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Napoleon: Shaping Modern Europe

“Impossible is a word found only in the dictionary of fools.” 

Napoleon Bonaparte, born in 1769, was a French military and political leader, and the first emperor of France. He’s considered by many historians to be one of the greatest military commanders in history, revolutionizing military training and organization, and changing the world with his wars and campaigns that continue to be studied at military schools around the globe to this day. For him, nothing was impossible: “Impossible is a word found only in the dictionary of fools. Wise people create opportunities for themselves and make everything possible.”

So what opportunities did Napoleon create for himself? Well, in 1793, Napoleon won his first major military battle at Toulon in France after forcing British troops to evacuate. This earned him a promotion to brigadier general at the age of just 24, and his career was on the up. In 1795, he defeated a royalist revolt that threatened to overthrow the French government, a victory that earned him even greater recognition and the admiration of the Directory now running the country, and his campaign to expand the French empire was underway.

Great Motivator

In 1796, Napoleon’s loyalty to the Directory was rewarded with the new post of commander in chief of the Army of Italy. Despite the discovery that his army of 30,000 men was significantly smaller than the promised 43,000, and those he had were underfed and unhappy, he turned the situation around to create a strong, loyal, victorious and seemingly unstoppable military force. He did this by winning the respect of his men; inspiring and motivating them to fight for a shared cause. As he addressed his new army in 1796, he said, “Soldiers, you are naked, badly fed… Rich provinces and great towns will be in your power, and in them you will find honour, glory, wealth.”

Napoleon’s troops trusted him without question. He made sure they always had appropriate combat clothing and equipment and he kept them well fed, saying, “An army marches on its stomach.” He also fought alongside his men, earning the nickname of “little corporal” through frequently setting up the artillery guns himself, and on one occasion immediately taking up the task of sighting a cannon after the corporal in the post was killed. His active role earned him the admiration of his men, and the more victorious they became, the more they gave.

Great Victory

Napoleon’s notoriety grew and by 1798, his campaign to expand the French Empire into Egypt, thereby disrupting the British trade routes into India, was underway. At the Battle of Shubra Khit, Napoleon’s army encountered Mamluk cavalry on their march to Cairo. The Mamluk heavily outnumbered the French, but Napoleon split his infantry into squares, a tactic that brought him victory. In the following Battle of the Pyramids, the same divisional square tactic once again brought victory as Napoleon’s troops virtually wiped out the Egyptian army.

Napoleon was now a legend. Not only his tactics, but also his capacity to adapt to changing circumstances as they unfolded around him on the battlefield made him one of the greatest military commanders in history. In 1805, he won perhaps his greatest military victory at the Battle of Austerlitz. Once again, his troops were heavily outnumbered by Austrian and Russian troops, but his belief that nothing was impossible and the motivational effect this had on his men once again brought him victory.

His abilities as a commander are beyond question, but whether or not Napoleon was a good leader beyond his victories is a question that remains open for debate. He said, “Ability is nothing without opportunity,” and he certainly lived up to his belief that wise people create opportunities for themselves and make everything possible. This is something we might all learn from. Napoleon created the opportunities he needed to showcase his abilities, adapting quickly to changing circumstances rather than allowing circumstances to dictate his outcomes… are you showcasing your abilities, and are you adaptable enough to create the opportunities you need to expand your “empire”?


Jack Ma: Innovation and Optimism

“Never give up! Today is hard, tomorrow will be worse, but the day after tomorrow will be sunshine. If you give up tomorrow, you will never see the sunshine.”

Jack Ma, founder and executive chairman of Alibaba Group, is one of the richest men in Asia and ranked No.2 in the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders” list by Fortune in 2017. Today, he’s one of the world’s most influential businessmen and inspirational philanthropists, and his rags-to-riches story is testament to his belief that you must “never give up.”

