Are our ideas good so we do them, or do our ideas become good because we pursue them?
In 1793 Napoleon1 was an artillery captain in a French Republican army, which held the Royalist city of Toulon under siege. Unfortunately the siege was ineffective. Anglo-Saxon ships were keeping the city well provisioned and the Republican army had no good plans with which to take the city.
Napoleon offered an idea on how to take the city, but it was unconventional. The commander, Jean François Carteaux, dismissed it. The idea did not align to what the leader believed, so he saw no reason to try it.
How to Make a Bad Idea
Napoleon’s original commander saw him (let’s say) as a bit of an upstart with a bad idea. Because he believed that, the leader declined the idea which had the impact (but not the intent) of marginalizing Napoleon’s contribution. It was the commander’s actions (decline the idea without trying it) that made the the commander’s beliefs a reality (the idea is bad).
Let’s describe this a bit more sequentially:
- The commander believed Napoleon was an upstart
- Upstarts don’t have good ideas, so let’s not waste resources
- The commander dismissed the bad idea from this upstart
- Napoleon was now an upstart with a bad idea
How to Evaluate an Idea
Napoleon’s story ended more favorably than most (at least in this context). The siege lasted for too long and the commander was replaced. His replacement let Napoleon try this “bad idea”. It worked exactly as Napoleon expected. The city was quickly taken by the Republican army.
This represents a different perspective of Napoleon and his idea. The original commander had a passive stance and supported those ideas that aligned with his expectations. The new commander was willing to actively use his position as a leader to offer the resources required to discover the value of an idea.
More Than Yourself
Neither commander could have ever come up with Napoleon’s idea. They lacked the necessary artillery experience. As such, it would have never been the obvious choice. As long as anyone waits for the obvious choice in a passive stance, they will not pursue a better solution than those they can imagine.
This is especially important for leaders. If you gauge ideas only by your ability to understand them, you’re likely in a passive stance and waiting for obvious choices. You’re like Napoleon’s original commander and dismissing these crazy ideas rather than actively supporting the experiments required to learn how good they might be. They might be far better than you know, but you can’t know that without trying them.
Hopefully, that’s why you’re a leader; to help find these ideas, empower your team to run the experiments and learn. If Napoleon’s leader hadn’t let him run the experiment, Napoleon would not have become the great commander that he was.
If you’re a leader whose waiting for obvious choices and you don’t see the point in trying ideas that are going to fail (in your opinion), then leave leadership. You don’t belong there. It is only by actively engaging team members and testing those bad ideas that your team can grow beyond the limits of what you know and become something more than you can imagine.2
There’s a good chance you have a Napoleon on your team; someone with ideas that won’t work. Are you limiting that person’s potential to match your ability to imagine? Or, are you actively finding ways to inspire thoughts that are bigger than yours and create the conditions to find out how good those ideas might be?
- Note: Before you start thinking “Napoleon Complex”, be aware that Napoleon’s height has been misrepresented for a few reasons. He was actually about 5’6″, which was the average height for men of that time.↩︎
- Disclaimer: some ideas are just terrible. Use your judgement, but stay humble and stay curious.↩︎