Sunday, October 22, 2017

Napoleon's Corporal

The French emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte was not just a king - he was a brilliant strategist, battlefield tactician, soldier, and military leader too.  His victories (and losses) are the stuff of legend.  Apparently, whenever he was planning one of his many campaigns with his war council, he would always have one of his corporals (note that a corporal is one of the lowest ranks in the army) shine his boots.  Was Napoleon so vain that he had to have shiny boots before going into battle?  Maybe, but that was not the corporal's primary purpose.  Napoleon knew that the corporal would be listening to the conversation - who wouldn't?  After all of his generals would leave the room, he would ask the corporal if the battle plans made sense.  If the corporal answered "yes" (or more likely, "oui"), Napoleon would go forward with the plans.  However, if the corporal told Napoleon that the plans did not make sense, he would toss out the battle plan and make a new one.

I believe that "Napoleon's Corporal" served two functions (besides shining his boots).  First, the corporal would prevent what is known as "groupthink" (see my previous post, "Going to Abilene" for a brief description of groupthink, as well as a more in-depth discussion of the "Abilene Paradox").  Simply defined, groupthink occurs when a group comes collectively to the same decision - the desire for harmony and cooperation leads to everyone interpreting a situation and coming to exactly the same conclusions.  No one wants to be the only individual to disagree with the group. 

Second, "Napoleon's Corporal" also made sure that the battle plans, even if very complex, had been described in such a way that they would be easily interpreted by every one of Napoleon's generals.  Napoleon wanted his orders to be "crystal clear".  As Albert Einstein once said, "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough."  If a corporal could understand and comprehend the battle plans in the way that Napoleon had intended, then Napoleon knew that everyone else would understand the plans as well.

Today, we probably would not get away with having someone shine our shoes while we were in the middle of a meeting with our team.  But maybe we can have at least one individual on our team who is the designated "devil's advocate" - someone who is supposed to (even expected to) argue the counterfactual and interpret the information in a way that is different than everyone else.  The designated "devil's advocate" would help prevent "groupthink."  After the team comes to a decision, yet another individual could be designated as the person to summarize and explain what everyone had decided - even better, this same individual could be charged with explaining the decision to another leader that was not present for the discussion.  If that individual's understanding is consistent with the rest of the leadership team's intent, then we truly have the "Napoleon's Corporal."

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