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How to Run an Empire

Le 15 mai 1796, le général Bonaparte fit son entrée dans Milan à la tête de cette jeune armée qui venait de passer le pont de Lodi, et d’apprendre au monde qu’après tant de siècles César et Alexandre avaient un successeur. (Stendhal, La Chartreuse de Parme)

As you may have read in my posts about my book challenge, I have been reading about Napoleon Bonapart for some weeks now.

Whatever your views about the vast numbers of dead soldiers and civilians his wars left across Europe (and some other parts of the world as well) he was one of the most dynamic people who ever lived. His empire may have been transitory, but it still lives on in a myriad of ways -  law, arts, institutions, systems of government, to name a few.

There were two not-so-obvious things that struck me about him. One was how his “team” was able to show considerable personal initiative while still adhering to his overall direction. Not only that, they were remarkably stable and loyal to him personally over the years of the French Empire. The second thing that struck me was the extent to which Napoleon micro-managed his empire. This reminded me of how Philip II, a man of considerably less talent than Napoleon, micro-managed the enormous Spanish Empire.

These two things - the team loyalty and the micro-management - depended on the same thing. That was Napoleon’s enormous correspondence.

The most comprehensive collection of his letters contains 33,000 items of correspondence, and there must be many others that have not survived. They were send by post, carried by courier and transmitted by telegraph. The highest prince and the most lowly official might find their work the subject of an imperial enquiry. No subject was too small for his attention.

What was the effect of all this correspondence?

It’s an example in action of my frequently repeated dictum that a project will grow provided that it is given sufficient regular focused attention. Napoleon did this on the grandest scale.

What sort of effect did it have on the recipients?

1) It showed that the Emperor was interested in them personally and that their work was important to him.

2) It kept them on their toes and stopped them from coasting.

3) They would learn from the fact that their work was being assessed by one of the sharpest minds that has ever existed.

4) It imposed a uniformity of standards and procedures over the whole massive Empire.

5) It encouraged them in rapidity of thought and action.

5) Much of the corrrespondence was in response to their own reports. So these were very much two-way exchanges.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of course.

What are the lessons for us? Basically that we need to keep communicating. Not in the sort of gigantic reports copied to everyone as a back-covering exercise - which succeed in nothing except bringing individuals’ work to a standstill. But in communications to individuals which are short and to the point. The amount of time Napoleon devoted to this - even on the eve of battle - shows the immense importance he gave it.

Just as a minor example of this, if you are a follower of the forums on this website you may have noticed that when I play a full part on the forums there are many posts each day. For instance yesterday there were 23 comments, of which six were by me. If I take a break from posting, the number of posts falls off until days pass without any. I’m not trying to compare myself to Napoleon - just make the point that if you want to get closer to people then you need to increase your rate of communication. Keep your correspondence with people alive and the relationships will blossom. Though please note that I am talking about appropriate communication here - I’m not trying to turn you all into stalkers!

Reader Comments (1)


"I’m not trying to turn you all into stalkers!"

You seem to have touched a nerve!

<Stalks off... for now>

March 22, 2016 at 10:57 | Registered CommenterWill

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