Early Innovator

Born in Hangzhou, China in 1964, Jack’s parents made ends meet by working as traditional performing artists. There was little money in the family and Jack recognized that education would be his way to get ahead in life. After a visit from President Nixon in 1972, Hangzhou grew into a popular tourist destination, bringing lots of English-speaking visitors into the area, an opportunity that an already innovative Jack took full advantage of in his teenage years. Each day, he would ride his bike to the Hangzhou hotel, some 40-minutes from his home, where he offered his services as a tourist guide in exchange for the opportunity to learn and improve his English. It was one of these tourists who nicknamed him “Jack” after struggling to pronounce his actual name, Ma Yun, becoming pen pals after the visit.

Jack continued to give free tours for nine years while struggling to get ahead with his formal education. He failed the entrance exam for college twice, finally succeeding on the third attempt – an early indication of the resilience and perseverance that would shape his extraordinary life. He graduated from Hangzhou Teacher’s Institute in 1988 with a B.A. in English and began applying for jobs, only to find himself faced with yet more failure and rejection. The police force rejected him, saying, “You’re no good,” and then even KFC turned him away with Jack famously quoted as saying, Twenty-four people went for the job. Twenty-three were accepted. I was the only guy…”

Internet Discovery

He eventually found employment as a lecturer of English at Hangzhou Dianzi University, but on a trip to the U.S. as a translator in 1995, Jack got his first hands-on experience of the internet, something essentially unheard of back in China. He typed “beer” into the search engine and was fascinated to discover that no Chinese beers appeared anywhere on the results pages. It was this discovery that inspired him to set up an internet company for China, a venture that would fail, but he didn’t give up.

In 1999, Jack and a group of 17 friends raised enough money between them to found Alibaba – effectively China’s answer to Amazon – with the intention of helping Chinese companies reach an international market. That group of 18 in Jack’s apartment has grown to a workforce of 30,000 over four large campuses, and while many mistakes were made in the early years, Jack recalls saying, “We will make it because we are young and we never, never give up.”

Crazy Jack

Jack is now globally recognized as a true innovator, yet in the past his ideas have been branded as “crazy”. Crazy or not, his success story demonstrates the enormous power of an optimistic attitude and relentless perseverance. He has said, “If you never tried, how do you know there’s no chance? If you don’t do it, nothing is possible. If you do it, at least, you have the hope that there’s a chance.” Well, Jack Ma has certainly gone ahead and tried; he didn’t give up when tomorrow got tougher, and he’s now enjoying the sunshine.

In a letter written to his employees after the company filed for its IPO (initial public offering), Jack said: “We know well we haven’t survived because our strategies are farsighted and brilliant, or because our execution is perfect, but because for 15 years we have persevered in our mission of ‘making it easier to do business across the world,’ because we have insisted on a ‘customer first’ value system, because we have persisted in believing in the future, and because we have insisted that normal people can do extraordinary things.”

You may see yourself as an ordinary person today, but what extraordinary things might you achieve if you don’t give up tomorrow?

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Julius Caesar: Leading From The Front

“Experience is the teacher of all things.”

Julius Caesar (100 B.C.E. – 44 B.C.E.) was a Roman politician and general, considered by many historians to be one of history’s greatest military commanders. His name may forever be associated with Cleopatra, but his skills as a military leader played a key role in the rise of the Roman Empire and his success is testament to his belief that experience is the teacher of all things.

By 52 B.C.E., Julius Caesar had all but conquered Gaul, but the Gallic tribes were bitter and rebellious. They united under a new leader, Vercingetorix, and an uprising against Roman rule led to around 60,000 Gauls gathering to defend the fortified hilltop town of Alesia in what would become known as the Battle of Alesia.

