Waterloo: 5 leadership lessons from The Duke and Napoleon

9 November 2019  |  Rich M

It is hard to overstate the importance of leadership.

Leadership is ubiquitous yet evasive. You can’t stop it occurring but it’s impossible to perfect. To better understand leadership, it’s helpful to answer the following question: from what problem did leadership evolve, to solve? Sociology-analytic theory says that it evolved as a critical resource for groups trying to survive inter-group conflicts. Meaning, the origin of leadership is conflict: and not the sort where lawyers are involved.

I recently read ‘Waterloo‘ by Bernard Cornwell. An excellent synopsis of the famous battle in 1815 between Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington. A couple of leadership observations leaped out whilst reading about this blood-soaked 3 days in Belgium.

The conditions they found themselves leading in went roughly like this: 150,000 men, 3 square miles, almost 4 days of non-stop hand-to-hand combat, poor communication lines, challenging terrain, atrocious weather and worse visibility. To add to the stakes, both Leaders were unbeaten. Many commissioned officers had their families travelling with them (in the rear echelon). Most soldiers on both sides had spent 3 years fighting abroad, on and off. Supply lines and provisions were unreliable and often the soldiers lived off the land by slaughtering local animals. Also, medical treatment was painful at best. I think that’s what you call a ‘VUCA’ world.

200 years on from this chaotic and bloody battle, The Duke and Napoleon leave behind some leadership clues to their success.

Duke of Wellington 

  1. There he is…

The Duke was always present at crucial times. During the battle, he appeared in parts of the battlefield that were under the most significant attack and threat of loss. Many accounts of the battle confirm that the Duke’s presence in dangerous situations was noted by his men: they took confidence from it. A very common leadership complaint nowadays is that employees don’t see enough of the people who lead them. Also called ‘The Wizard of Oz’ syndrome whereby workers receive instructions from a voice behind a screen that they never meet.

Like the Duke of Wellington, today’s leaders can’t afford to be missing in action and have no idea what their presence on the frontline gives their troops.

  1. Professional distance…

The Duke was hugely respected by his men although wasn’t ‘friends’ with them. He maintained a professional distance and never became chummy. His professional distance allowed him to take the zero-sum decisions required of a commander at that time.

The world of work is more casual and ‘chummy’ now than ever, that is a good thing. But to paraphrase psychologist Derrick White: The ideal situation for a leader is to gain respect and affection: but if you must lose one, keep the respect. 

  1. Keep calm and carry on…

Wellington, conscious of the impact his reactions had on his troops, was always calm. Even when they were moments away from being overrun, the Duke was cool and steely, although no doubt he was flapping inside. This coolness under fire gave the men resolve to continue fighting, often at terrible odds. This part of his personality undoubtedly affected the outcome of Waterloo, Cornwall says.

In any century, a leader who vacillates emotionally is not good news for followers, especially under pressure. On this measure, Wellington excelled.


  1. Keeping it simple… 

Increased battlefield complexity was avoided by Napoleon’s desire for simplicity. This aspect of his personality and leadership was demonstrated in his tactical choices. Usually with 100,000 men at his disposal it would be easy to complicate battlefield movements. He had an embarrassment of riches, as far as military resources go: the temptation to over-engineer must have been there. Napoleon didn’t try to be too clever. He employed one straightforward tactic for defeating his enemies. It was simple, effective and hard to stop.

Big data, geopolitics, financial markets and changing work preferences all invite a leader to leap into the complexity lake and start swimming. In 2017, a leader’s job is to make the company vision simple and easy to follow for their people. Just as Napoleon did.

  1. Flexible plans… 

Napoleon was not a fan of making in-depth plans for his battles. He had been on enough battlefields to know that the old military adage “no plan survives contact with the enemy” is true. Regardless of what gets planned, there are too many variables on a close combat battlefield to accurately predict outcomes. Napoleon was famous for his military genius, but you might be surprised that his mantra was “Make contact with the enemy, then make a plan”.

In 2017, the speed of innovation and change demands that leaders react to developments based on live information. Napoleon knew the value of a quick pivot and decisive action.


We are told by leadership gurus today that we live in a VUCA world: this is mostly nonsense. In 1815, working conditions, migration levels, mortality, job satisfaction and hygiene factors were all significantly worse. Demand ‘employee experience’ in 1815 and you might find yourself disposed of, without a P45.

And, in 1815 leadership was a little different too. But some useful leadership lessons endure from two of the world’s greatest military leaders.

Blog originally appeared on www.blackislegroup.com