The Value of Leadership

Blog Post


The oil painting below shows the scene where a French picket/sentry awakes with horrible, consuming guilt, and not a little bit of fear. He had fallen asleep, having been posted as a sentry to keep watch upon the outlying areas of the deployment of La Grand Armée. The boss showed up and is holding his musket.

It represents a scene from the 1809 Franco-Austrian War. Austria, prompted by offers of British subsidies, was coerced by the hawkish factions at Court to take advantage of Napoleon’s absence in Spain, and strike into Bavaria and southern Germany.

The Hawks at the Court, and the British, were convinced that the Germans would rise up in popular revolt against the French, and achieve an easy victory against the Little Corporal. No such thing occurred.

The Tyrol revolted, but it was a traditional Austrian possession severed by treaty following defeats at the hands of Napoleon. There were a few minor uprisings elsewhere, nowhere even approaching a large minority of the people, let alone a popular mandate.

Until 1812, the Confederation of the Rhine was very popular with the German people, and especially amongst Protestants who loathed being under the titular authority of a Roman Catholic Emperor in Vienna under the auspices of the Holy Roman Emperor.

Instead of a popular revolt, and an easy victory, Napoleon’s German allies, and the few French forces in the area (the Austrian buildup was impossible to conceal, so the French began massing forces in southern Germany just in case, so the Austrian offensive was not a strategic surprise, but an operational one) fought like tigers, it denied the Austrians any victory at all, let alone an easy one.

The Bavarians were no longer keen on being under Austrian hegemony and preferred that of the French to their fellow Catholic Germans. Napoleon was already on his way, with the bulk of his Grande Armée, and a reckoning was soon to follow.

Back to the painting.

The sentry had just awoken to see. his very own Emperor, glaring hotly at him, standing watch, doing the duty that was given to him, a common soldier,  and holding his musket.

Napoleon, as was his want (the man functioned amazingly well on little sleep), awoke well before dawn and made a personal reconnaissance of his outposts. (management by walking around)

The Emperor, himself a former soldier, despite his station, was most comfortable with the men in the ranks, and the junior officers. This personal attention, unheard of by most other monarchs of the period, was why Napoleon was, and still is, so universally admired by even non-French.

By rights, by all the legal rules of warfare, the man could have been shot, justifiably executed, with not a shred of mercy by Napoleon. And certainly, Napoleon, and everyone else, did have those who were derelict, executed at times.

Napoleon knew a key to motivating men that those born in a high status, out of touch with the reality of the common man, all too often failed to comprehend. And this was the almighty power of shame.

“Get up you fucker!” The Emperor ranted harshly at the trembling man. (No, he really said that. In “How Far From Austerlitz” by English historian Alistair Horn, Horn relates numerous accounts of Napoleon’s common man approach with his men).

Shaking, and beginning to profusely apologize, knowing his likely fate, the man stood, trembling.

Napoleon began a dressing down that would have made any Parris Island D.I. tear up in joy. After the obligatory insults to the man’s intelligence, ancestral legacy, and the judicious use of the very military term “fucker”, Napoleon began to steer the tirade towards his point.

Shaming the man into, from then on, doing his duty to the utmost. By reminding the man that he had such a simple, yet vital, to fulfill the role, and that his rest had put all of his comrades at risk, Napoleon implored the man to comprehend that a sovereign of an entire Empire had to, for some time, stand watch as sentinel, while a young soldier slumbered.

Convinced the man would not fail him again, and not wanting to lose a man to a mistake that, while certainly severe with its implications, the Emperor was convinced that he could learn from it, he approached the man.

The Emperor handed the young man his musket, cuffed him hard on the back of the head, and then gave the man’s shoulder a quick, affectionate squeeze, and asked the man if The Emperor should expect to stand guard for a second night.

Profusely the man said no.

Napoleon pinched the man’s cheek as though he were the man’s uncle, and then went back to his personal reconnaissance.

By all accounts, that man performed heroically on the field in numerous engagements and was promoted.

Where others may have had the man placed in front of a firing squad for his offense, and been justified in doing so (Wellington and Frederick the Great both did), Napoleon’s relationship to his men was more akin to that of Stonewall Jackson and his men, or Alexander Suvorov and his men.

Napoleon was a father figure to his men, his leadership style was very paternalistic. And a father disciplines his boys, at times harshly. But he never destroys them when they can learn a lesson and be better men for their temporary pain.

25 thoughts on “The Value of Leadership

  1. What a magnificent post!
    You keep astonishing me with the incredibly wide spectrum of your knowledge and your interests.
    Thank you very much for this great start into the work day.