The Battle of Alesia

With Vercingetorix and his tribesmen barricaded behind the walls of Alecia, Caesar chose to starve him into surrender, a tactic he had successfully used before. Under his orders, Roman soldiers began building a 12-foot (3.6 m) high timber and earthen wall that would become 11 miles (18 km) long, circling the town and thereby preventing anyone from getting out or any supplies from getting in. Progress was hampered by repeated raids from the enclosed Gauls who raged against the building works, and several riders did eventually manage to break through before the wall was completed. Caesar assumed, correctly, that the escaped riders had been sent to summon help so, once again using his years of battle experience, he ordered his men to begin building a second wall behind them. The outer wall became 14 miles (22.5 km) long and the Roman camps were enclosed between it and the inner wall. Deep trenches, one filled with river water, and sharpened stakes protruding from the ground provided further defences.

Gaul Reinforcements

Food was running out in Alesia, forcing Vercingetorix to send women and children out of the fortress gates so that more food would be available for the fighting men. He mistakenly believed that the Romans would let them through, but Caesar refused and they remained trapped between the walls of Alesia and the inner Roman wall where they slowly starved.

As predicted, Gaul reinforcements arrived. They attacked the outer Roman wall while Vercingetorix and his men attacked the inner wall. The Romans held off these attacks, but more attacks followed the next day. A weak spot was found in the outer wall and the Gauls took advantage of it, again attacking the outer and inner walls simultaneously. Caesar realized the attack on the outer wall’s weak spot would be difficult to hold off so he ordered reinforcements into the area, sending infantry out through the inner wall to fight Vercingetorix’s men at the same time. However, this had little effect and the Roman lines were close to collapsing.

Leading from the Front

With the Roman lines on the verge of breaking, Caesar led 6,000 of his cavalry out through the outer wall and rode around to attack the Gauls from the rear. The sight of their leader among them galvanized the troops and they fought on, forcing the Gauls to flee.

Caesar’s years of experience and success as a military leader had earned him the admiration and loyalty of his troops. He led from the front and he often fought alongside his men on the ground. He learned how to be a great leader by first learning how to be a great soldier. He experienced the hard-working life of being a soldier by eating, living, marching and bleeding shoulder to shoulder with the legions, and his desire to learn saw him on the ground in the front line of battles. In short, Caesar’s experience of being in the trenches taught him the art of war and everything he needed to know to be a successful leader – experience is the teacher of all things.

Personal Connections

It’s documented that Caesar knew each of his men by name. This personal connection is something that can all too easily become lost in today’s busy workplaces. If you are a business leader, take a moment to consider whether your experiences have taught you the art of your “trade” and if you have the personal connections you need to inspire the confidence and loyalty of those around you.

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Melinda Gates: Global Impact

“What great changes have not been ambitious?”

Melinda Gates is a business leader and philanthropist, and co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation alongside her husband Bill Gates. Today, they are the richest couple in the world, but Melinda did not come from a privileged background. She has seen great changes in her life and the ambition that drove her in her education and career now drives her great ambitions in philanthropy.

Melinda’s father worked as an aerospace engineer in Dallas, Texas and her mother was a stay-at-home mom who came to regret not going to college. For this reason, her parents encouraged her and her three siblings to focus on their studies, saying, “No matter what college you get into, we will pay for it.” Melissa’s father created a side-line source of income in rental properties, and everyone in the family, including Melissa, helped to run and maintain the business by doing whatever jobs were required every weekend.

Daily Goal

When Melissa was 14, her father bought an early Apple computer to help with the family rental business and she took to it straight away, learning BASIC and then teaching her friends the programming language during school vacations. At Ursuline, the all-girls Catholic high school she attended, the motto is Serviam, translating from Latin as “I will serve” and the students are expected to get involved in volunteer projects, but Melissa was something of an all-round star pupil. Her former math and computer science teacher has said of her, “Every day she had a goal; the goals were run a mile, learn a new word, that sort of thing, but her ambition was never abrasive. Never. She was always lovely and charming, and she would win people over by being persuasive.”

It was during her Freshman year that Melissa discovered only the top two students from Ursuline had earned places in elite schools. She says, “I realized that the only way to get into a good college was to be valedictorian or salutatorian. So that was my goal.” She achieved her valedictorian goal, and her valedictory speech perhaps gave an indication of the philanthropist she would become: “If you are successful, it is because somewhere, sometime, someone gave you a life or an idea that started you in the right direction. Remember also that you are indebted to life until you help some less fortunate person, just as you were helped.”

