While you’ve been away…


…as you can see from the video in the sidebar, I’ve been having a bit of a health battle.  I haven’t been blogging about it because that’s not how I process those kind of experiences, but I’m getting back to a good place now, and my energy levels are returning  So I reckon the blog can start to have a bit more attention.

I haven’t been able to do a huge amount, and I do plan a few posts on what I’ve learnt about Christian leadership from a hospital bed, but I have been able to do some reading, and I fancied bringing out some discoveries I’ve made.

Today, Napoleon – or more especially, Andrew Roberts’ biography of the man.  This year saw the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo (if you want to know more about that, I recommend Bernard Cornwell’s brilliant summary of a bewildering fight), and I guess Andrew Roberts thought it was about time we had the full works.

Why? Well, I think we in the English-speaking world have a really diminished view of him. We despatch him in a few words (Nelson, Wellington, Elba, St Helena), and think that is the issue sorted.  But not so fast.

If we’re going to take France seriously as a mission field, we have to grapple with the extraordinary legacy of this man, who has had more books published about him than there have been days since his birth.  France’s legal, political, economic, educational, geographical, artistic and social structures are still run along the lines that Napoleon invented.  You remember the brave men who disarmed a terrorist on a train and received the Legion d”Honneur? He invented that. Ever been to the Louvre and liked the paintings?  He invented that. Ever wonder why so many French politicians and bureaucrats come through the same few schools and universities? He invented that. Ever admired the legal system that still spreads across the French-speaking world?  Guess what.

And if we’re going to take Europe seriously as a mission field we have to go through the same exercise.  Historical what-if’s are largely pointless, and the further back we go the less relevance they have.  But I reckon it’s pretty unanswerable that without Napoleon we wouldn’t have had the Treaty of Vienna, which gave the keys to Metternich and Bismarck, who lit the various fuses that led to the long war of 1914-1989.  Without Bonaparte, history would have been markedly different for millions of people – and there are very few people of whom that can be said.

Which was Napoleon’s point.  His heroes were Caesar and Alexander, in politics as well as battle, and he intentionally modelled himself upon them; we might call it ludicrous, but in the long and broad view, Roberts has persuaded me that if there is a third name to go with those two, it’s very hard to think of who it might be. Unlike Hitler, he was a brilliantly successful battlefield commander – at least until he was out-smarted by the Russians.  And unlike Hitler, his wide-ranging social reforms were always intended for the betterment of the people, and were (and are) hugely popular.  Unlike Stalin or Mao, he was consistent, and was repaid with considerable loyalty by the army, from top to bottom. (Less so the navy – the fact that his brilliance didn’t extent to boats is probably what saved us from a brutal invasion fleet).  How far back do we want to go – Frederick the Great? Catharine the Great?  Are they still influential by consequence of their leadership? Churchill was brilliantly defiant – but until the war he was a prophet no-one listened to any more, and afterwards became redundant.

Was he a Christian? Absolutely, definitely not.  He treated all religions as useful tools (he learnt that from Alexander), and he was as superficially easy posing as a Muslim as he was a Catholic.  And as ruthless when he was opposed by either.  Protestants he hardly encountered.  His private life was an immoral shambles, although par for the course in the France of his day.  Compared to Talleyrand he was a guiding light; Talleyrand was a self-serving and corrupt diplomat, who managed to climb and stay up several greasy poles, and whom Napoleon consistently misread as loyal and talented.

If you’re getting the impression that I’m rather embarrassed not to have known much about this man, you’re right.  ‘1066 and All That’ tells us the difference between Napoleon and Wellington was that one wore his hat like this, while the other wore his hat like that.  Which is true, but we do need to be better informed.  Here are six lessons I need to remember.

Napoleon was formidably gifted.  Almost every great person generates stories around them, but with this man they are so frequent and so consistent that they must be given credit. A prodigious memory, for faces as well as facts; a driving physical energy; an organisational capacity which could arrange in detail for the movements of hundreds of thousands of soldiers at the drop of a hat; a consistent reading habit which meant he carried both a vast library and his exhaustive filing system on his travels; a personal courage that kept him calm in the middle of battle; meticulous preparation drawing repeatedly on that memory for what he had read – this was a man who would have made a mark wherever and whenever he had been born.  A few men, especially Wellington, could outmanoeuvre him in battle, but there were not many, and they had had to study him hard to learn his weaknesses.

