Waterloo or the Price of Internal Disarray

June 18, 2015 marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, which sealed the fate of Napoleon and the future of France and Europe. This famous chapter in history has a few lessons for us to hold onto as executives.

Let's set the scene. Napoleon is back from exile on the island of Elba. Thanks to his prestige among the French, upon his return to Paris: the entire nation is at his feet, King Louis XVIII has fled the country and an army of 124,000 troops await him on the verge of war. He also has managed to be received with hostility in the rest of Europe; his peace proposal has prompted the formation of a second coalition between England, Prussia, Austria and Russia.

Napoleon's rapid advance was an example of the importance of taking the initiative in a position of weakness. In just a few days he moved his troops to Belgium, while the armies of Russia and Austria were still several weeks away. What he faced, however, was more than 200,000 British and Prussian troops, who stood in a clear position of superiority. Given the situation, no one expected Napoleon to attack.

But that is exactly what he did. Realizing he could not defeat the two armies together, he attacked them separately: while Marshal Ney, one of his best commanders, faced the troops of Arthur Wellesley, the British commander, Napoleon himself attacked the army of Blücher, the Prussian commander. The main objective of the offensive was to prevent the Prussian and British troops from joining forces. Napoleon inflicted a great defeat on Blücher, but failed to conquer him. At the crucial moment of the battle, Napoleon ordered the cavalry to charge on the Prussian troops in disarray. But they never charged.

Why not? Ney, who was in charge of the attack on the British, and led the cavalry in the early stages of the battle, ordered it to attack Wellesley's men when it was no longer necessary. And because of this contrary order, the cavalry was not available for Napoleon when he needed it. If not for that countermand, resulting from an obvious lack of coordination between the two commanders of the battle, the Prussian army would have been knocked out.

Thus, a lopsided win did not become the overwhelming triumph it should have been. But the main objective was met, and Napoleon confidently celebrated his victory that night. So confidently, in fact, that he took an entire day off before resuming hostilities. That allowed his opponents to fortify their positions, with the aggravating circumstance for the French Emperor that torrential rains fell and muddied the battlefield, hindering the progress of the artillery.

Countermanded orders were given once again at the decisive battle fought to the south of the town of Waterloo on June 18. Wellesley's troops, comfortably entrenched in a hillside position, fought off the four offensives that Napoleon ordered the following day. Among the major problems, the most damaging was the unthinkable lack of organization in the French army: the divisions attacked in formations of many columns, greatly reducing their firepower. Only the first two rows of the 24 in the platoon could fire, which also made them an easy target for the British artillery.

Many historians blame this disorganisation on Napoleon's absence on the front lines; it was a position he occupied in every battle, inspiring his soldiers while getting direct, real-time information about everything going on. This time, however, he was ill, in a tavern far from the battlefield, and depended on the messages sent to and from the battlefront.

But the misery did not end there for the French: the corps responsible for halting the advance of the Prussians failed miserably, partly because of other coordination mistakes among generals. And with the battle in full swing, Blücher's first troops took up positions in the French rearguard. The rest of the battle is history: the Old Guard, Napoleon's elite troops, led the latest offensive that clashed with the firmly entrenched British troops, and dispersed before the arrival of the Prussians. It put an end to the famous Hundred Days of Napoleon's second and final stint as emperor. The Austrian and Russian armies did not have to get involved.

And, as with any great historical event, there are many takeaways to help us to lead our companies better. Ultimately, the common thread linking history with businesses is the human factor, the psychology of the leaders and those being led.

These are perhaps the most relevant lessons:

  1. Don't underestimate the opponent. After the first skirmish, Napoleon was already daydreaming about having tea in Brussels the following day, ignoring the warnings of the generals who had faced Wellesley in Spain. Arrogance is a serious hazard.
  2. The importance of taking the initiative... and not letting up after the initial victories.
  3. The deadly consequences of a lack of internal coordination.
  4. The danger of creating an overdependency on a leader that results in their own absence hindering the ability to react to changing circumstances.
  5. The importance of keeping a cool head in order to better understand the context.