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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”?

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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.


Winston Churchill: The Lion of Britain

Winston Churchill Quotes

“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”

Sir Winston Churchill was British Prime Minister from 1940-45 and 1951-55. His inspirational wartime speeches are known around the world and his Battle of Britain, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat” and, “we shall never surrender” lines are often quoted. He’s never far from the top of any “Great Leaders” Top 10 list, so what led this hugely successful man to say, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm”?

Third Time Lucky

Well, having been deemed academically lacking by his father, it was decided that Churchill should pursue a career in the military rather than in law or politics. He was enrolled at Sandhurst as an officer cadet in 1893 after successfully passing the entrance exam on his third attempt – an early indication that failure would not dampen his enthusiasm to succeed.

As a cavalry officer and war reporter, Churchill served in Cuba, Afghanistan, Egypt and South Africa, but his interest in entering the world of politics grew stronger and he devoted himself to reading and studying British political news in a determined effort to overcome his lack of university education.

Daring Do

After a daring escape from a prisoner of war camp in South Africa, Churchill became something of a hero back at home in Britain, helping him to become MP for Oldham in the General Election of 1900.

In his early years as a politician, he was never afraid to disagree with his party leader and standing up for what he believed to be right led to him leaving the Conservative Party and joining the Liberals. His political career was well and truly underway and in 1911, Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty, a role in which he continued to argue strongly for what he believed.

Catastrophic Failure

By 1914, war in Europe was looming and Churchill argued determinedly that Britain must get involved. However, with Churchill at the helm, a string of British naval failures in the first few months of war resulted in heavy losses, not least at Gallipoli, and he was forced to resign from his post – his reputation heavily stained.

This degree of failure would have ended the political career of many, but Churchill doggedly made his way back into office and returned to the Conservative Party, taking the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1924, a post once held by his father.

Disaster Strikes Again

Churchill’s decision to restore a currency system that fixed the pound sterling’s value to a set quantity of gold – known as the Gold Standard – led to a collapse in export markets, and a general strike called by The Trades Union Congress brought Britain to a grinding halt. In 1929, Labour won the General Election and the Conservatives, along with Churchill, were out.

The following years became Churchill’s “wilderness years” with Conservative Party leaders largely ignoring him, including his warnings over the gathering strength of Hitler and Nazi Germany.

Walking with Destiny

In 1939, Britain declared war against Germany and Churchill was plucked from exile to resume his role as First Lord of the Admiralty. By 1940, Britain and the Allies were losing the war, leading to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s resignation. Churchill stepped up to the post, also taking responsibility for the war effort as Minister of Defence. In his book, The Second World War, published in six volumes from 1948-53, he wrote, “I felt as though I were walking with destiny and that all my past life had been a preparation for this hour and for this trial.”

History shows us that Winston Churchill was indeed the right man for the job in Britain’s hour of need. His skills as an orator inspired an entire nation and raised the morale of a population during times of extreme hardship, and he led Britain to victory in 1945. Churchill’s success as a leader was the result of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm – an enthusiasm for politics that he never lost.

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Dwight D Eisenhower: General and President

“Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”

Dwight D. Eisenhower was the President of the United States from 1953 to 1961. He also served as Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces during World War II and was responsible for the 1944-45 invasion of France and Germany from the Western Front. His name is never far from the top of any “Greatest U.S. Presidents” list and he has been voted Gallup’s “Most Admired Man” on twelve occasions, so what led him to say, “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it”?

Operation Overlord

On June 6th, 1944, a day now known as D-Day, Dwight D. Eisenhower gave the go-ahead for Operation Overlord, the massive invasion over the English Channel into Normandy. He knew that casualties would be high, but he also knew that he had done everything possible to prepare his men for the challenges ahead, and he knew that to them he was not a faceless commander issuing orders from an ivory tower, he was one of them.

On the morning of the invasion, each soldier, sailor and airman about to go into battle was given a letter composed by Eisenhower the night before. In it, he inspired and motivated these men to fight bravely with the words: “The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you…” He knew that once the order to begin Operation Overlord was given, there was nothing more he could do and the success of the mission depended on the bravery of his men and their motivation to do what had to be done – because they wanted to.

