Strategic Planning: Lessons from Napoleon Bonaparte Emperor of the French

In a famous story about Nepoleon Bonaparte – the General and Emperor who fought 17 wars that killed some six million people – he was once asked what was his secret strategic plan in winning war. He reportedly responded “My aim is to conquer, to win, and to destroy the enemy!” The General asking him said, “No, Emperor I mean what are the specifics of your strategic plan? Your objectives and priorities”

In business, organizations, and enterprises today we often spend enormous amounts of time developing strategic plans into organization wide documents. There are days spend on the mission, vision, and purpose statement. Long discussions over a word here or there or a turn of phrase. I once sat through a meeting in which almost two hours were spent discussing whether, or not a split infinitive should be used. Yes, they were academics. Then there are the strategic objectives, the priorities, and the action plans and timelines all “connected to realizing the vision.”

We place all of this in big binders or in drop box. We try to figure out how best to measure our progress on the strategic plan. Sadly, stuff happens – nothing turns out linear one thing does not follow logically from the other. After a while the binders end up collecting dust and the drop boxes go opened.

In response to the General asking the question Nepoleon, as the story goes, looked at him vexed and said,”I do not know what you are taking about. I told you my strategic plan! To conquer, to win, and to destroy. That is all! As for the details? I attack and then see what happens!”

We know the great General did not improvise everything. He created mobile artillery and a fluid cavalry. And after pounding the enemy with artillery in concentration he moved the artillery to hammer elsewhere and then sent the fluid cavalry and foot soldiers through the gaps created with the specific aim of destroying the opponents’ entire army.

However, I think we as contemporary leaders in all sectors should learn from Nepoleon. Set an overarching goal and play offense because sometimes the best strategic plan just requires action! Attack and see what happens!

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