Napoleon, at the height of his victories, is considered by many military historians to have had one of the greatest military minds in history. Although he did not write a systematic philosophy of war, theorists such as Baron Antoine-Henri de Jomini and Carl von Clausewitz each attempted to study Napoleon’s battles and distill his philosophy. Oddly enough, what Napoleon did write was a collection of military maxims. While the sum of their parts do not add up to a “philosophy,” individually, and when viewed as a whole, they present us with some very clear insights into what makes a successful leader. I would like to share a few of these maxims and then derive some guidance for leaders and for all of us as we prepare for Chodesh Elul.
Maxim II: “In forming a plan of campaign, it is requisite to foresee everything the enemy may do, and to be prepared with the necessary means to counteract it.”
Maxim VIII: “A general-in-chief should ask himself frequently in the day, ‘What should I do if the enemy’s army appeared now in my front, or on my right, or my left?’ If he has any difficulty in answering these questions, his position is bad, and he should seek to remedy it.”
Maxim LVIII: “The first qualification of a soldier is fortitude under fatigue and privation.”
Maxim LXXIII: “The first qualification in a general-in-chief is a cool head – that is, a head which receives just impressions, and estimates things and objects at their real value. He must not allow himself to be elated by good news, or depressed by bad.”
The first two maxims emphasize the importance of being clear about one’s own plans, but to consider things from the opponent’s perspective. A general/leader must consider what possible options the opponent might choose and be sure that he has a way to counter them. If a leader does not know how to counter them, then he should change his position or regroup. Likewise, a leader must be open to the possibility that his opponent might do something totally unexpected and be alert to events that totally go off-script.
The third maxim quoted refers to the importance of endurance. This is true with respect to physical endurance and even more so to mental. Although Napoleon pointed this out in regard to his regular soldiers, it is even truer when it comes to leaders. The fourth maxim underscores the importance of being calm under pressure. This is especially necessary when it comes to evaluating unfolding events and contradictory and confusing information. Napoleon cautions leaders not to become either overly optimistic or pessimistic and, most of all, to not fall victim to confirmation bias – believing only the evidence that supports one’s already-established beliefs.
While these maxims are good advice for leaders, they are exceptionally important for us as we approach Elul and prepare to be better next year. The most important thing we can do to ensure that we carry through with our planned growth over the coming year is to properly identify what our major obstacles will be. We need to then out-think them.
The first danger to avoid is strategic overreach. All too often, in a sincere effort to transform ourselves overnight, we take on way more than our current spiritual infrastructure can support. The Mesilat Yesharim (end of Perishut) warns against attempting to jump too high too quickly in one’s spiritual growth. Rather, we should be well aware of our comfort zones and stretch ourselves to get to the next adjacent levels.
In a related manner, the Orchot Tzadikim (Anger) cautions us to be on the outlook against the tactics of the yetzer hara. The yetzer hara is very patient. It does not begin its attack against the mitzvot which are most dear and important to us. Rather, it attacks the small good things we do on the periphery and builds up momentum. Regrettably, before we know it, we have lapsed backwards.