The Motivation Method Napoleon Used to Win Wars

You must not fear death, my lads; defy him, and you drive him into the enemy’s ranks.” — Napoleon Bonaparte

Revolutions always balance upon a knife’s edge. A missed opportunity and its flame dies out. The voice of a single commander, the luck of a tempest, a single mistake by a leader, and all is lost — or won. So it was for France’s revolution on October 1793.

It was the Battle of Toulon that would determine the success or failure of the French Revolution. Toulon was a critical port city currently occupied by anti-revolutionary British forces. If the French revolutionaries could not capture the city, they would be incapable of building a navy to defy Britain’s dominance of the sea. Suffocation of the French Revolution would quickly follow.

The French commander in charge of artillery cannons had been wounded, and the leaders of the revolution sent a young artillery officer to aid him. The young officer was instantly resented and disliked. Resented for his lack of experience and disliked for his lack of physical stature. Yet the young officer carried himself like an emperor; and, moreover, he had the backing of Robespierre, who held power over life and death. In October 1793, the young officer had yet to win fame and the title that would be his: Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.

Although no one knew it yet, Napoleon was a god with the cannon. Toulon would be where he would prove his worthiness. In his first maneuver at Toulon, he suggested the cannons be directed not at the city, but at the British ships in the harbor. In this way they would cut off the city’s supply line.

Revolutions always balance upon a knife’s edge.

Napoleon’s superior, resentful of the young upstart, only half-heartedly complied with the suggestion. As expected, the weak attack served merely to instruct the British of their plans. In retaliation, the British garrisoned a fort near Toulon that would become so powerfully entrenched it was dubbed “The Little Gibraltar.”

Napoleon was not dismayed, he simply adjusted his tactics. His new plan was to overpower the enemy. He concentrated the cannon batteries around the port city. There was one particular battery that became critical to the bombardment, due to its elevated terrain. But also due to this elevated terrain, it was the most vulnerable to counter-attack. Thus making this battery the most dangerous one to operate. The soldiers all deemed it suicidal.

Napoleon’s superiors informed him that no soldier would voluntarily man it. He knew this to be true. Were he to force them, he would likely cause desertions — unacceptable during a pivotal battle.

Though he was young, he was knowledgeable in human motivation. He had not only digested all the great histories and biographies, but the great classic literary novels too. He understood that increased pay, or threats of executions or other punishments would not motivate his troops to take on the suicide mission.

Walking through camp in contemplation, he spotted a printer and suddenly an idea occurred to him. He created a placard in order to name the battery. The next morning the men saw placard. It was attached to the suicidal battery. The men paused for a moment. And then they were fighting each other to sign up to man it. They all wanted to be members of the band of men lucky enough to earn the honor of operating that cannon. It was manned day and night. The French won the battle; Napoleon won acclaim.

Through tactics and persuasion, Napoleon helped to ensure that The Revolution did not die. His technique of inspiring his men rather than threatening them led his men to love him and to rally to him even against insurmountable odds.

It all began on that day at the battle of Toulon. He had cracked the code of human motivation. He had spoken to the soldier's’ pride as well as their desire to be recognized as men of courage. We can trace Bonaparte’s success as a military commander back to a moment—His many victories born from a single insight and a single placard placed upon a dangerous artillery battery—a placard which simply stated:


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