The Napoleonic Code of Risk: 10 Rules

The Napoleonic Code of Risk: 10 Rules

Risk is like fire. You can use it to make your life better, or you can destroy yourself.

Risk can precede either success, satisfaction, late-night celebrations or loss, poverty and tragedy. There are no guarantees in life, but there are tools we can develop to both go for the gold and soften the blow of failure.

One of the best tools we can rely upon in life is the study of history. The 19th century dramatic rise and fall of one man, Napoleon Bonaparte, and of his empire, circa 1815, can teach us about the role of risk in our lives today.

The subject of “Napoleon” might be for some people, perhaps outside of military schools, a collection of facts and figures one might have learned and forgotten in school, amounting to no more than tales about a Frenchman with a funny hat who fought some wars, took over Europe and then lost it all.

Napoleon’s reign over most of Europe, when the industrial age was still years in the future, seems completely irrelevant for a new-industrial age filled with 3D printing, cyber-warfare, biotech, private space-flight and social network oversharing. His life story hardly seems helpful at all. Some readers a little more familiar with the subject might wonder, “Hey, didn’t this guy lose in the end and get shipped off to an island?” Yes, in fact it happened…twice.

Many of us have experienced, at some point in time, a cycle of success followed by failure. This cycle of win and loss probably involved a dream, goal, career, project or person /relationship. Perhaps I have just reminded you about some moment in your life, where everything felt like it rose to unbelievable heights, inspiring us to wonder how we keep “the party” going.

Of course, sometimes in life, something intervenes to change everything, turning things upside-down, flipping gains to losses. Many of us can relate to what it’s like to be on the verge of an “epic fail” in our lives, businesses, ventures, jobs or relationships. Maybe you’re in the middle of a something going wrong now, and feeling a bit of a let-down or a melt-down. Maybe you want to find ways of coping with it and make sense of it, as you ask yourself, “what happened?” or “why?”.

If you have ever had this moment or moments like this in your life then maybe I haven’t wasted your time. (And if you have never ever failed or had difficulties with a goal, situation or person you cared about in your life, you have either never tried hard enough or you’re going to write a blog entry or book about avoiding risk and doing nothing.)

My brief study of Napoleon, has lessons for me, both good and bad, about success, failure, risk and reward. I want to share them with you and hopefully it will be useful (or at least a pleasant distraction as you wait for your bus/train stop, taxi/limo/car ride or for the traffic light to turn green).

During a late after-hours conversation with close friends, in a moment of intellectual pretense, someone talked about Napoleon’s rise and fall and wondered if he “would have made some of the same mistakes”. I wondered about that idea but then I forgot about it. It wasn’t until I suffered what felt like an epic fail in my own life that I recalled the conversation and wondered about “why” and how I could have avoided it or perhaps turned things around before “it was too late”.

Usually after some let-down, bust or “epic fail” in life our thinking can shift into “not again” mode. Some of you know that “not again” promise we make to ourselves, only to repeat some dramatic cycle of launch, rise and crash all over again. But here’s the thing. Wouldn’t it be nice to short-circuit, to interrupt, the cycle of repeating past bad habits, choices or inclinations which lead to a lot of life’s “shoulda, coulda, woulda” moments? These notes could serve as a meditation on the cycle of success and failure, with Napoleon as another addition to your inventory of “mental models” for managing life’s boom and busts.

Where did Napoleon’s story begin? In relatively modest circumstances on an island nation recently acquired by an aging and debt riddled monarchy in the late 18th Century. I have shared just below some of my history “homework” but you can skip past this part if you wish.

(Attention scholars of 19th Century Europe and the Napoleonic wars: Obviously this piece in its entirely will not add to the body of work regarding Napoleon but hopefully a few friends of mine will be amused by it or find it useful.)

To provide some context for my “Code of Risk” I’ll be sharing the following historical details:

Napoleoni di Bounaparti b. August 15, 1769, Ajaccio, Corsica

(NOTE: Although Bounaparti was not born a Frenchman, I will use “Napoleon” or “Bonaparte” for the sake of simplicity.)

1769: Born into minor Corsican nobility, and a poor speaker of French, Napoleon is a scholarship student who, after a few missteps, would eventually become a commander of the French Army by 1796. Although longing for a position in the French Navy, the future Emperor finds himself appointed to a top artillery unit, in part due to being a math whiz. This exposure to mastering cannons would later prove to be very useful early on during his ascent from green second lieutenant to leader of Europe.

Soon Napoleon is appointed to command of an army by the leaders of revolutionary France, thanks to a back-handed reward by those in charge in Paris. This amounted to “Thank you, you’re promoted to General, congratulations, and by the way we have given you a fixer-upper of a broken down Army, in Italy, to lead far away from Paris”. Napoleon’s reward for helping to save the French Republic, was a promotion to General and command of an army in Italy so that the political leadership could avoid having their own personal “Caesar” in the capital.

1798: Napoleon would be in Egypt, conquering some but ultimately losing to the British at the Battle of the Nile. Trapped when his fleet faced the British Empire’s famed “wooden walls” of its Navy, he escapes to live another day, leaving his men behind. Not a glorious episode in his “career” but it’s not the end for him.

1800: Napoleon defeats Austria, at the Battle of Marengo, establishing France as the power of the European continent.