Leadership Qualities

In a speech given to Royal British Military Academy cadets on their graduation in 1944, Eisenhower said, “You must know every single one of your men. It is not enough that you are the best soldier in that unit, that you are the strongest, the toughest, the most durable, the best equipped, technically—you must be their leader, their father, their mentor, even if you’re half their age. You must understand their problems. You must keep them out of trouble; if they get in trouble, you must be the one who goes to their rescue. That cultivation of human understanding between you and your men is the one part that you must yet master, and you must master it quickly.

These words demonstrate his personal leadership qualities and his firm belief that leadership lies in never seeing those you lead as numbers, but as individuals with hopes, dreams and aspirations of their own. During his military years, Eisenhower got to know what motivated each of the men under his command and he used that motivation to inspire them to give their best in every task they faced.

Trusted Leader

As Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, Eisenhower’s men trusted him to make carefully considered decisions. They knew that he would not send them into battle without thinking long and hard about the potential outcomes, and they knew that any decision to do so was one of necessity and not made lightly. He gained this trust by being among his men and getting to know them, becoming a motivational father figure to them all.  

In the days and hours before D-Day, Eisenhower visited as many soldiers, sailors and airmen as was physically possible. He strongly believed that he should not be a faceless commander and he made it a priority to personally meet and speak to the men he would be sending into battle. He shook hands with them, asking them to break ranks and gather around him so he could talk to them as individuals. He motivated and inspired them, asking them to tell him about their homes and their families, and he encouraged them to be fearless in the face of danger by giving them the why of the orders they’d be given, creating “a deep-seated conviction in every individual’s mind that he is fighting for a cause worthy of any sacrifice he may make.”

Getting Things Done

The same self-confident and genuine leadership qualities that inspired his troops inspired an entire nation and Eisenhower became the 34th President of the United States in 1953. As a soldier and a president, he knew that the best way to get things done and to inspire others to give their best was to believe in them.

What have you done to inspire your “troops” lately?

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John F Kennedy: New Frontiers

 “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.” 

John F. Kennedy was President of the United States from January, 1961 to November 22nd, 1963, the date of his assassination. His term in office was tragically cut short but JFK remains one of America’s best-loved presidents in opinion polls to this day, and his iconic speeches are remembered around the world. He was the youngest man to be elected president, and the youngest to die as president, but what did he mean when he said, “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future”?

Captain Kennedy

During World War II, JFK was an officer in the U.S. Navy and captain of PT-109. While on night patrol in the South Pacific, PT-109 was hit and sunk by a Japanese destroyer, leaving JFK and his surviving crew stranded in the water. His leadership qualities immediately shone through as he calmly gathered his men to ask for their view on whether to fight on or surrender, saying: “There’s nothing in the book about a situation like this. A lot of you men have families and some of you have children. What do you want to do? I have nothing to lose.” The decision to fight on was made and JFK led his crew on a three-mile swim to the nearest island – towing an injured crewman with him, gripping the man’s lifejacket strap in his teeth all the way.

JFK’s heroic actions led to him being awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal. He also received the Purple Heart Medal for the injuries he sustained after the incident aggravated an on-going lower back condition that would eventually see him honorably discharged and retired from the Navy.

President Kennedy

In 1961, just a matter of months into his presidency, a failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs was a disaster for JFK. However, he took responsibility and said, “We got a big kick in the leg and we deserved it. But maybe we’ll learn something from it.” And learn he did. In 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis left the world teetering on the verge of nuclear war, and JFK’s leadership qualities once again shone through. Just as there had been “nothing in the book” about the situation he faced as captain of PT-109, no administration had faced the situation he now had in front of him.

JFK was given conflicting advice by his top men, most advising they should strike quickly before the Soviet missiles became fully operational. However, with the lessons learned from the Bay of Pigs, JFK held back, knowing that taking aggressive action could result in all-out nuclear war. Instead, he stayed calm, gathered information, questioned everything, and considered every option. After 13 days, an agreement was reached and the world breathed a sigh of relief as the Soviet missiles were withdrawn from Cuba.

