Project Management and History – Napoleon seen by de Gaulle

Project Management and History Napoleon seen by de Gaulle

  • Napoleon took genuine care of his people
  • Napoleon was a Project Manager
  • He was a leader – Managing qualities alone are not enough
  • Training
  • Tools instead of training?

Both Napoleon and Charles de Gaulle are well known; no words about them are needed.

Less known is a book by de Gaulle, France and her army’, a chapter of which is dedicated to Napoleon.

We will highlight some sentences from de Gaulle’s book and we will add some other facts on Napoleon, because Napoleon was not only a great general but also a great organizer, a logistic genius, a highly effective planner, and so on; in a few words, he did much more than leading his armies, he managed them and was both a “Project Manager” and a “Programme Manager”.

Did you know that the main reason for Napoleon’s successes was planning the movements of his corps with such accuracy that tens of thousands of soldiers marching for weeks on different and far away (XVIII century’s!) roads could strike together the enemy?

Besides, he was very accurate in keeping details on both topography and single enemy regiments.

Both Project managers and managers can learn a lot from Napoleon, because he organized and directed his campaigns as if they were projects – which, in fact, they were.

All quotations (for discussion purposes) are from ‘France and her army, by Charles de Gaulle, Translated by F. L. Dash, Hutchinson & Co. (Publishers), LTD.


Napoleon took genuine care of his people

Let’s consider what de Gaulle wrote:

‘At the same time as he stimulated emulation by these methods the leader gave many proofs of his concern for and care of those who were ready to lay down their lives for his glory. […]

He never lost an occasion of associating his soldiers with his greatness. Often he would invite them to dine with him. On his coronation day he filled Notre Dame with them.

Victorious troops returning to France were received by the municipal authorities. Banquets, like the one given by Paris to the Guards in 1807, were given in their honour, and the doors of the theatres were thrown open to them. On the occasion of the birth of the King of Rome every soldier received a present.’

  • Napoleon led by example and took genuine care of his people.

    How often does this happen, nowadays?

    Modern project managers (and managers, if only for that) have often lost true contact with project people; they may use soft skills but they do it in a mechanical way and forget the human side. They go to soft skills courses and apply what they have learned because they are supposed to do that – because they were told they needed soft skills. Sorry, that is not the right way, nor are “modern” soft skills a substitute for human empathy.

  • Napoleon never forgot his successes were due to his soldiers, therefore he shared his glory with them.

    That meant material acknowledgment, not only saying “How good you were” or patting soldiers on the shoulder. Mind, those were soldiers fighting for their country, not employees working to get a wage; if material acknowledgement was so important to those soldiers, try to imagine how important it can be to


In the course of a campaign Napoleon would show himself everywhere; he would spend hours visiting outposts, bivouacs and artillery parks, but always unexpectedly, so as to give the impression that he was everywhere and that nothing could escape him. After the battle he would inspect the battlefield, salute the troops, enquire about the wounded and reward instantaneously and in the most dramatic manner soldiers who were pointed out to him.’

  • Napoleon wasn’t a desk project manager: he checked in person whether everything was as it should have been.

    Take note: he did not intrude into his subordinates’ matters. He was present, and in so doing pushed his subordinates into taking care of what they did.

    All reports seem to agree on a point: Napoleon watched, and that was all as far as his subordinates were concerned.

  • He was accessible by his people, he took note of what could be improved or needed change, he was amid his people before and after battles – he did not forget his people after success had been reached and continued to improve his relationship with his people.

  • Napoleon did not waste time: as soon as possible, he personally visited his people and rewarded on the spot his best people – mind, best people for real because they had demonstrated their value and capacities on the field, not on the basis of meaningless programmatic papers.


Napoleon was a Project Manager

‘Moreover, Napoleon was always there to make the general plan; all he asked of them was to perform the particular task at which each of them excelled. Their contribution consisted of an instinctive grasp of the immediate situation, daring interventions, and the exercise of their personal influence over their troops.’

  • Napoleon never asked his people to do something they were not able to do; besides, he chose his people so that they were doing what they did best.

    Obviously, this boosted morale; unfortunately, this lesson has seldom been forgotten by modern project managers.

  • Napoleon’s subordinates weren’t mere executioners of his orders: they were required to act, to use their intelligence and capacities to a full extent.

    What a striking contrast with so many nowadays team leaders! Mind, that is not solely a fault of team leaders’: whoever tries to behave differently is often discouraged from doing so. Then, teams, projects, firms and enterprises do not reach acceptable goals …

‘Decimated by sickness before the battle, the Prussian army spent the night before Jena shivering with fear, while men fainted with hunger and cold, lacking shelters which they did not know how to build and fires which they dared not light. For this army defeat immediately became a rout. […]

The state of affairs in the Grande Armee provided a striking contrast. Once the Emperor had selected the most favourable place and time to strike, had fixed his dispositions, chosen his terrain and decided the methods by which it could be exploited, the troops were capable of providing that speed of manoeuvre and that irresistible punch in battle which carried all before them. Napoleon’s dispositions in face of divided and ill-prepared adversaries proved in practice their deadly efficiency.’

  • The Prussians are a striking example of how mismanaged people perform badly.

    Mind … the Prussian army was universally considered the best managed army, because everyone thought it was employing what were considered the best “management techniques and processes” .

