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David Jacoby

By: David Jacoby on March 6th, 2017

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Which Sales Leadership Skills Do You Share with Napoléon?

Sales Leadership

When you hear the name Napoléon Bonaparte, valuable sales leadership skills might not be the first things that come to mind.

If you are like me, you largely remember Napoléon from high school world history class as the French military leader and emperor whose disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812 eventually led to his downfall.

And yes, that was my initial impression of Napoléon before I read Andrew Roberts’ fantastic biography, Napoléon: A Life. However, it turns out that there was much more to Napoléon than almost constant warfare. He was a dynamic leader whose innovative leadership principles are universal and not just applicable to military situations. In fact, today you can see many successful business and sales leaders utilizing leadership concepts that Napoléon developed over 200 years ago.

Here are seven principles of leadership that many successful sales leaders today share with Napoléon.


Principle #1: Hire and promote the best

Napoléon believed in government by meritocracy. During his reign, advancement in France—both in the military and civil service—was primarily based on ability, not birth or wealth. Any common soldier in Napoléon’s army could rise to the highest levels of leadership; and, in fact, many of Napoléon’s best generals had humble backgrounds. This was in sharp contrast to all other European countries during Napoléon’s era, where incompetent military officers were routinely promoted based on family status.

Today’s most successful companies - e.g., Amazon, Microsoft, Netflix – commonly attribute their success to winning the “war for talent” by hiring only the best and brightest.


Principle #2: Reward and recognize your team

At Sales Readiness Group, we talk a lot with sales leaders about how to properly motivate and reward their sales teams. Napoléon understood that it wasn’t enough to just hire and promote the best people—he also found ways to keep them motivated.

Long before sales contests and President’s Clubs, Napoléon developed a sophisticated rewards and recognition system. This system included the Legion of Honor, an award with several levels, which still exists today in France. To receive the award on any level was (and still is) a great honor. 


Principle #3: Clearly communicate your vision

All great leaders have an ability to win people over with a great vision. One of Napoléon’s greatest skills was his ability to speak at the level of the common foot soldier. Not only could he clearly explain what he wanted soldiers to do, but he could also explain their role in achieving his vision. This way, people felt like they were part of an idea greater than themselves.

Again, if we look at some of the most successful companies today, their employees feel connected to a bigger idea. Google’s mission is to “organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." Facebook's mission is to "give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected." 


Principle #4: Know your team

Napoléon made it a point of building relationships with his soldiers. He made it a point to know the names of his soldiers, talk with them, and listen to their concerns. He even went so far as to sleep in the field alongside his soldiers the night before a battle. 

Again, this was prescient on Napoléon’s part. During the days of the French monarchy, the idea of knowing the names of common people was completely alien. Napoléon understood that having a personal connection with his soldiers, even common foot soldiers was critical to building loyalty.

Great sales leaders today understand the importance of building close relationships with salespeople. Done correctly, it can help you create a strong culture of loyalty and mutual trust.


Principle #5: Get out from behind your desk

In wartime, Napoléon led from the front lines. This way, he could spot opportunities as they developed, which allowed him to maneuver his armies when he needed to.

When you’re working at a company, particularly a big organization, it can be tempting to hide behind a desk or a screen. The idea of meeting people face-to-face and talking to them sounds basic, but the principle is more important than you might think. Be sure you’re using communication tools to enhance your connection to your team—not obstruct it.


Principle #6: Move quickly

In war and business, time is of the essence. As Napoléon (who died at an early age) once said, “There’s one kind of robber whom the law does not strike and who steals what is most precious to men: time.” In his battles, Napoléon depended on speed and aggressive maneuvering to achieve decisive victories or beat larger opponents. Napoléon had a sense of urgency about bringing his leadership vision to life.


Principle #7 Don’t be a micromanager

One of Napoléon’s greatest weaknesses was his penchant for micromanaging. From a leadership perspective, there’s a fine line between being a hands-on leader and knowing what motivates your team and getting bogged down in minutiae.

This is particularly the case as leaders become responsible for supervising larger teams. Napoléon’s tendency to micromanage hurt him once his battles started increasing in scale (particularly after he invaded Russia). At a certain scale, even a gifted leader must loosen the reins and allow people lower down the chain autonomy to make decisions and operate effectively.

Technology today is rapidly changing our society and the business world. In this environment, we tend to think that ideas from the past have no relevance to today’s challenges. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to fundamental principles of leadership. People are people, and the principles of leading and managing people have not changed all that much—even since the time of Napoléon.

Photo Credit: debarshiray


About David Jacoby

As a Managing Director at Sales Readiness Group, A Part of SBI, David helps large B2B sales organizations improve sales performance. Previously, David was a Principal at Linear Partners, a sales consulting firm providing sales strategy, sales operations, talent management, and interim management services to emerging growth companies. In the past, David has served as Vice President of Business Affairs of Xylo, Inc., where he was responsible for the Company's business development, sales operations, legal affairs, and financing activities.