Crisis Manager

When JFK said, “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future,” he demonstrated his understanding that unprecedented things can and will happen, and while lessons can be learned from looking back, moving forward may depend on looking to the future and doing something that has never been done before.

As captain of PT-109, there was nothing in the book to guide his decisions when the boat was sunk. He stayed calm and refused to allow the pressure of the situation to drive his actions. As president, there was nothing in the book to guide his decisions in the midst of a nuclear crisis, but he stayed calm under pressure and considered every option, refusing to repeat the mistakes of his past. As one of history’s greatest crisis managers, he realized that facing an unprecedented situation may require taking unprecedented action – he looked beyond the past and the present to be certain he would not “miss the future”.

You may not be facing a nuclear crisis, but things change in business and you may find yourself facing a situation you’ve never faced before. If you want to lead like JFK, remember his words of wisdom: “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis’. One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger – but recognize the opportunity.”



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Catherine the Great: Leading Expansion

“A great wind is blowing and that gives you either imagination… or a headache.” 

Catherine II was the ruler of Russia for more than thirty years, a time that became known as Russia’s “Golden Age”. Her remarkable rise from humble beginnings in Germany to becoming the empress of Russia and the most powerful woman in the world is an extraordinary story of success, yet it takes an understanding of why she said, “A great wind is blowing and that gives you either imagination, or a headache” to understand what made Catherine II so “great”.

Sophia of Pomerania

Born in Prussia, Catherine’s birth name was Sophia Augusta Fredericka and her father belonged to the ruling German family. However, despite the title of princess, she grew up in a family with very little money. It was the ambitions of her mother that led to Catherine moving to Russia and being presented as a potential wife to Peter III, heir to the throne.

She was just 14 years old and had no knowledge of the Russian language, but she already had a strong sense of her own destiny. In her memoirs, she wrote, “The title of Queen rang sweetly in my ears,” giving an indication of the level of determination she already had to succeed.

Whatever it Takes

Catherine despised her future husband, finding Peter to be boring and immature, but she married him at the age of 16, becoming empress consort when he succeeded to the throne as Emperor Peter III. She knew he would not make her happy, but she also knew he was incapable of being an effective ruler and she would at least be the power behind the throne.

From the moment of setting foot in Russia, Catherine had worked hard at ingratiating herself with the Russian people. She learned the language and converted to the Russian Orthodox Church, stating in her memoirs that her mind was made up to do whatever it would take to one day wear the crown.

Empress Catherine

As predicted, Peter III proved to be a disastrous leader and Catherine orchestrated a coup, forcing him to sign abdication papers. She became Catherine II after rallying the support of Saint Petersburg’s troops and people, and began a reign that would span 34 years until her death.

Her ambition, determination and hard work gave her the prize she saw as her destiny, and she used her position of power to set about reforming Russia. She became an “enlightened” leader, not only expanding Russia’s land and influence in the world, but also promoting art and education, helping to develop, enhance and strengthen Russian culture as we know it today. The first Russian university was founded, along with theatres, museums and libraries, and though she was an absolute ruler, Catherine was loved by the people as a benevolent leader, leading to a six-month period of public mourning after her death.

Imagination… or Headache

Not all of Catherine’s methods can be applauded, but her drive, ambition and leadership qualities are none-the-less admirable. She began preparing for her success at a young age and she worked hard and courageously to achieve her ambition. Throughout her life and her reign, a great wind of change was blowing across Russia, but her strength of character and her vision of her own and her country’s future allowed her to use her imagination to affect positive change, no matter how many headaches she endured along the way.

Catherine once said, “Power without a nation’s confidence is nothing.” Whether leading a country or leading a team in business, there are going to be stormy times and headaches, but we’d all do well to face these times with imagination so we too may inspire confidence in those we lead. The qualities that made Catherine great can also make a business leader great… just imagine!