Becoming a General

The following blog is made up of the best bits of editorial, articles and blogs that I’ve come across in my 38 years of working life, 30 of which I spent as my own boss at a very successful Creative Agency.

I thank all those that have inspired me to make (and write!) my own observations on these subjects. I now want to switch my focus to helping the next generation find the success that I did, and hopefully avoid a few of the pitfalls I didn’t!

Generals are usually chosen for their skill in fighting wars and battles - but there’s more to it than meets the eye. Finding similarities in the attributes of great Generals and great Business Leaders is, somewhat unsurprisingly, not a difficult task.

Take two Generals from the early 19th century, Napoleon and Wellington, both of whom were very successful, each adopting and utilising their own unique leadership style, richly different from the other.

Napoleon on one hand was charismatic, energetic and daring. Wellington, however, was cautious and reserved. Napoleon would not involve himself in the detail of the army, leaving this instead to his Marshals, outlining the strategy himself before leaving his Marshals to execute it. Wellington, on the other hand, would be very precise with his orders, leaving his generals very little room for interpretation, famously remarking that it would take him “twice as long to write half as much”. His orders were precise, concise and succinct.

Napoleon once said that “if he had enough ribbon he would have conquered the world”. He would lead from the front and reward the bravest soldiers with medals, honours and promotion. He trained them to be agile and move fast, living off the land and relocating quickly. Napoleon would take advantage of any mistake his foes made and be quick to react and capitalise on them, often before they even knew it was happening. This gave the French Napoleonic Army an air of invincibility, driving the armies of Europe before them. (All apart from the British army).

Wellington was totally different. He was a calculating general, looking months, if not years ahead, to defeat his enemies. He was a meticulous detail planner and would involve himself in every aspect of running the army. He would establish supply routes, before ensuring that his army was always well provided and accounted for, never risking his men unless he was absolutely sure of victory. Perhaps his soldiers didn’t love him as Napoleon’s loved him, but they respected him and would always do as he asked. He trained them well and the vast majority of the his army were volunteers (if not slightly coerced from time to time).

I would consider Napoleon’s to be an entrepreneurial-style of business leadership, with a willingness to take risks. He’s very much a ‘brand’ man. Think Richard Branson as a modern example. Thinks on his feet. Good with one liners. Virgin brand - you know what you’re going to get. Steve Jobs would also fall into this category - much more of a maverick leader than most.

Wellington could be characterised as an effective Chief Executive of a long standing and successful PLC. Virtually any CEO of a FTSE 100 company would fit into this character. By nature they need to be steady, reliable, be able to answer to shareholders and the City.

Think of a few bosses and leaders that are around today - which ones are they?

Personally, I have tried to adopt a little of both. Napoleon’s innovation style and Wellington’s attention to detail. Bearing in mind Napoleon’s career was over by 1815. Wellington went on to become Prime Minister and a confidant to Queen Victoria. His career outlasted Napoleon’s by a significant number of years. Who would you rather be?