Leadership Lessons: Battle of Jena 1806

I was at a leadership event at Birmingham Business School a fortnight ago, and one of the speakers mentioned this battle. I am ashamed that I cannot name him in the absence of the promised slides.

The battle is not well-known in Britain, and took place between Napoleon and Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia. The Prussians were defeated, and their shattered armies captured over the following weeks, the French entered Berlin, and Prussia was replaced as France’s major enemy by Russia.

This was not just a battle with huge consequences for Prussia, but a turning point in German history.

Why did the Prussians lose so badly? Firstly, they were overconfident, and were hide bound in their tactics. Secondly, command was divided, and the commanders had to hold meetings to decide what to do. Thirdly, having not decided what to do, their quasi-feudal command structure gave little initiative to commanders on the ground.

By contrast, although Napoleon was in overall charge, and could command the entire army, he gave a degree of autonomy to his generals, enabling them to act swiftly and decisively to the situation in front of them. This had its downside – Marshall Bernadotte was almost sacked on the spot because he did not join in the fight.

As a result of such a crushing defeat, the Prussian army reformed itself to such good effect that Prussia and then Germany became the major European military power. They also studied French tactics, particularly their quick deployment, refining this into the concept of Blitzkrieg. That in turn was studied by the British and Americans after 1945.

What has this to do with running a law firm post Legal Services Act? Recognise that things are not like they were, your “enemy” is different, and so are their tactics. Decide your plan, and do not hold interminable meetings. Move swiftly. Delegate the power to act within the plan. Above all, do not pretend that there is no attack on you.


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