  2. On the leadership spectrum: on the one end, you have those who build up their underlings so that they can get better and better; while on the other end, you have the posturing poltroons who want to show off their power and authority at the expense of those under them….ie – slightly worse than creeping mold.

    1. I think that if we live long enough, Frank, we all experience all types of leaders. Today’s headline, “Big Dem names couldn’t save McAuliffe from Youngkin in Virginia” is emblematic of systemically bad leadership in donkey-led states. One can only hope that the larger American cities with large populations of inner-city, dependent-type people will wake up as well, but I’m not optimistic there.

      1. Yeah, I’ve seen all types. Really appreciated the good ones, and didn’t mind making them look better.
        On the other hand, I had one who would have fit into the ‘primal protoplasmic residue’ category 🙂

      2. Looking at an election map of Virginia from yesteredays vote, all of the big cities are blue even when surrounded by red in their counties. Only a few counties went completely for the Democrats. I think that says something to the voters in big cities.

  3. Great post. It brings to mind things that I have been reading about the current culture in our military. Zero Tolerance policies that shit-cans good men and officers over trivial mistakes with no attempt at correction or education. And yet the CJCS commits treason with no repercussions…….sigh.
    On a lighter note…..I finished Loki’s Fire. Good stuff! Can’t wait for book 3.

    1. The US Navy is famous for working to destroy careers at the expense of the whole. By promoting and encouraging the risk-averse, you end up with a bunch of timid people who survive by never coloring outside the lines. If that’s the goal (and it is in most cases), you’re not building up to be ready for war, you’re constructing a Potemkin Village.

  4. Isn’t it odd that MSNBC and CNN are not airing the victory speech of the first black woman to serve as LT GOV in the Virginia Commonwealth’s history?

  5. Napoleon, leadership by example. The lesson learned by that soldier that morning probably filtered up the ranks and made more than a few officers change their approach to command. Perhaps it still influence thinking men (and women) today.

    1. Knowing that the Emperor could stroll by at any moment and take notice of you meant that you took your job a bit more seriously. With Napoleon, you didn’t have to be mentioned in dispatches. He’d take notice of you personally.

  6. Back during the 80’s, I was a sorta-young mustang butterbar in the Californian State Reserve. Our battalion CSM was Jerry Houston. He had lost two fingers from his right hand attempting to return a an enemy grenade in Vietnam. He told me this story.

    He was a young Army sergeant in Korea, post war and pre-Vietnam. One night he was detailed as Post Sergeant of the Guard. It had snowed, so he was able to make his rounds quietly. As he came upon a K-9 post, both the guard AND the dog were asleep. The guard was sitting with his back against a wall with his rifle leaning next to him. Sgt. Houston was able to ease up and take the rifle, and then move away back behind another building. There, he dis-assembled the M-! Garand and removed the op-rod spring, coiled it up, and stuffed it inside his jacket. Then he crept back up to the guard post and quietly set the re-assembled rifle back in place.

    Sgt. Houston then went back behind the same building and kicked over a couple of empty steel drums. He waited a few moments, then walked back to the guard post. Guard and dog are now wide awake, on alert.
    Sgt Houston–“Anything to report, soldier?”.

    Guard– “No Sergeant, all quiet”.

    Sgt Houston–“Do you keep that rifle clean?”

    Guard– “Yes Sergeant!”.

    Sgt Houston– “Good. Let’s inspect it”.

    The guard comes to port arms and racks the action open. It falls open with a sickening “clunk”. A look of realization and horror crosses the guards face, whereupon Sgt Houston produces the coiled op-rod spring, along with a long, hard stare. From there the one-sided conversation was very similar to the one by Napolean above, just not in French, and ending with “If I EVER catch you again…”.

    I learned more about soldiering from CSM Houston than anyone else I knew in uniform.

      1. I’ve had a couple of managers like that in my career. They made lasting impressions on me, and if they were military, they were the people you’d follow into Hell, and help clean up the place.

    1. We have a new full (four star) admiral… emblematic of what national command authority values.

      1. And they keep saying that he, the new four star, is the first woman four star because he puts on dresses and has taken hormones. Did he get the “surgery” to remove the family jewels and tallywhacker? He still has the XY chromosome pair so he is just a cross dressing hypocrite.

        1. I don’t know whether Dick Levine has his courting tackle or not, could care less. Until we can alter base DNA, it’s dress up.

          1. “Courting tackle”…hehe…stealing that for future use. (I promise to footnote the author)

  7. You can see why men fought to the death for the Corsican upstart. CS Lewis has him in Hell (Great Divorce) and he had an infernal pride but… something else too. So.

    The Story of the Sentinel is, of course, memorized by all DLC Subalterns.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to top