The Leavenworth Way of War

History Discussion at CGSC

Military Genius?

Genius has been defined in several different ways:

Genius:  Distinguished mental superiority; uncommon intellectual power; especially, superior power of invention or origination of any kind, or of forming new combinations; as, a man of genius. [1913 Webster]

Genius refers to a person, a body of work, or a singular achievement of surpassing excellence.

More than just originality, creativity, or intelligence, genius is associated with achievement of insight which has transformational power.

Many military historians, and many of Napoleon’s contemporaries think that he was a genius: Napoleon conquered all of Europe and dramatically changed the way wars were fought. Many French believe that Napoleon’s rise was because of the French system’s emphasis on promotion due to merit.  Thus it put the best man, Napoloen, in position to command the Army.  The French then built a command system to support him.  

Was Napoleon really a genius or just the leader “lucky” enough to be in the right place at the right time?

Was Napoleon’s rise based on merit… or did he lead France due to factors besides merit?

Is the commander centric command system designed to leverage “genius” the right model that the U.S. military should be following?  Is the current US system overly commander centric? 

What do you think of the idea that in a commander centric system, the commander becomes the single point of failure of the entire system?  Is “commander centric” the only logical way to run an army?


September 19, 2013 - Posted by | H100


  1. While Napoleon was without a doubt an opportunist and self-promoter who capitalized on good fortune in his rise to power as well as on the battlefield, it does not detract from his status as a military genius. Simple luck does not account for the success of Napoleon and the French Army under his command and neglects not only his military leadership style which inspired and motivated his men and his ability to work within the fast evolving French military and political system of the revolution onward but also ignores his advances to the military system.

    Identifying army logistics as a significant weakness that had to be revolutionized to support a successful French Army, he created and implemented the use of supply trains to feed and equip his men (principles we still see in our modern army today). These supply trains, including preserved food rations, supported advancing troops (the warfighter) and not only increased morale but increased their health and effectiveness. Napoleon also had the tactical prowess to bring France victories against other European powers and leveraged the nationalistic spirit of his troops and their numerical strength. He mitigated the lack of training that his non-professional soldiers had by setting up the physical formation of his troop lines to French advantage, implemented skirmishers (as we discussed in class), Napoleon-centric planning process, and more often than not fixing the front enemy lines to then conduct a flanking movement and winning the day.

    Simply put, while there may have been better generals in the French Army, Napoleon was able to use his genius as a leader, revolutionary and tactician to thrust himself to power and seize control of significant European land-holdings. He was not perfect in any of these areas but others of the day could not match his high level of understanding across so many key skills / warfare areas. Napoleon was a genius, forced a change in military affairs during his time period and has had a lasting impact on militaries of today.

    Our military today is highly command centric, based not only on merit based promotion but on leveraging experience and skills of senior leaders, however, there is high importance placed on using the knowledge and ideas of juniors to improve the organization. MDMP and JOPP leverage inputs from junior military leaders to inform and influence the commander and the increased use of joint mentality, including sister services and other government agencies, affects the decisions and scope of military commanders. The services’ war colleges have working groups and even electives and programs here at CGSC have wide reaching impact as they produce point and policy papers that research issues and have the potential to shape the services and OGAs. Our service have professional publications, commercial journals and even use commercial think tanks to provide tools and information to commanders who will advise our senior leaders or make the administrative and battlefield decisions. The military requires good order and discipline and the rigid discipline and professionalism that command centric leadership brings is a strength of the military and is not at the detriment of information informed decision making. This command centric method of leadership, off-set by civilian control of the military and interested in informed decision making, is the only way to run an adaptive and modern military.

    Comment by LCDR Matt Krull | September 22, 2013

  2. Matt– I’ll put you down as my nomination Nap fan club president!

    Comment by dimarcola | September 23, 2013

  3. Sir,
    I do not believe Napolean was just lucky – although that certainly played a part. I think a case could be made for nearly any military “genius” in that each of them also benefitted from the ‘luck’ of their circumstance. A counter-case could also likely be made that some geniuses were never fully recognized simply because the circumstances during their tenure never afforded them an opportunity to fully show their talent.

