(This article was originally published on the IT Managers Journal site. Now that the site is no longer active, many of the articles are no longer available, so I’m reprinting some of the ones I wrote to give them a more permanent home)
Everyone knows that Napoleon’s invasion of Russia failed because of the winter, right? But the truth is, saying that is as incomplete as saying that the cause of every death is heart failure. The winter may have been the final blow to Napoleon’s grand design, but it need not have been.
The more you look at Napoleon’s Russian campaign, the more you realize that it ran into trouble long before the first snowfall. The campaign actually failed because of difficulties in scaling, combined with poor management by Napoleon himself. His example provides a case study of the pitfalls when planning any project, especially large ones, making it an object lesson for the modern corporate world.
A bigger team isn’t always a better one
To invade Russia, in 1812, Napoleon assembled an army of 700,000 — probably the largest army up until that time. It contained some elite forces, but it was never an efficient fighting force. For one thing, its members spoke too many different languages to communicate well. Many parts of the army were traditional enemies of other parts, or had been fighting them recently. As a result, the army never cohered into a whole.
Also, its size meant that provisioning it was difficult. It could not even live off the land, as other French armies under Napoleon had done, because no area contained enough food for so many people. Instead, it had to keep moving, so quickly that its members were always well ahead of any supply wagons and frequently starving.
Ask yourself if you have the right resources and preparation
Contrary to a popular misconception, Napoleon did not go into Russian completely blind. He had maps, and he made considerable effort to stockpile food, resources, and horses. His instincts were sound, but he had no firsthand knowledge of what he was about to face.
On a map, it looked perfectly sensible to plan to use particular roads. But what Napoleon couldn’t see was that many of the roads in Russia were too narrow for the quick movement of large numbers of troops, and too muddy for artillery and supplies to pass. Nor could he see how foraging in a country as poor as Russia would be next to impossible.
Similarly, the far-sightedness of gathering supplies meant nothing if they weren’t the right ones. Napoleon gathered countless pieces of small-bore artillery, but these were a nuisance to haul, and useless in sieges like the one at Smolensk or artillery duels like the one at Borodino. Nor did he consider stockpiling pointed horseshoes suitable for travel in snow or winter clothing.
Still, even if he had gathered the right resources, the effort would have been largely useless, because among the things he neglected was any plan for delivering supplies to where they were needed. The one efficient piece of transport he arranged was his personal mail service, which could deliver a letter from Paris to Moscow in 14 days — and that luxury was unimportant in the campaign.
Decide on a goal and focus
Despite all his preparation and the size of his army, for once in his life Napoleon was uncertain what he wanted to do when he invaded Russia. Did he mean to occupy Moscow and Saint Petersburg? Carve up Russia between Sweden, Turkey, and a revived Poland? Force Tsar Alexander into a truce and go on to take India from the British? In the early months of the campaign, Napoleon considered all these goals. Unable to make up his mind, he could not act with his usual decisiveness, and failed to followup on his initial victories until after he had lost the initiative.
This oscillation continued throughout the entire campaign. Days, if not hours, before he retreated, he remained uncertain whether he would leave Moscow or winter there. Even when he abandoned Moscow, he first moved south as if planning to face the main Russian arm — then abruptly veered west to begin the long trek home. Not knowing what he wanted to do, he was, not unexpectedly, unable to do much of anything, or to do what he did do effectively.
Keep in touch with your team
Part of Napoleon’s leadership ability was his rapport with his troops. By moving among them, Napoleon could always get a first-hand feel for their morale and combat-readiness, and sense when punishment or a gesture of concern could improve the mood of his troops. Often, his appearance alone could inspire troops.
However, during the Russian campaign, this hands-on approach was rarely possible. At times, Napoleon was too ill. Yet, even when he was healthy, the size of the army and its dispersal meant that he could only use his personal touch on a minority of his troops. Too often, the only troops he saw were the Imperial Guard, those with the most loyalty and highest morale who, because of their proximity to him, were also the best-fed and supplied. Judging the rest of the army by the Guard, he assumed all was well as the rest of his army steadily sickened and dwindled away.
Don’t force subordinates to misrepresent or lie
Early in the campaign, Napoleon told his generals and field marshals that he wanted accurate reports about their troops. The trouble is, when they told him about the lack of supplies and the problems with desertions, Napoleon was prone to abuse them, sometimes publicly. At times, these tirades were followed by demotions or reassignment to difficult duties.
