A lesson in leadership


Larry Lambert brings us an object lesson in leadership from Napoleon Bonaparte.  I won’t steal his thunder by copying his blog post here:  click over to Virtual Mirage and read it for yourself.  It won’t take you long.

I found it inspiring because Bonaparte had many maxims that make solid good sense.  One of them, in particular, has been among my “guiding lights” for many decades.  It’s this:

A commander-in-chief cannot take as an excuse for his mistakes in warfare an order given by his sovereign or his minister when the person giving the order is absent from the field of operations and is imperfectly aware or wholly unaware of the latest state of affairs. It follows that any commander-in-chief who undertakes to carry out a plan which he considers defective is at fault; he must put forward his reasons, insist on the plan being changed, and finally tender his resignation rather than be the instrument of his army’s downfall.

I’ve applied that many times in my professional career, in the military, in the commercial world, and as a pastor.  I’ve never been a commander-in-chief, of course;  but the basic advice is still sound and still applies.  If one is responsible for something, large or small, and orders or circumstances make it impossible to carry out that responsibility, then one must act.  One must explain, ask for changes, insist on them if the request is not met, and finally resign rather than continue to accept responsibility for what one can no longer achieve, support or defend.

Some people think that if they’re “low on the totem pole”, that can’t work.  They believe they’ll simply be fired for creating a fuss, thereby achieving nothing to actually resolve the problem.  To that I can only say, “Yes, that may happen – but the principle remains the same.”  Obviously, one can’t make a fuss like that about the color of the break-room coffee machine, or the brand of coffee used.  That’s silly.  However, if it’s a matter of safety – say, the coffee machine’s cable is frayed and sparks are coming out of the plug – then, if you don’t make a fuss and someone else gets electrocuted, you’ll carry at least some of the blame, morally speaking.  See what I mean?

Another example would be if you see someone at work – say, a new hire – who’s being picked on, intimidated, perhaps groomed for sexual predation by a manager . . . what to do?

  • Leave them to handle it themselves, even if they’re too young and inexperienced to have ever done that, and don’t know how?
  • Talk to them, explaining what you know about that manager, and advising them on ways to avoid confrontation while not becoming a victim?
  • Tell HR or another manager what’s going on, and demand that something be done about it?

If you do nothing, but just watch the catastrophe unfold, aren’t you at least partly responsible for what happens, in the moral sense?  (I’m not talking about legally responsible, of course, but that’s not the only aspect of the situation.)  The commander-in-chief, in Napoleon’s example, could always claim that he was obeying orders;  but that would still get a lot of his soldiers killed.  The enemy would do the killing, but he’d be morally responsible for allowing it to happen.

Choose your battles wisely – they’ve got to be important enough to warrant taking a stand – but don’t be afraid to fight them.  That’s part of what it means to be human, and a moral person.

I applied that in the most important, most painful and most impactful decision of my life so far.  Some have condemned me for leaving the priesthood over the child sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church (about which I’ve written in some detail).  I knew full well that what the Church was doing about the situation at that time was (and could not be other than) ineffective, intrinsically immoral (in that it would do nothing to change the reality of the situation), and fundamentally deceitful, in that it sought to reassure the faithful that effective steps were being taken when, in fact, those steps were not and could not be effective – not even close.  I explained my position, asked for a hearing, and was denied it.  I then pointed out that I was, in so many words, being asked to lie to those under my pastoral care, in order to protect the Bishops.  I said that I could not and would not do that.  None of it worked – I was told, in so many words, to “put up and shut up”.  Therefore, I had no choice but to walk away.  I was not prepared to live a lie.

Of course, it’s important to recognize that one can be wrong.  We’re human beings, which means (by definition) that we’re fallible.  One can be mistaken in one’s understanding or impression of the problem, mistaken in opposing the issue, and mistaken in resigning rather than “knuckling under” and obeying orders.  That’s an inevitable corollary to Napoleon’s maxim.  However, if one does one’s best to understand the situation (including consulting others who may understand it better), and tries to be open, honest and fair in one’s approach, I think that danger is minimized.  Basically, living up to that advice forces one to be honest, logical, rational and ruthlessly objective in one’s approach to almost anything.  That’s a high standard – but I think the world would be a better place if we all did so.

Napoleon may have been a monster in some ways, but he was not completely immoral, and sometimes he was wise.  His approach to his men was moral and ethical according to his lights, as shown in the example cited by Larry Lambert.  (Compare and contrast that to the Duke of Wellington’s comment about his soldiers in the Peninsular War:  “I don’t know what effect these men will have upon the enemy, but, by G-d, they frighten me!”  Which of the two leaders had the more moral approach to his army, would you say?)



  1. Thanks for the link.

    Napoleon was successful because his army followed him. They followed him because they trusted him. He was not royalty, but he was a genius.

    He made some really epic blunders, but all in all Napoleon was one of the greatest of his age, if not THE greatest.

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