Genius out of time: Napoleon Bonaparte and his quest for the center of the universe

Napoleon died at the young age of 52. His contemporary and admirer, Thomas Jefferson, by comparison lived to the ripe age of 83 years old. While Napoleon died young for his time, during those brief 30 years when he served as an influential member of French leadership, he accomplished more than almost any other ruler did for any country, ever. He was a passionate fool, a discriminate student of strategy, and an indiscriminate follower of his own shadow. He was a genius, a man who remembered each incident in photographic clarity, who could recall numbers and statistics from newspapers, and take the whole and put them into rigorous use not only on the battlefield but in the bedroom. He recognized and embraced the trends of the time, and saw a vision no one on Earth could imagine: a people separated by nothing except the beauty of ideas. While he was a fervent disciple of nationalism, he could not separate the transformer from the transformation, and so in his vanity believed (as many a genius fall prey) he was France’s, and by proxy, the world’s savior. He believed, much like Alexander the Great, that all the lands from the Indies to the colonies would fall under his enormous intellect and unlock their vaults for his descendents. In return, he would give them everything he had. But at what price?

​        I find it impossible to relate the many aspects to which Napoleon enhanced and added to qualities of leadership we find indispensable in modern society. He empowered the bourgeoisie (the middle class) and thereby overruled the feudal system. He freed the serfs and in effect ended the feudal slavery that had existed for thousands of years (although he did not end slavery among the French colonies, a puzzle to this day). He established government schools that taught universal education, taught by teachers who were singularly schooled in the national ethic at a single university; in addition, schools required students wear uniforms, use the same textbooks, and attended classes that followed the same syllabus – all prerequisites for any successful school today. He not only centralized education, but he centralized law by introducing the Civil Code, a key aspect of law today and a descendent of the antiquated Roman law. He took these ideas and in each of his conquered territories (which stretched from Egypt to the border of Russia) he instituted them, forever changing the our paradigm of how government functions. He set his radical reforms into the fertile earth he himself had prepared, first by blasting the weeds out of the garden with his artillery, then by marrying his family into royalty, and finally by granting freedoms but requiring the use of the codes he himself had masterminded.

​        Napoleon famously claimed, while living his last years on the island of St. Helena, that he hoped in the future to spread the ideals of the American constitution to the rest of the world. Even to his death, he was a revolutionary and believed in the power of ideas to transform the world. However Napoleon was a transformational failure, for he failed to recognize that in transformation, not only the follower but also the leader must change through that fascinating interchange that occurs between the two agents. Napoleon also famously said that like Caesar, his last battle would be no different than the first. He was a genius, there is no doubt about that, but with that pride of intellect comes the vanity of invincibility. When he finally realized that it was the Russian army that was invincible and not himself, he lost heart and returned to Paris a broken man, only too happy to abdicate his honors to the next man in line.

​        Leadership is at its hardest, work that is both admired by others but in need of constant self-assessment. But if the leader doubts himself, how can he be confident of the outcome? Wellington said of Napoleon that the emperor was worth 40,000 soldiers alone, for his sheer charisma and belief in victory. Yet on St. Helena, even in the throes of arsenic poisoning and a tumor in stomach, he still managed to maintain that optimistic hope that the world could be changed for the better, with only the application of intellect. By the end of his life, he still was not able to recognize his pride as the center of his fall.

​        Unlike Napoleon, my work does not hold me in commands of regiments filled with 30,000 young men seeking to make a name for themselves in battle and earn wealth and immortality for their families. But like Napoleon, my work as a leader is solitary. While Napoleon’s work was solitary, it did not have to be… he chose it to be. The unique circumstances of his life gave him the opportunities of leading armies of a country he was not even a citizen. Napoleon by birth was Italian, spoke Italian, and only learned French when he was ten years old. He spoke French with a harsh accent, believed in the independence of his home, and was an inconstant spouse of Christ, believing less in a vibrant faith and more in the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings of finding a way to centralize social custom, political action, religious attitudes, and economic regulations.

​        Napoleon would fit right at home in our modern world. While such a fantasy would be impossible (for the modern world would not be the same without him), with his calculating mathematician’s mind Google or Microsoft might find him better company, and he might very well enjoy the experience more than he enjoyed his experience as an immigrant soldier seeking to apply his philosophy across the spectrum of the world, even to the chagrin of people mired in the traditions of the past.

​        My work as a teacher often finds me in the same situations, battling philosophies and wills of a different culture to my own, living in a land where handshakes and dinners are of a different sort than I might have experienced back home in California. Yet Napoleon’s biggest mistake was believing that his solitary existence was per-ordained by fate. But I should state this for posterity: Napoleon was not a vain man, only a stubborn one who had accepted that in order for success, he would have to make certain sacrifices and those sacrifices entitled him to putting up gates at the borders of his mind. I find that much of what Napoleon worked for and lived as very inspirational: he saw the gaps in the system and by taking advantage of opportunity (what many would classify as ‘luck’) he opened up new avenues. He understood the system in its complexity, and on the battlefield he understood the value of a great general. But in the end, he did not believe he himself had anything to gain from them.

​        Perhaps he didn’t have anything to gain from them. Or perhaps he had everything to gain, if he only opened up his heart to hear their voices add harmony to his song. Beethoven saw this, when he struck Napoleon’s name in dedication to his 3rd Symphony when the commander forced the Pope to crown him emperor at Notre Dame. For leaders, being able to listen, learn, and change is key to transformational leadership. Napoleon transformed his society, but failed to be transformed himself.