Career Ambition

She achieved her ambition of earning a place at Notre Dame University. However, a visit to Notre Dame with her father led to disappointment as officials informed them the university was shrinking its computer science department, saying, “computers are a fad” – this was 1982! She chose to attend Duke University instead where she earned her BA, going on to achieve an MBA and then joining Microsoft in 1987. She was the youngest and the only female recruit in a batch of ten MBA’s, but her ambition saw her rise to the position of general manager of information products within nine years before making the decision to leave the company and concentrate on family life – having married the company CEO.

Impatient Optimist

But Melinda’s “goal a day” ambition didn’t stop there. Shortly after their wedding, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was born. Describing herself as an “impatient optimist”, the Foundation’s primary goal is to improve equity in the United States and around the world, and eradicate the illnesses that cause the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands of children in the developing world every year. Just over two decades later and Melinda writes in the Foundation’s annual letter: “Polio will soon be history. In our lifetimes, malaria will end. No one will die from AIDS. Few people will get TB. Children everywhere will be well nourished. And the death of a child in the developing world will be just as rare as the death of a child in the rich world.”

A huge ambition, perhaps, but what great changes have not been ambitious? As Melinda says, “Goals are only wishes unless you have a plan,” so what’s your goal for today?

Sun Tzu: Warrior Philosopher

“Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.” 

Sun Tzu was a Chinese military strategist, a general, and a philosopher. He lived in the 5th century B.C.E. at a time in the history of China known as the Warring States period. His skills as a military strategist earned him many victories in battle, giving him high status and power, so what did this victorious warrior mean when he said, “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win”?

The Art of War

To pass on his wisdom as a successful warrior and leader, Sun Tzu wrote a book entitled The Art of War. Now considered a classic, he details his strategies and philosophies on defeating an opponent within its pages, and his words continue to inspire soldiers, politicians, business leaders, entrepreneurs, sportspeople, and anyone else in any kind competitive environment to this day. According to Colin Powell, former U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, The Art of War is required reading in the U.S. Military. He says, “Sun Tzu has been studied for hundreds of years. He continues to give inspiration… so every American soldier in the army knows of his works. We require our soldiers to read it.”

Positioning was considered of key importance to Sun Tzu in terms of military strategy and while we may not be waging war in everyday business or working life, the worlds of business, politics and sport can be considered a battleground of wills, making his teachings as relevant today in the modern world as they were over 2500 years ago. In his book, Sun Tzu states that, “The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand.” He believed that an army must be positioned not only according to the physical environment and conditions on the ground, but also according to the subjective beliefs of the opponent and the potential changes this may create in the environment. In other words, he got into the minds of his opponents and he planned ahead for every eventuality before battle commenced, ensuring that he could respond quickly to changing conditions and deal with situations as they arose rather than floundering when things did not go to “plan”.

Prepared for Success

In everyday life, we all know that things do not always go to plan and that what works on paper does not always work out in practice. Sun Tzu’s strategy was to “win first” by making “many calculations”, thereby putting himself in a position to remain one step ahead of his opponent at every turn of events. He knew that planning in a controlled environment was not enough to secure victory in a real-world environment that could take many twists and turns away from the “plan” so he prepared for success by being prepared to adapt quickly and appropriately to changes. In effect, by knowing his enemy as well as himself, he limited the potential for an unexpected turn of events to leave him vulnerable.  

Sun Tzu said, “It is the rule in war, if ten times the enemy’s strength, surround them; if five times, attack them; if double, be able to divide them; if equal, engage them; if fewer, be able to evade them; if weaker, be able to avoid them.” In today’s competitive world, these wise words serve to remind us that success is all down to positioning. Before going into “battle”, you need to know where you stand, and then plans and decisions made can be based on that standing. “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.” How prepared for success are you?