Faced with such consequences, Napoleon’s management soon realized that, for their own sakes, the last thing they should do is tell him the truth. Early in the campaign, they began exaggerating the strength and readiness of the forces they commanded. These exaggerations prevented proper planning and caused Napoleon to under-estimate the extent of the campaign’s difficulties until they were far advanced.
Choose substance over PR or positive thinking
All his life, Napoleon believed in his destiny, trusting it to carry him through times of trouble and upwards to future greatness. For much of life, this belief served him well, possibly because the bravado that it produced constantly took his opponents by surprise.
But in Russia, where geography, weather, and distances were as much a problem as the opposing armies, there was too much reality for a positive attitude to conquer. Napoleon did his best to assert his will and frequently issued proclamations that pretended all was well or about to be so, but this stance became harder and harder to maintain — especially since Napoleon was intelligent and observant enough to be unable to deny the increasingly obvious truth. Still, for a long time, he persisted in believing that will would triumph over circumstance. Unfortunately, by the time he admitted what was happening, his army was crumbling and in an exposed position cut off from supplies. At that point, he had nothing to do except retreat.
Listen to experts and subordinates
Napoleon’s entourage included people whose knowledge could have countered many of the difficulties listed above. For instance, Caulaincourt, the former ambassador to the Tsar, warned him about the conditions of the roads, the poverty that eliminated the possibility of foraging, and the political situation that made it likely that the Russians would continue to fight, despite constant retreats and uninspired field leaders. But these were not opinions that Napoleon wanted to hear, so he ignored them until it was too late. It was only on the retreat, when Caulaincourt advised Napoleon to return home ahead of the army that he listened to him — and then, the main reason was probably that Caulaincourt was saying what Napoleon wanted to hear.
Have a fallback plan
For several weeks beforehand, Napoleon knew that a retreat was a strong possibility. The alternative was to winter in hostile, barren territory. Yet, perhaps because of his reluctance to admit failure, Napoleon made no plans to prepare for the retreat. New conscripts arriving from the rest of Europe were still hurried up the line to Moscow, the farthest point of the French advance, rather than being assigned to secure possible routes. Similarly, no supplies were stored along the way. Nor were any scouts sent along the possible routes. When Napoleon made his sudden decision to retreat, he had made no preparations for it, which undoubtedly worsened the disaster of the march.
Sometimes, resources have to be abandoned before they become a liability
As the French army advanced into Russia, it carried a variety of unsuitable equipment, including hundreds of light field guns and carts that were unsuitable for the roads. Instead of destroying this equipment or abandoning it, Napoleon insisted on dragging it along. This stubbornness served only to slow his advance.
Even worse, on the retreat, the army was carrying as much of the loot from Moscow as possible. Not only did the loot encumber soldiers by filling their pockets and weighing down their belts with the objects hanging from them, but it also encumbered the army’s various vehicles, making them harder to move. The path of the retreat was soon littered with abandoned riches, but the determination to hang on to their spoils killed thousands of soldiers as they tried unsuccessfully to dodge marauding Cossacks or to hurry on to the next outpost where they might hope finally to get a meal.
You can lose by winning
Napoleon never lost a battle in Russia, although many, like Borodino, were indecisive. By traditional standards, he should have won, since he occupied Moscow, the old capital and still the largest and most important city, and his troops started home with fabulous riches. Yet he found his soldiers, horses and supplies steadily whittled away by disease, desertion, starvation, and exposure. After despoiling Moscow, he had to retreat, constantly harried by an enemy he no longer had the cavalry to close with. Unable to grasp fully the kind of war he was in or to adjust his tactics, he abandoned his army to rush home to France. In the end, only 22,000 — a little over three percent of his original force — survived to do the same.
Napoleon was a brilliant leader, one of the most outstanding ones of all time. But the fact that even someone of his caliber could make such mistakes only emphasizes that anyone can falter. Lack of preparation and focus, a belief in his own infallibility, a refusal to assess the situation objectively, a failure to follow the leadership techniques that had served him so well in the past — all these things led to the greatest catastrophe of his career.
Napoleon took another three years and one exile and a return before he was finished for good. But his Russian invasion had drained the fighting strength of France and destroyed his reputation for invulnerability. After his Russian campaign, his rule was a constant struggle for survival against continually increasing odds. Finally, at Waterloo in Belgium, he met the Duke of Wellington — a man famous for his clear headed planning and lack of nonsense — and lost his position once and for all. But the beginning of the end was his lack of proper planning when he invaded Russia.