Napoleon Bonaparte created an empire stretching across Europe from 1804 to 1814. Before his exile, return, and then ultimate defeat in 1815, Napoleon was a brilliant general who understood the dynamics of leading a large group to victory.
“The moral is to the physical as three is to one,” Napoleon once said.
“He meant that his troops’ fighting spirit was crucial in the outcome of the battle. With motivated soldiers he could beat an army three times the size of his own,” writes Robert Greene in his book “The 33 Strategies of War.”
Greene highlights specific ways some of the world’s greatest generals, from Napoleon to Alexander the Great, managed their troops. You can use these same tactics to boost the morale of your employees and maximise their productivity:
Unite people around a cause.
Give your team something to fight for. “The cause can be anything you wish, but you should represent it as progressive: It fits the times, it is on the side of the future, so it is destined to succeed,” Greene writes. Remind your employees that they are part of a company competing with others in a marketplace, and inspire them to beat their competitors.
When Oliver Cromwell was made a Parliamentarian colonel in the English Civil War in 1643, he began recruiting soldiers who were inexperienced but shared his fervor for the Puritan religion. United around a holy cause, singing psalms as they entered battle, Cromwell’s army of commoners outperformed his previous cavalry of trained soldiers by a wide margin. In 1645, they defeated the Royalist forces and brought an end to the first stage of the war.
Keep them busy.
When soldiers are on the defensive, waiting to react to the next strike, their spirits are lower and they become complacent or anxious. A similar thing happens to a company that is not moving an initiative forward.
Napoleon was named commander of the French forces fighting the Austrians in Italy in April 1796, and he wasn’t welcomed by his troops. They found him too short, too young, and too inexperienced to be a leader, and they were already losing hope in fighting for the ideals of the French Revolution. After a few weeks of being unable to motivate them, Napoleon decided to propel them into action. He brought them to a bridge he knew he could easily win, and rode to the front of his men. He gave them a rousing speech and then propelled them forward to a relatively effortless victory. After that day, Greene writes, Napoleon had his men’s full attention.
Keep them satisfied.
You do not need to spoil your workers, but you need to meet their basic needs. Otherwise, says Greene, they will react to feeling exploited by behaving selfishly and drifting away. You may lose your best employees to the competition if you focus solely on your company’s goals and not on their happiness.
Napoleon knew that many of his troops were homesick and weary. It’s why he made it a practice to get to know individual soldiers, sharing personal stories, writes Greene. He often saved his promotions of soldiers for moments of low morale, since they communicated to his troops that he cared and was paying attention to individual sacrifices.
Lead from the front.
The enthusiasm of even the most motivated workers will wane, and so you need to let them know that you’re right there beside them.
“In moments of panic, fatigue, or disorganization, or when something out of the ordinary has to be demanded from them, the personal example of the commander works wonders,” wrote German field marshal Erwin Rommel, whose war tactics earned him the respect of his enemies U.S. Gen. George S. Patton and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Appeal to their emotions.
The best generals have a sense of drama, Greene says. Lower your employees’ defenses with a story or a joke, and then approach them more directly with their task.
The great general Hannibal of Carthage knew how to make a passionate speech that would ignite his men before a battle with the ancient Romans. But he also knew these speeches would hit that much harder if his men were relaxed in their downtime. Hannibal entertained his men with gladiator battles and his jokes could get all of his soldiers laughing, Greene writes.
Balance punishment and reward.
“Make your soldiers compete to please you. Make them struggle to see less harshness and more kindness,” Greene writes. This doesn’t mean that in the workplace you need to reprimand employees who don’t meet your expectations, but excessive kindness regardless of performance will make your team take you for granted.
During the “Spring and Autumn” period of ancient China, the lord of Qi promoted Sima Rangju to general to defend his region from the armies of Jin and Yan. When two of the lord’s men disrespected Rangju in the field, Rangju executed one and killed the attendants of the other. His men were terrified. The general, however, also proved to have a compassionate side, sharing food and supplies equally among his troops and caring for the injured and weak. His men saw that he would reward those who followed him and punish those who did not, and they went on to defeat Jin and Yan.
Build a group myth.
“Soldiers who have fought alongside one another through many campaigns forge a kind of group myth based on their past victories,” Greene says. “Success alone will help bring the group together. Create symbols and slogans that fit the myth. Your soldiers will want to belong.”
When General George Washington searched for a place to encamp his troops during the harsh winter of 1777-1778, he settled for Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Washington and his men endured months of extreme cold, very little to eat, and the spread of disease. By the end of February 1778, 2,500 of his troops had died. Those that survived, however, felt that they proved to themselves that nothing would stop them from winning the war against the British. In May, the troops celebrated the announcement of the crucial alliance with the French and pushed forward, more determined than ever.
Correction: A previous version stated the incorrect year in which Napoleon was made commander of the French forces in Italy and misspelled Rommel’s name.
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