    Napolean was certainly in the right place at the right time to take advantage of the French Revolution and seize it as an opportunity to rise to the level he did in an unprecedented amount of time, but that still does not account for the effective application of his incredible tactical and technical military genius within the growing French military system. For all of the reasons that Matt highlights above, and even more, Napolean proved he was far ahead of any of his peers in terms of understanding how to most effectively sustain, fight, and lead an army.

    The current command system that the US Army uses is definitely the right model for our Army. This system is imperative for a professional fighting force and holds the right people responsible for the success and failure of a unit. It does not, however, de-legitimize the junior leaders within the organization or ensure that the commander is a ‘single point of failure’ within an organization. Great commanders still empower and leverage the tactical and technical expertise of everyone within their organization and bad commanders do not necessarily mean a unit is destined to fail. I personally know of units with terrible commanders that were still successful on the battlefield (despite their commander) because junior leaders and staff officers would not allow their unit to fail. A ‘commander centric’ army is important because it reinforces the hierarchical aspect of the military that we consider so critical to instilling and enforcing discipline within our ranks.

    Comment by Jeff Pickler | September 23, 2013

  4. Napoleon is described in history as one of the world’s top military leaders, a tactical genius and leader. His rise to fame, however, was just as human as the next. Napoleon’s mistakes do not discount his genius. As a young boy, he was made fun of for having a Corsican accent and therefore dedicated his time to his studies. As an officer in the military, he got lost in the swamps at Arcola and as an emperor, he committed to attacking two enemies in which he could not win. Napoleon was not perfect. He did have opportunities presented in his life that allowed him to be “in the right place at the right time” and advance in his rank and position. Blunders make a man human, innovation makes a man a genius and Napoleon.

    It was this innovation that allowed him to lead France. Napoleon’s rise itself was a little fate, a little merit, a little preparation meets opportunity, but Napoleon’s ability to lead a country, was also do to his personality. Napoleon was charismatic, had great vision, and understood the driving force behind the desires of the French public. Napoleon knew how to tap into this force and was able to lead and ultimately crown himself emperor (which appears to be ironic and contradictory to what the French Revolution was about.)

    I will make one interesting comment… at the end of Napoleon’s reign, he made poor decisions, he did not learn from his past mistakes, and he did not adapt. Not to discount his achievements, but did Napoleon’s genius “run out”? If we take the definition of genius, and apply it to Napoleon’s end, I do not think he would have the same genius traits that were accounted early on in his rise.

    Comment by Mai Lee Eskelund | September 23, 2013

  5. Was Napoleon really a genius or just the leader “lucky” enough to be in the right place at the right time? I think Napoleon was an excellent military man, but not quite a genius. He was excellent handling his armies
    strategically and tactically. He had the keen ability to inspire and influence others due to his tactics military/political knowledge, tactics innovation, and charisma. To me, his downfall was he overestimated his own abilities and could be attributed to his personality. He retained absolute “centralized power” over both the military and civil administrations during the later period, which pushed him way beyond the bounds of command and control of his armies. But other than that, I think he was an excellent military man, but not quite a genius.

    Comment by MAJ Emilio Rodriguez-17B | September 24, 2013

  6. I think all the above points are valid, however, we are dealing with the wrong understanding of Genius. While the dictionary definition would lead you to believe that the term is only focused on the metal faculties, we should be talking about “Military Genius”. According to Carl von Clausewitz:

    What we must do is to survey all those gifts of mind and temperament that in combination bear on military activity… it does not consist in a single appropriate gift… genius consists in a harmonious combination of elements…[to include] courage… warrior spirit …powers of intellect… judgment … chance… sound decisions…[and] determination. (1)

    Clausewitz wrote these words about Napoleon. Clausewitz thought of his masterpiece “On War”, because he saw firsthand the genius the French Emperor.