1802: Napoleon joins a triumvirate executive of 3 co-consuls, meant to be a lifetime appointment. Napoleon’s fellow co-consuls will later find out that is not the case for them.

1803: The rest of Europe has been up in arms again against France and the British continue to remain out of Napoleon’s clutches for the entirety of his life.

1804: Napoleon at his pinnacle: “it’s good to be King Emperor”

Napoleon’s official title is “Emperor of France”, of the French Nation and People,but NOT the French Republic itself technically. The title is a pretense for a post-revolutionary France. Napoleon crowns himself (almost literally) in effect a King, but not one in name, in one last legal fictional concession to the Revolution that led to King Louis XVI’s beheading. Napoleon is officially equal with all citizens of the Republic of France, but he’s certainly first among equals.

This former Corsican patrician/partisan, who couldn’t spell in French properly, would be the father of a new legal system for France, replacing an archaic and patchwork legal system. The impact of creating a uniform legal code in France continues to resonate in present day Europe.

1805: The Battle of Trafalgar marks a turning point, with pluses and minuses. France defeats Austria and the Russians, but the British, under Admiral Horatio Nelson, ensure that France’s ambitions are contained to the continent. Napoleon resorts to a trade war with the British Empire, via the “Continental System” and France’s control of who the continent can do business with. Think “economic sanctions” and you get the idea.

1808: The Peninsular War is a costly and horrific war, with origins in an invasion of Portugal by France and Spain to punish the Portuguese for defying the French Empire’s “Continental System” meant to blockade the British from trade with Europe. But the punishment of Portugal would metastatize into a French occupation of Spain. Spain, initially was an ally with France in going after Portugal, with the goal of conquering and dividing the spoils of taking over Portugal. Spain is effectively double-crossed by France. No honor among thieves.

If you’re reading this, please keep in mind that I think this war is a turning point, for the worse, thanks to Napoleon’s drive ambition and ego. His strengths become his weaknesses.

1812: Russia. Napoleon’s forces begin a long march from what is modern day eastern Germany, through Poland and Lithuania, to Moscow. Again, the catalyst was Napoleon’s obsession with Britain and enforcing the continental system with reluctant “allies”. Here Napoleon turns a bad situation, of fighting a war of occupation in Spain, worse by diverting remaining forces in the belief he could take Moscow and force the Czar’s surrender. Ultimately the French march into an empty, cold and burning Moscow. The Emperor’s pyrrhic victory is his undoing and soon enough, after his decimated forces return home, encourages others to turn on him.

1814: Game Over. Napoleon fights and wins battles but loses the war and is exiled to an island called Elba. It’s the 19th century version of being given an office and secretary after losing a corporate battle for control of a post-merger takeover. Napoleon was allowed to retain his title of Emperor and his dominion reduced to a single island of 12,000 residents. The Emperor (of Elba) reportedly made many improvements and kept busy, working on projects, like improved drinking water for Elba’s citizens, and had friends and family for company.

1815: Waterloo. Napoleon, itching for another chance to rule France, escapes on Feb 26, 1815 and is soon back in his old home, the palace known as the Tuileries, with the recently installed Louis XVIII (the “18th”) having run to Belgium. Napoleon tries to present a kinder, gentler Emperor but after an initial burst of enthusiasm, reality begins to catch up with Napoleon, as he faces the “Congress of Vienna”, a coalition of Europe trying to re-organize things after Napoleon’s still recent defeat. He hoped to relive and repeat his past glories but it’s too little, too late. Sometimes playbooks should be updated, but Napoleon, upon his “second chance”, loses again, having learned no new tricks, and for good this time. Game over again.

October 15, 1815: The British are merciful and spare Napoleon from being executed, and instead exile him (AGAIN) to another island, this time in the South Atlantic. Napoleon’s latest and final dominion, St. Helena, is smaller than Elba at about 12.5 square miles in size. Downsizing from a continent wide empire, which once boasted an army of hundreds of thousands, down to an island retreat that would two centuries later still have no more than 1,000 residents. Here the former Emperor becomes the classic depressed shut-in and re-writes history with his memoirs.

Died: May 5, 1821, Longwood, St. Helena island, Napoleon ended his days as an exile.

(I apologize in advance to the reader for any factual/historical errors.)

The Napoleonic Code of Risk has 10 rules about success and failure:

The first 5 rules focus on “The Rise” and The latter 5 rules focus on “The Fall”



Your start does not define your journey or your destination.


“Nobody expects the French Revolution”* Don’t resist change.


Change often requires a “right” choice, followed by the “right” action.


Nobody went from “second lieutenant” to “Emperor” overnight.


Don’t get stuck on one route…and leave a legacy as you forge your own path.



Pride without perspective is arrogance.


ARROGANCE plus GREED is a toxic mix. This can cost you friends and allies.


Success and victory is not a solo act. If you pretend you don’t need friends, you might end up stuck alone or saddled with “frenemies”.


A toxic mix of arrogance and greed can take you on a ride to a special hell known as the state of hubris.

Rule #10

The risk is high that after you’ve already lost big, thanks to breaking all the rules of rising (#1 to #5), that you will keep losing.

At this point, it’s usually game over. Time to reboot. But a second chance does NOT have to be another chance to make the same mistakes twice.

Over the coming weeks, we’ll break down each section of this Code of Risk and see how it might be useful for us today.

Originally published at on March 8, 2015.