For over five centuries, the immodestly ambitious and the prosperously prudent have studied Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince. The career of every Executive, Politician, and Senior Partner has been shaped by either the selective adoption of Machiavellian principle, or the scrupulous avoidance of anything that might be mistaken for it. Whatever your opinion of The Prince, at least a passing familiarity is essential if you’re concerned with career advancement.
We still study Machiavelli because the Medici Dynasty was highly complex politically, and because we assume that human nature has not changed much since 1513.
Although that assumption may be partially flawed, building upon the wisdom of the past isn’t just good sense—it’s the basis of common law.
As lawyers, we often delve into the past to understand the law. As leaders, we look to the past for examples. Studying great leaders has always been a necessary step to becoming one. But, I would argue that lawyers need better source material than some failed Italian provincials and half-remembered archetypes. We need Napoleon.
There are striking similarities between Napoleon Bonaparte and Niccolò Machiavelli. Both had a lawyer as a father, and both secured their legacy while an exile. Besides the beginning and end however, their career arcs couldn’t be more different.
Around the same age Machiavelli was appointed to an office of the Second Chancery, Bonaparte was winning the Battle of the Pyramids. At the same age Machiavelli was responsible for the Florentine Militia, Bonaparte was—literally—crowning himself Emperor of revolutionary France.
Describing Napoleon’s rise to power as “meteoric” doesn’t even begin to suffice, and comparisons to other conquerors are inapposite. Napoleon went from Second Lieutenant Nobody to Emperor of Europe. It took him a little over ten years. I submit that If you’re looking for tips on career advancement, study the achievements of “Boney” instead of the musings of “Old Nick.”
With the context out of the way, here’s a few lessons to start with:
Articulate Your Ideals.
With the French Revolution in its fourth year, France was engulfed in civil war, and the country was divided into various rival political factions. Napoleon was involved in military action, on the Government’s side, against a rebellious city in southern France.
One evening, Napoleon debated the revolution and its consequences with four local merchants. Speaking as a pro-Republican, Napoleon explained the benefits of the revolution, and defended the State’s actions.
After the debate, Napoleon published his arguments in a political pamphlet called Le souper de Beaucaire. The pamphlet responded to the fears of the populous and discouraged reactionary beliefs It also called for an end to the civil war and ratification of the French Republic.
Le souper de Beaucaire impressed the politician, Augustin Robespierre, brother of Maximilien Robespierre. Though it had little effect against the rebellious forces, the pamphlet provided a significant boost to Napoleon’s career.
In retrospect, it seems easy—ingratiate yourself to powerful politicians by echoing their talking points. But the ideals of Napoleon’s pamphlet were dearly held. If you know anything about the French Revolution, you know that politics was a deadly serious game. As the Robespierre brothers would soon learn, the fickle winds of public opinion could carry you to power—or take your head clean off your shoulders.
Ambition requires passion to drive it and character to guide it. But before others will listen, we must first speak. Left unspoken, all the brilliant strategies, innovative ideas, and powerful arguments in our heads mean nothing.
We’re sometimes prone to silently mulling things over, instead of developing them to share with others. Make a habit of speaking up when you have something to say. Not only will you improve your persuasive abilities, you will exercise your inspiration. As Napoleon explained, “Ten people who speak make more noise than ten thousand who are silent.”
Articulate your ideals. You might be pleasantly surprised by who listens.
Stick to Your Strengths.
If you recognized the name Robespierre, it’s surely because of Maximilien’s role in the Reign of Terror. We probably shouldn’t shed a tear that Robespierre met the same fate he pronounced on so many others. But for Napoleon, the coup d’état of 9 Thermidor (known as the Thermidorian Reaction) could have ended his career—or his life.
Arrested for his association with Augustin, Napoleon must have felt lost. Although he was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing, he was not above suspicion.
Assigned an infantry command—a demotion for an artillery general—he plead poor health to avoid the posting. Napoleon was temporarily assigned to the Bureau of Topography in Paris. As a result of his refusal to serve as an infantry commander, Napoleon’s name was struck from the list of generals in regular service. He faced a difficult financial situation and reduced career prospects.
But a few months later, royalists in Paris declared a rebellion against the National Convention. Paul Barras, a leader of the Thermidorian Reaction, knew of Napoleon’s military expertise and gave him command of the improvised defense forces.
Napoleon was witness to the massacre of the King’s Swiss Guard three years earlier and realised that artillery would be key to the defense. In the famous phrase of historian Thomas Carlyle, Napoleon cleared the streets with, “a whiff of grapeshot.” The stunning defeat of the royalist insurrection ended the threat to the Convention and earned Napoleon sudden fame, wealth, and the patronage of the new government.
When making decisions about your career, don’t cloud your vision by focusing exclusively on your current needs. To achieve your full potential, you need to consider your abilities. The road to success is winding and full of obstacles. Later in life, Napoleon put it this way: “Adversity is the midwife of genius.” Don’t neglect your greatest strengths in favor of the path of least resistance. It’s the best way to increase your unique abilities and helps prepare you for the greater obstacles yet to come.
Stick to your strengths. Achievement is simply adversity overcome by ability.
Choose your Tools. Master your Tools.
Napoleon’s application of abstract military theory to live combat situations enabled his string of triumphs as Commander of the Italian Army. He quickly gained a reputation for creative use of artillery as a mobile force to support his infantry. But Napoleon also won battles with time-tested tactics like concealment of troop deployments and envelopment strategies. His most famous battles combined the best parts of the old and new. The strategy of the central position for instance, relied just as much on conventional misdirection as it did on unprecedented speed of movement.
Napoleon’s tactics would revolutionize warfare, and are still studied at military academies today. But his greatest legacies are practical improvements instead of ground-breaking novelties. My favorite example: Canned food was developed because of the 12,000 francs Napoleon offered to anyone who could improve the preservation of soldier’s rations.
The number of companies and technologies seeking to revolutionize the practice of law has exploded in the last decade. As a profession, we’re right to resist change for its own sake. Napoleon chose not to gamble lives on nascent technologies like submarines and flying machines. Both ideas proved to be a hundred years ahead of their time. Although he thought the word, “impossible” should only be found “in the dictionary of fools,” Napoleon also said, “I always start out by believing the worst.”
Napoleon’s critics called him a megalomaniac and a tyrant. They never criticized his work ethic or his determination. He constantly looked for ways to improve the conventional, and constantly developed the innovations he thought necessary.
No one knows your circumstances and talents better than you. Stay true to yourself. Take responsibility for your own destiny. Adopt your own inspiration from the past. Improve the conventions you find lacking. Master the innovations that increase your productivity. Staying true to yourself isn’t selfish, it’s smart.
Choose your tools—you have to use them. Master your tools—as only you can.