    Napoleon showed the combination of skills that easily meets the definition we are looking to fill. He was both lucky and skilled, “it is the average result that indicates the existence of military genius” (2). His contribution to the military profession is unmatched, whether it is forward supply bases or “pieces of ribbon” there is no doubt to the contribution of his genius on the battlefield. So, was Napoleon a Genius? Yes! And is recognized the world over because of it.

    Now, was he smart for trying to conduct a land campaign in a Russian winter? I guess not, but that does not take away from his Genius on the battlefield.

    (1) Clausewitz, Carl von. On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, 100-103 (“Genius”). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976. [46 pages] [CARL]

    (2) ibid., p. 103.

    Comment by Aaron Parker, 17D | September 25, 2013

  7. A genius is a person who displays exceptional intellectual ability, creativity, or originality, typically to a degree that is associated with the achievement of unprecedented insight. (Wikipedia Definition for Genius)

    Interesting that inspiration is not included.

    I hypothesize that Napoleon is an exception leader in that he communicates a vision that inspires. He isn’t a genius; rather an exceptional leader.

    Comment by Maj Jim Smith, 17B | September 26, 2013

  8. Was Napoleon a genius? People say he was one of the greatest military minds in the history of warfare because he expanded the conquests of France from her innovative borders to that of an Empire that stretched from Spain to the steppes of Russia ( . Historians say that Napoleon was a genius because he refined the existing means of war during the late 1700 to early 1800s. He also excelled at the tactical management of the armies of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He established himself as a great leader of men during the revolutionary period. However, Napoleon’s inability to adapt to the changing shape of war would answer the question on whether he’s a genius. I would say that he was a great motivator of men and new how to inspire his followers.

    Comment by MAJ T.S. Harris/17B | September 26, 2013

  9. 1. Was Napoleon really a genius or just the leader “lucky” enough to be in the right place at the right time?

    A. Napoleon was a military genius [that’s it]. I also think that he was in the right place at the right time; applying the old axiom luck is when preparation meets opportunity (I can’t remember who said it so don’t bust me for plagiarism…please) . Hence, I think this axiom applies to Napoleon in that he prepared through education and military service; seizing an opportunity to lead during the revolution.

    It is important to understand that a genius has his or her limitations. His genius was seen in the conduct of operational art. His character supported his genius in that he was calculated and decisive in his ability to make decisions on the battlefield. In a professional terms, he had a large set of AUDACITY.However, strategically he was a failure. The glory of France was clouded by his ego and his grandiose character denied him the ability to accomplish his vision in a sustainable and realistic manner.

    2. Was Napoleon’s rise based on merit… or did he lead France due to factors besides merit?

    I think so. Napoleon was a competent officer. However, his rise to power was facilitated by the fact that he was not a French noble. He was considered one of the people. So being that Napoleon was a fairly extroverted individual, he was able to manipulate the situation to solidify is power position.

    3. Is the commander centric command system designed to leverage “genius” the right model that the U.S. military should be following? Is the current US system overly commander centric?

    (SIGH)…Yes and No. Patton said your greatest officer’s will never see the highest rank. I assume its because they are frank and have dull personalities. I think being frank is good. However, most personalities do not handle blunt candor all to well. Although, there is some truth to Patton’s statement, the commander does not necessarily need genius, but he or she definitely needs a level of intellect that can make important decisions during important times. There are dumb ones…I’m sure.

    4. What do you think of the idea that in a commander centric system, the commander becomes the single point of failure of the entire system? Is “commander centric” the only logical way to run an army

    Yes. The commander is the man on the ground that makes the decision to cross the line of departure. Also, who else will you blame if something goes wrong.

    Comment by Steven L. Keil | October 17, 2013

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