Being the beginning of a new year, you may have developed a list of New Years resolutions. Having goals is excellent. Goals reflect a desire to be better than who we currently are. As the final seconds of the previous year count down, our hope builds and we say to ourselves “This year will be different.”. The ugly truth is that although 52% of us feel confident that we will be able to turn our resolutions into reality, only 12% of us actually do. And of that 12%, the overwhelming majority wishes it achieved their aims in a more cost-effective and less demanding way. The most cited reasons were lack of planning, poor situational awareness, and a narrow vision of what they really wanted to accomplish. An excellent case study in the mismanagement of all three of these key elements to goal attainment is Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.
The year was 1812 and Napoleon was the master of Europe. Against his wishes, Russia and England (the only two major powers he hadn’t conquered yet) continued to trade with one another. Napoleon’s strategic goal was to isolate Britain economically and politically. The purpose was to set the stage for a future invasion of England which he saw as his only remaining rival. The method would be a punitive expedition into Russia so severe that the Czar Alexander I would be compelled to cease trade with England and succumb to the economic system of the French Empire.
Planning: What set Napoleon apart from all other generals was his extraordinary attention to detail not only on the battlefield but also on the drawing board. Napoleon meticulously arranged for the construction of supply depots to enable the French army to achieve his objective of punishing Russia into compliance. We all know what happened next. What many don’t know is the true cause of the demise of the French army. “General Winter” did not destroy the French Army as many assume. It merely finished the job which Napoleon’s lack of oversight began. Although the lack of winter clothing resulted in a rout instead of an orderly retreat, Napoleon’s lack of a plan for resupply once in enemy territory literally snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. As a result within 8 weeks, the “Grande Armee” had suffered 50% casualties to disease, starvation, and desertion all without engaging in any large scale (and therefore decisive) battles. By late June the French army had slaughtered virtually all of its horses for food which crippled supply efforts since its supply wagons were horse-drawn. By the time Napoleon had crossed the Russian border, his army was literally feeding on itself. By September of 1812, the Grande Armee went from 690,000 effectives to only 135,000 again, without even fighting one battle. The plan had failed. There was no effort to modify it and not even talk of making a new one. Meanwhile the Russian army was nowhere in sight.
Situational Awareness: Success leaves clues. Fortunately, so does failure. More often than not, we receive signals along the way which, if handled properly, can allow us to maintain our even increase momentum. When we’re emotionally involved in a big project which has already incurred high cost and commitment on our part, the temptation to “drop the shoulder” and continue to attack increases. There’s a satisfaction in doing what others told you could not be done. But when the thrill of victory dissipates, have you reached your true objective?
A month before entering Moscow, Napoleon finally found and fought the Russian army at the Battle of Borodino. The hope of inflicting a decisive defeat didn’t materialize. Borodino was a nasty, vicious, bloody battle which accomplished nothing. Although the Russians withdrew, the “Grand Armee” was now down to 95,000 men. Taking Moscow was questionable and holding it was impossible. The army would be lucky to make it back to France much less ask anything of Czar Alexander.
It was time to stop, reassess, and ensure actions aligned with goal achievement and resources could handle reality. Virtually all of Napoleon’s advisors urged him to at least stop and consider the situation. Napoleon would have none of it. He had succumbed to the “sunk cost fallacy” which is basically a reluctance or refusal to change a course of action due to overfocus on resources committed or already spent. What’s needed is not necessarily quitting or abandoning your aims. However, when setbacks accumulate to the point of not only compromising the goal but bringing you to the point of ruin, it is definitely time to stop, review, and seek counsel.
Vision: There is a Japanese proverb which states “Vision without action is a daydream, action without vision is a nightmare.”. The purpose of the campaign was to force Russia to cease trading with England. That’s it. When losses accumulated and it seemed that Napoleon could actually “lose” he changed his mind to achieve a goal which was “doable” but would not support his original intention. Napoleon’s army did reach Moscow by mid-September. However, the residents had fled (including Czar Alexander) and burned Moscow to the ground. Because Napoleon had compromised his vision, his judgment followed suit. Consequently the master of Europe forgot that winning a war was no longer about taking a capital city and being presented with the keys. After leaving France with 695,000 experienced and competent soldiers, the Grand Armee returned to France with only 5,000 stragglers. Napoleon, having abandoned his troops in the field, returned to France only to be handed over to his enemies. His original vision of a French Empire which could act with impunity had crumbled around him. His country paid for his lack of planning, his army paid for his lack of situational awareness, and a promising future for both himself and France paid for his lack of vision.
Napoleon is but one of many individuals who have failed to achieve enormous goals due to poor planning and unwillingness to see the truth. Many top-ranked executives, small business owners, generals, and others have gone this route. However the ones who manage to recover momentum and achieve something truly significant know the difference between a risk and a gamble. The difference is best summed up by Erwin Rommel, a great general in his own right; “A risk is a chance you take; if it fails you can recover. A gamble is a chance taken; if it fails, recovery is impossible.”
In order to assume risk with confidence, develop a plan which is solid and flexible. Understand what your blind spots are and employ people who can tactfully point them out. Seek the company and counsel of those who are experienced enough to remind you when you are straying from your integrity, values, and vision. Or, you can roll the dice. The choice is yours.