    This ought to teach a lot on the importance of choosing the right Project Management methodology (and the right Project Manager) and applying it the right way

  • Napoleon did everything differently (from the Prussians): he set a reasonable (i.e., based on sound analysis) timescale, the scope, the methods (i.e., the Project Approach, to use PRINCE2 terminology), a communication plan – which was working and WAS applied by efficiently communicating his instructions

  • Nonetheless, all that has just been written was possible because Napoleon’s troops were able to act quickly, knew what had to be done and had high morale

  • In a few words: excellent organization, preparedness, morale and so on.

    In truth, Napoleon was a Project Manager.


He was a leader – Managing qualities alone are not enough

‘To ensure, moreover, that the final effort should be as vigorous as possible, the Emperor would intervene in person. He would appear on horseback at a prearranged spot, watch the columns massing for the attack, ride along the artillery line and question generals and corps commanders.’

  • Napoleon was a genuine project manager: never forget that a project ought to be directed; in a few words, after the setting-up and planning phases comes the management one.

    In truth, people tend to forget the first phase too, i.e., the setting-up phase

  • Napoleon personally checked how things were going: he took real care of how things were developing. He checked how real events evolved during his campaigns (which he organized and directed as projects), not papers only. Modern project managers should do exactly the same.

‘Despite the prodigious successes which his genius wrung from the army under his command, up to Tilsit the Emperor took care never to assume a task which was beyond his means.’

  • Napoleon was careful never to take or assign unattainable tasks; unfortunately, this is what happens daily, nowadays.

‘For a long time the Emperor had succeeded in making them believe that the effort he was asking of them would be the last and that immediately afterwards they were going to be able to enjoy the fruits of victory. […]

But as he was soon to realize, hope deferred maketh the heart sick. In the soldiers’ mind the enthusiasm of yesterday gave way more and more to hopeless resignation. Sometimes it was kindled to bursts of anger. […]

Yet, despite their outbursts of irritability provoked by their sorry plight, the troops did their best; despite hardship and disillusion the great mass kept their sense of duty, and even their devotion to the Emperor, to the end. But willingness is not enough in war if it isunaccompanied by material strength, a factor which was constantly diminishing in the army of the Empire.’

  • Your people are going to do great things once you have got their trust; they are going to make sacrifices because their respected project manager (or manager) tell them those sacrifices are needed to get results. But be careful: promises without results are going to damage even the best project manager’s aura

  • Napoleon was able to keep his aura till the end, that’s true, but … even if an exceptional project manager can keep morale at acceptable levels, morale in itself is not going to bring a project to a happy end.

    Project people need materiel, not morale alone: an army without rifles is not going to win a war, no way.

    Note: in general terms, Napoleon was an exception, because lack of means usually implies low morale.



‘On the evening of the battle of Eckmiihl, when the Archduke Charles could have beendriven back on to the Danube and destroyed, Napoleon, acting on the reports of hisMarshals, had to give up the pursuit on account of the state of exhaustion in which the young soldiers were found. This lack of experienced troops was the chief cause of the heavy losses sustained at Essling: “Our formations remain deep, owing to the difficulty of deploying or concentrating untrained troops.”‘

  • Exhaustion: never ask too much of your people for too long, because they are going to give inferior results, or even to break down

  • Training: untrained or poorly trained people impose your strategy in the best case, i.e., if you are aware that they are not properly trained; in the worst case, your projects are going to suffer dearly from lack of properly trained people.

‘It was in the hope of repairing these grave deficiencies that he agreed to sign the Pleisswitz armistice. The Emperor used this breathing-space for training, and a great musketry competition was organized for the whole army. However, operations were resumed before any satisfactory results had been achieved.’

  • Napoleon deemed training so important that he agreed to an armistice to repair the training deficiencies of his people. He used the time so gained to give proper training to his people

  • Unfortunately, war started again too soon: without soldiers trained enough, Napoleon lost at Leipzig and was sent to the isle of Elba

  • Morale of the story: train your people properly, so that they can achieve success, or … accept bad project results.


Tools instead of training?

‘Napoleon endeavoured to compensate for the progressive deterioration in the quality of his troops by increasing their armaments. “The poorer the troops the more artillery they need“, he said.’

  • Materiel and tools are useful in a project, sometimes they are necessary, but … better materiel is not going to compensate for insufficient training.

  • Napoleon knew this, but in his case there was no choice; he therefore spent a lot of money in materiel to improve the situation. He tried his best, but without properly trained people (even when led by his genius) he lost

  • As for today’s fads, the lesson is clear: a project making an exaggerate use of tools is going to cost a lot of money (tools cost a lot); besides, without a good project manager and properly trained project-people, the project is going to perform badly or even to fail.

‘But by striking too hard and too long he had broken the sword of France, for men’s souls, like material things, suffer from wear and tear. Still undismayed, and still resolved to tempt providence once more, he suddenly found himself without soldiers or weapons, and saw, towering above him and ready to break, the swollen wave of ill will, of cowardice and treachery which was to engulf his genius.’

  • The inevitable end: people without proper training and tools used instead of competencies lead to very low morale, forgotten (“broken toys”) tools and chaos.

Let’s draw final conclusions: you need a serious and prepared Project Manager who is going to properly train the project people before and during the project.

Maybe you will need some tools for your project, but tools alone are not going to give you the results you hope for.

Even during periods of time between projects, dedicate more time to identifying the training your people need to receive – in order to bring next projects to a happy end – than to evaluating presumed miraculous tools; miracles lie in your Project Manager and in your project people.

Use the tools you really need; the rest lies in the hands of your professional Project Manager and of your properly trained project people.


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