We need to remember that we have been gifted by God with what we need for the ministry he has given us.  Sober self-assessment rather than bloated ambition is the order of the day – it would be daft to compare ourselves with one of history’s great ones and either think of ourselves as his equal, or shrivel into the shadows. Take what you have been given and use it

Napoleon was formidably hard-working.  He took the intellectual gifts he had been given and ran them very hard indeed. His military maxims, clear and memorable, are still taught and used

We need to remember that the gifts we have been given are not self-starting.  They need fuel and putting to work, tough, demanding work.  Languages, anyone?

Napoleon was ruthless, often to the point of cruelty.  I didn’t meet any stories of sadism, and he was frequently compassionate to his soldiers, but he would remove his enemies with precision and force, and remove those whom he suspected of being enemies too.  His blindness in that regard dogged him.  He lied, frequently, about the scale of both his victories and defeats, and span the truth consistently.

We need to remember that the way we conduct gospel ministry is itself an outworking of the gospel, and the presence of lies, bullying and ruthlessness is a standing shame in ministry

Napoleon was focussed.  He had an ambition, which was not self-glorification so much as the glory of France, although it was a fine balance and the two are easily confused.  Put those first three lessons together and it rebukes my idleness in using what gifts I have been given for the sake of a far greater cause

We need to remember what a grand war and enterprise we are involved in, and what is at stake.  That doesn’t mean an ambition for larger churches of self-serving fame, but it does mean that to every cup of tea with an elderly Christian, we bring the conversation to the gospel.  Focus.  On the other hand, we could do with some more godly ambition

Napoleon was flawed. Obviously – but not in an obvious way.  I’ve already mentioned his curious blind spot when it came to some of those around him – it seems as though he could spot military and organisational talent a mile off, but was blind to its absence when the person was valuable in other ways.  So there were numerous blunders where he promoted his family, simply because they were family.

We need to remember that we too are flawed and have blind spots. I misread people and shoot from the hip all the time.  The question is, have you so wrapped yourself in authority that no-one can come close and tell you that that is what you’re doing.

Napoleon was lucky. He called it fate or destiny, but talked of luck as a desirable attribute in others, and that the necessary pre-condition to luck was meticulous planning.  The watershed for seems to have been when he was lured deep into Russia, stretching his lines of communication to breaking point and having miscalculated the supplies needed.  From that point on, although there were moments of brilliance, the flow of events changed direction and moved against him.

We need to remember that he was wrong – there is no luck.  God’s plan is perfect and will work itself out inevitable.  But, remember Proverbs, we are encouraged to plan in line with the wisdom of the gospel, and that planning has a head start in bringing success.

It is strikingly obvious that Napoleon wasn’t a Christian, and so evaluating him on that scale is not terribly helpful  The Russian Orthodox church had declared that he was the antichrist, which (literary types hold their heads up) explains the start of War and Peace. If we compare him to Jesus we will find the antitype of true leadership.  That’s obvious.

So let’s ask a different question.  The business guru Jim Collins talks of ‘Level Five’ leaders, who are not driven by ego or short term results, but in a hidden way serve the greater needs of the organisation.

Napoleon then becomes intriguing.  Here was the self-styled, self-crowned Emperor of France, who when he was not in the public eye wore an ordinary army uniform.  He would spend millions on public splendours, but took his degradation to being a cash-strapped King of Elba with seeming grace.  Because of him hundreds of thousands of soldiers died – and millions adored him. His greatest goal, the glory of France, was what he always intended to serve, right from the moment when he rescued the revolutionaries from devouring themselves.

Napoleon was, as someone once said, an interesting man, and this is a brilliant account of his remarkable impact. I recommend it heartily.

Andrew Roberts, Napoleon the Great, Penguin 2015

4 comments on “While you’ve been away…”

  1. I’m really glad you’re getting back in your stride Chris. Praise God. Thanks too for an interesting piece. I certainly didn’t know, before I read this, that Napoleon invented painting 🙂

    1. Ah – I see your misunderstanding, Sweets. But I’d rather hoped that your expensively gained general knowledge might have guided you through my syntactical thicket. Painting was invented by M. Paint, as any fule kno.

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