The Mind of Napoleon

Napoléon Bonaparte’s name is synonymous with military skill, the glories of victory, the building of empire and the bitterness of defeat. At the peak of his power, he oversaw an imperial domain spanning Europe and tens of millions of people with legendary efficiency and an almost pathological attention to detail.  While his personal virtues and vices fill volumes, best-selling historian Andrew Roberts argues that the real secret to his success may be an often-overlooked ability: his extraordinary ability to compartmentalize his thoughts and emotions and focus on the task at hand.  This quality, so critical for any executive, was at the heart of the Corsican’s spectacular rise and is a lesson for everyone seeking to get things done.

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Napoleon Bonaparte was an extraordinarily effective chief executive, expert in creating and then leading one of the fastest-growing and territorially largest empires in modern European history. His leadership techniques, secrets of time-management, capacity for delegation, photographic memory, and sheer hard work have often been analyzed by historians, but what forcibly struck me while researching his biography was also his extraordinary capacity for compartmentalizing his mind. More than any subject I have come across in over a quarter of a century of writing history, Napoleon was capable of a ruthless control over what he wanted to think about at any one time.

Napoleon himself knew this, and was proud of it. “Different subjects and different affairs are arranged in my head as in a cupboard,” he once told a minister. “When I wish to interrupt one train of thought, I shut that drawer and open another. Do I wish to sleep? I simply close all the drawers, and there I am — asleep.”

The recent publication by the Fondation Napoléon of 33,000 letters that Napoleon signed in his lifetime serves to underline this phenomenon, which was central to the way that he was able to raise France from virtually a failed state when he took it over in a military coup in 1799 to the most powerful nation in Europe by 1805. It also explains the way he ruled the French Empire before he was defeated at the battle of Waterloo two centuries ago this June.

Some of these letters were short and terse, not unlike the early nineteenth-century equivalent of an e-mail. Others could range over several pages, explaining to his ambassadors, ministers, and marshals exactly what he wanted them to do in any given circumstance. Yet they all display a complete concentration on the task at hand, however many political, military, economic, religious, social, or personal issues he was juggling at the time. After warning his army commanders to expect an Austrian attack on September 10, 1805, for example, and giving them precise orders as to where each army corps needed to be in response to it, the Emperor also found time that day to instruct the fifty-three-year-old Pierre Forfait, prefect of Genoa, to stop taking his young mistress — “a Roman girl who is no more than a prostitute” — to the theater.

““Different subjects and different affairs are arranged in my head as in a cupboard. When I wish to interrupt one train of thought, I shut that drawer and open another. Do I wish to sleep? I simply close all the drawers, and there I am -- asleep.” ”

—Napoleon Bonaparte

On the night before the battle of Borodino in 1812, Napoleon had much to worry about. It was to be the bloodiest battle in history up to the point, and indeed the bloodiest until the outbreak of the First World War a century later — the equivalent of a fully-laden jumbo jet crashing into an area six miles square every five minutes for the whole ten hours of the battle, killing or wounding everyone on board. Yet Napoleon was still able to dictate over one hundred rules for a new girls’ school he wanted to set up at St. Denis in the outskirts of Paris for the daughters of winners of the Légion d’Honneur. Once in the Kremlin six weeks later — which the Russians themselves had tried to burn down while he was living there — and almost cut off from Paris over 1,700 miles away, Napoleon nonetheless was capable of writing dozens of new regulations for the Comédie Française.

Napoleon’s capacity to compartmentalize his brain and focus entirely on each subject at a time of his own choosing, allowed him to control his empire to an astonishing degree and in a far more detailed way than any ruler had done before. In April 1807, for example — a quiet month for him, despite his writing 443 letters — he involved himself in a dispute between the head stage-hand of the Paris Opéra, Boutron, and his deputy, Gromaire, over who had been responsible for dropping the singer Mlle. Aubry from a mechanical cloud above the stage, breaking her arm. ”I always support the underdog,“ Napoleon told his police chief Joseph Fouché, taking Gromaire’s side from over a thousand miles away. That September he also displayed his perhaps micromanaging nature when he ordered the arrest of Mr. Kuhn, the American consul in Genoa, for wearing the Order of Malta that had been awarded him by the British, and demanded to know which Bordeaux aristocrats had boycotted a particular ball given by a Senator Lamartillière, and why.

Napoleon even assumed the role of amateur sleuth in a murder mystery in 1808, instructing Fouché to reopen a three-year-old poisoning case from May 1805 concerning “a certain Jean-Guillaume Pascal, from Montpellier. This scoundrel is said to have murdered his wife.” Napoleon ordered M. Pascal’s brother-in-law to be interviewed by police and a post-mortem conducted on the couple’s dog, which he suspected might also have been poisoned.

Of course such compartmentalization of his mind could not save Napoleon’s empire when it came under sustained assault from 1813 to 1815 from every other major power in Europe, but in the years before that it had allowed him to raise France to the highest-ever point of her power and influence. The demands on Napoleon’s mind, energy, and time were enormous and his mental efficiency made possible his remarkable achievements. Napoleon’s phenomenal ability to devote the entire concentration of his remarkable mind on whatever he needed to — to the exclusion of all else, until the problem was solved — was a key element to his extraordinary success.