, widespread discontent among the peasants and bourgeoisie, the dissemination of dangerous ideas in the press, etc. To handle all of this, Marie Antoinette employed a strategy: she increased the distance between herself and the French people so as to control what she saw and heard. She imagined that the turmoil was in fact rather superficial. After all, the French monarchy had been through a lot, and this too would pass. Its prestige and authority could never really be challenged. Why lose your head over such momentary fluctuations? And so she held on to these beliefs all the way to the bitter end. If you are a Marie Antoinette, you manage to convince yourself that nothing is really changing in the world. You concern yourself with the present, with the pleasures at hand. You trust in the power and privileges you have had in the past. All of this will continue, you tell yourself. In essence, you manage to keep your distance from the events around you. You live in your bubble. Hard times or adversity only strengthen this bubble.
Once he figured these timeless principles Napoleon dominated the scene for ten years in a way that no other military force has done in history.
Napoleon's 4 Tactics to Achieve the 3 Principles
1) Smaller and Mobile Teams - Traditionally the key military principle was of keeping one’s forces concentrated. Control then was more important than mobility. The general would stay in the back of the advancing forces and command the battle from this safe position. Those in front, the scouts and vanguards, might see something unexpected as the enemy approached, but before they could get the army to adjust to these changes, they would have to pass messages to the general in the back, who would then relay his response to the front, all of which took a lot of time. Napolean discovered that the structure of your army(team) is what gives it speed and mobility, creates its tone, rhythm and way of action. If you structure it in a dense, bureaucratic and ad-hoc way, you will have a slow, lumbering army, no matter what you try to make them do. You have to be willing to accept a degree of chaos. You have to let go. The fluidity you gain will more than compensate for any momentary loss of control. After much analysis, Napoleon decided upon the following: He would break his army up into smaller divisions, ranging in size from 20,000 to 80,000.
2) Self-Sufficient Teams - Massive armies had to be fed and for this purpose large wagons—led by horses and oxen—would accompany the army, slowing it down. Napoleans's soldiers would now carry their supplies in carefully designed backpacks, each individual responsible for keeping his supplies in order
3) Giving the Team Independence within a Framework
Each of the smalled divisions of 20,000 to 80,000 would be led by a field marshal, who would be inculcated in Napoleon’s philosophy of war and in what he wanted in a particular campaign, but these marshals would be allowed to make their own decisions based on what they saw on the battlefield. They would fight in the front of the lines instead of safely in the back, so they could react in real time. This would be replicated all the way down the line. Lieutenants and sergeants could make decisions for their units based on what they saw, as long as it fit into the overall mission of the division.
4) Use an Idea to Motivate and Engage the Team towards the Bigger Goal
Napoleon understood very well the new social order and what motivated the common soldier. He enjoyed he freedom from within the army structure, the chance to prove himself, to show initiative. Napoleon would build into the structure of this army the chance for the lowest soldier to rise to the top, based on merit and bravery, a novel concept at the time. Furthermore, they would all be fighting for an idea—to spread the revolution to the rest of Europe.
With this new army instead of advancing his troops along a single line, he could throw his five or ten divisions at the enemy in scattered patterns, and they would decide to advance depending on how the enemy reacted. He could adjust faster than the enemy and destroy its willpower by making it impossible to foresee his maneuvers. But there is a second chapter to this story, For the next ten years, from 1806 to 1816, we see a steady decline in his powers. He started to believe that his success comes from his magical personality and genius, as opposed to the strategies he had invented. In essence he had morphed into a kind of Marie Antoinette himself, holding on to the power he had, believing in the magic of his authority and growing increasingly arrogant.
How is Google using the 4 Tactics
One company in the world which is successfully using his tactics is Google.
1) Google has a flat structure with small teams that can communicate faster.
2) Google makes their team self-sufficient by providing all the resources and lets them operate independently. Products prototypes are created quickly and circulated within the company to use. As it gains popularity within the company the product is released in beta.
3) Google gives their team independence to make decisions and allows workers to devote 20% of their time to a pet project.
4) They motivate and engage the Google army around the idea that they want to organize the entire world's data. They always keep in touch with reality by releasing products in beta and let the customers evolve it.
So the lesson we can learn from any revolutionary period in history: you are either a Marie Antoinette or a Napoleon Bonaparte. One or the other spirit tends to dominate your decision–making process. Which one are you ?
This post was adapted from The Descent of Power by Robert Greene.