The downfall of Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte changed the way people fought wars. Time and time again, with fewer soldiers than his opponents, he won the day. And that’s because he was a great planner. Many historians call him the greatest general to ever live – not without merit. 

He could predict the movement of his enemies extremely accurately and plan for it. And he was a master at creating strong supply lines so that his soldiers were always armed and fed well. But more than anything, it was his battlefield tactics that made him legendary: extremely quick formations and ingenious coordinations between the infantry and cavalry that surprised his opponents and gave him the edge.

While Napoleon had lost a few battles, his confidence was sky high. Because he had lost previous battles and had to retreat only when his opponents had thousands of soldiers more than him. When his 126,000 soldiers faced 107,000 of Arthur Wellesly’s soldiers, Napoleon thought he would win quickly and decisively. Because it was one of the few times when Napoleon had more soldiers than his enemy.

Napoleon famously said: “Wellington is a bad general. The English are bad soldiers. We will settle this matter by lunchtime.” Unfortunately for him, The Duke of Wellington: Arthur Wellesly defeated Napoleon’s army at the battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815. 

It could be that the Duke of Wellington had selected the place of battle and had already taken a position above the hill. It could be that it had rained heavily which had made the ground soft, which made it hard for Napoleon to charge ahead early in the day. It could be the fact that the Duke of Wellington got support from the Prussians who sent in reinforcements of 123,000 soldiers at the end of the day, completely derailing Napoleon’s chances to win. You could point to various reasons why Napoleon lost the battle on that fateful day.

But in truth, there was just one reason. Napoleon’s arrogance. His past successes had made him arrogant. 

Napoleon was aware of the Prussian army nearby. He was aware of the rains making things difficult for him. And even when his generals cautioned restraint, he didn’t change his plans and attacked uphill. Because he thought there was no way the Duke of Wellington would withstand his offensive attack. But the Duke of Wellington himself was a master of defensive maneuvers and had perfected his skills in various wars in India. In the battle of Waterloo, the British absorbed wave after wave of attacks without losing a lot of men, till the Prussians joined them.

But was that Napoleon’s arrogance of just confidence on the battlefield?

The difference between arrogance and confidence

On the surface, both arrogance and confidence look similar. But in fact, they are caused by opposite mindsets. Confidence is thinking that you are awesome. Arrogance is thinking that “only” you are awesome.

Confidence comes when your focus is inwards, Arrogance comes from outward focus – when you compare yourself to others and think of them beneath you.

In fact, Ebony Muhammad, a forensic psychologist who has worked with a lot of prisoners says that she finds prisoners who are arrogant are often envious of others. Arrogance stems from the same place as envy.

Nelson Cowan and his colleagues from the University of Missouri have classified arrogance into three stages:

  1. Individual arrogance: when one overestimates their own abilities (because of past successes)
  2. Comparative arrogance: when one thinks of themselves superior to others 
  3. Antagonistic arrogance: when one starts denigrating others and consider them inferiors

The biggest difference between arrogance and confidence? Confident people can take criticism. Arrogant people struggle to accept any sort of criticism. 

When Napoleon lost at the battle of Waterloo, he had reached the highest pinnacle of arrogance. He could not take any advice or criticism from his own generals. And he saw his opponents as posing no challenge to his brilliance.

Things derail when instead of gaining confidence from their past successes, people gain arrogance.

Arrogant company goes bankrupt

Canadian telecom giant Nortel was the ninth largest company in the world in the year 2000 with a market cap of $283 billion. By 2010, it had gone bankrupt.

One of Nortel’s former CEO – Jean Monty helped fund an academic research project to find out why Nortel imploded. Researchers from the University of Ottawa interviewed 48% of all Nortel executives from 1997 to 2009. They also interviewed executives from 53 of Nortel’s clients. Do you know what they found?

Nortel’s success had made them blind with arrogance. The executives thought they could do no wrong. They thought that they knew better than their customers and did not heed to feedback. Did not change their tech stack based on client demand. Because Nortel had succeeded as a monopoly, they charged whatever they wanted. And when the industry changed, Nortel could not. The culture of arrogance led to their downfall.

How can you keep arrogance in check?

Learn from another emperor. Emperor Qin Shi Huang – the person who united China – famously kept jesters in his court. Why? So that he could remain humble and receive feedback. 

When one day, emperor Qin decided to build a huge, frivolous, and expensive gamepark, his court jester Twisty Pole applauded the decision: “What a marvelous idea! And if there is an invasion, you can let the gazelles and deers butt the invaders with their horns!”

Most kings would behead the person who made fun of them. Emperor Qin rewarded them.

Be more like Emperor Qin and not Emperor Bonaparte. Learn to listen to criticism. Criticism always makes us defensive. But we’ve got to get over the instinct to rebut with justifications.

You’ve got to create opportunities to be criticized. Ask for anonymous feedback. They perform the job of court jesters very well. Create an inner circle of allies who are not afraid to call you out when you make a wrong decision. Thank and reward people for showing courage to criticize you.

Arrogance audit

Dr. Ronald Riggio – a professor of organizational psychology – recommends you ask your team to anonymously complete a questionnaire concerning your leadership:

  • To what degree do you discredit others’ ideas during meetings and consequently, make them look bad?
  • To what degree do you put your personal agenda above that of the organization?
  • To what degree do you reject constructive feedback?
  • To what degree do you take credit for successes, but not blame for failures?
  • To what degree do you believe you know better than everyone else?
  • To what degree do you make decisions that impact others without asking for their input?

Action Summary:

  • Be confident, not arrogant. Arrogance stems from a combination of having been successful in the past and envy. Look within you and compare only with your past self – not with others. 
  • If you can’t take criticism, it’s a sign that you may be arrogant. Accepting criticism is a life skill you’ve got to master. Create opportunities for receiving criticism. Listen without becoming defensive and arguing your side.