Napoleon, as one of the most influential figures of modern history, redefined what it meant to be a leader and what was required of an individual to reach the highest levels of success. He was the leader of one of the most incredible European empires to ever be on the continent and did it without any sort of traditional leadership attributes. His excellence as a leader was based on pure ability, and his charisma made him the master of public opinion. I believe Napoleon’s career reflected the power of charisma in an age of nationalism and mass politics by showing that being a revolutionary world leader does not require birthright or aesthetics, but rather an ability to lead, motivate, and control.
From the very beginning of his career, Napoleon was disadvantaged. He was 5’2”, pale, pudgy, and overall unattractive. He was bullied in school for his heritage and appearance and was unable to fit in with his peers, though he showed exceptional ability in his schooling. His desire for power was always prevalent, and he later joined the military to train. Though this was his area of passion, Napoleon’s class status prevented him from promotion to a higher rank. However, when the revolution came, Bonaparte was able to separate himself as a bright young military talent.
After relocating back to Corsica to participate in and learn about local politics, he came back and continued to prove himelf in battle. One great example of this is the Siege of Toulon, where he led the French republicans to victory. It is a moment historian Jean-Charles-Dominique Lacratelle described as one where “his genius had become readily apparent.” His enthusiasm and charisma took root at that very moment, infecting the rest of the French people around him. In a colonial, war-ridden age, these qualities were quickly recognized as more important than big muscles or a noble family
. On the battlefield, Napoleon took advantage of the nationalist nature of the age as much as he could. He encouraged soldiers to fight with pride and effort for the advancement and ultimate domination of France and Europe, respectively, inspiring them in ways few military leaders could. Firstly, he led his soldiers into battle, fighting like any soldier would if/when it was needed. He didn’t shy away from the work his soldiers did. Napoleon was even once stabbed in the leg with a bayonet, continuing to fight and refusing to give up.
While his men marched ridiculous lengths, he could ride for 10 hours. He wouldn’t even stop to eat lunch, preferring to nourish himself on horseback. Although Napoleon was a spectacularly charismatic leader on the battlefield itself, he was able to fire up his armies just as well before battle, specifically convincing them that a win on the battlefield could bring them glory, rank, or whatever they wanted. My favorite example of Napoleon’s pre-battle leadership was when he approached the leader of a unit and asked who the bravest soldier was.
When answered, he approached the man, took his Legion of Honor medal off his own coat and stuck it on the soldier’s. This obviously motivated the group to no end, as the Legion of Honor was the highest honor a Frenchman could receive, and not only that, but Napoleon had given the soldier his very own medal. He consistently rewarded bravery, making sure his soldiers felt valued. His armies fed off his energy and passion for victory, honor, and ultimately the growth and conquests of the French Empire.
The soldiers then were not only fighting for themselves, but also their individual self interest, the most powerful motivator in existence. After winning battles against rival empires/countries, Napoleon made sure to let the French people know of his success. He had to win their support and make his way into the heart of the country in order to become the pride of France and a symbol of French excellence. This started in Italy, where he won many battles. Since he presumed the French would not know of his victories (and therefore be unaware of his genius) he founded a newspaper that consistently contained articles detailing his brilliant Italian campaigns.
While they circulated in Italy, Bonaparte made sure that copies reached France in order to raise his public image and spread his charismatic persona. When the country’s leaders caught wind of his leadership style and success, they sent him to Egypt, displaying not only Bonaparte’s success in Italy, but the beginning of the French’s infatuation with his enthusiastic and masterful leadership style when used for the betterment of France. Beyond the Italian campaign, Napoleon made sure to commission a piece of art either during or after each battle to document his successes, not allowing the French people to forget how much they wanted him to be the leader of their military, and eventually their head of state.
On the political side, Bonaparte took a slightly similar yet slightly different approach to his leadership actions. While his successes on the battlefield catered more to the nationalism of the French Empire, his acts in the country of France (and specifically the city of Paris) kept the people happy about their own situation, not only the empire’s.
As a revolutionary, Napoleon’s ideals catered to the public opinion, he just needed to definitively act on them. He did this in a big way, passing the Napoleonic code. This replaced the outdated Feudal systems in the French government, restructuring many aspects of the empire. It was so valuable to the country that it is still used in its judicial system today, albeit amended many times over. Bonaparte also boosted his political support through charismatic leadership in practical, political successes.
He massively reformed the city of Paris and the country of France as a whole, establishing a central government, public education, a national bank, and many other projects. He worked on everything from infrastructure to economic growth, resulting in a revival of the French Empire and a level of success for the country that had not happened since before the revolution. Along with legislation, Napoleon also understood that the politics of a country are heavily influenced by the prominent religion.
He established Catholicism as the main religion of the country, even inviting the Pope to France (resulting in his bold crown maneuver.) While Napoleon was a man to support his people, his interest in religion was simply to win public favor and continue to win over even more Frenchman. He was quoted saying “religion is excellent for keeping common people quiet” and “if I rule a nation of Jews, I shall rebuild the Temple of Solomon.” While charisma is a flexible, wide-casting net of a term, Napoleon Bonaparte encompasses everything a charismatic leader is to be. First of all, he knew how to motivate those around him.
Whether it be on the battlefield or in politics, he was able to take those around him and turn them into his supporters, largely due to his impressive nature. Secondly, he knew how to lead. After a revolution, a country is not in its best shape. Napoleon, after taking over France, vaulted it to the very top, making it the most powerful Empire on the European continent for its time. He shmoozed people left and right, but he also knew how to set real policies and battle tactics in motion for when the time came for serious intellectual excellence.
Thirdly and lastly, Napoleon (for most of his reign) was able to brilliantly control his own situation due to how he approached it and how he interacted with those around him. When returning home, he always had a hero’s welcome and always made sure victories were well known. While he eventually let his ambition get the best of him toward the end, the successful times of the great French leader were filled with propaganda and influence, making it easy for the French people to get behind their emperor. Overall, Napoleon reinvented leadership, using the ultimate, supreme power of charisma to bring the French Empire to extreme prominence during a time of mass politics and nationalism.