Sunday, 10 May, 7.20 pm Talent500 by ANSR

Nelson Mandela vs Napoleon Bonaparte - Which Leadership Model Is Right For Remote Teams

A few days before footballer Marcos 'Cafu' held the FIFA World Cup trophy up in victory in 2002, Brazil's coach Luiz Felipe Scolari could be found slipping passages of a mysterious book dating back to the 5th century BC under his players' hotel room doors. On another court, in a different year, NBA super-coach Phil Jackson watched on as his squad won a championship game using strategies he'd created after reading the same book.

But the spotlight here isn't on the book – The Art of War by Sun Tzu. It is on two figures who read that very book: Nelson Mandela, and Napoleon Bonaparte.

These two great historical leaders drew from this famous work, principles and strategies for victory, but employed them in very different ways. Military strategists, politicians, and business entrepreneurs over the years have turned to both Mandela and Bonaparte for lessons on leadership, seeking to identify techniques that they could employ, or traits that could be emulated. Modern leaders of distributed teams can do so as well.

Comparing Mandela's emotionally intelligent approach versus Napoleon's fierce call to arms style can help identify leadership characteristics to manage your distributed team better.

Leading Like Nelson Mandela

The first black president of South Africa, Mandela is a towering leader of the 20th century, and a symbol of determination and perseverance. The Art of War was reportedly one of Mandela's favourite books to read. So much so that during his imprisonment on Robben Island, Mandela made a special request for it, but was turned down by the prison authorities. Mandela is said to have particularly admired Sun Tzu's strategy of “know one’s enemy, know oneself, win one hundred battles without a single loss” (clearly an ancient recommendation to do a SWOT analysis), employing strategy and a strong ethos to drive his cause. Leaders can consider the following takeaways from Mandela's leadership style when seeking managerial success:

Communicate A Clear Vision

Mandela and his vision for an apartheid-free South Africa were confined for 27 years in an 8×7 foot cell on Robben Island. He persisted with this goal, even refusing President Botha's offer of freedom, right until he saw his vision imprinted on the nation's new multi-coloured flag.

For distributed teams, vision is both a unifier and an enabler. Articulating what's on the horizon for your business is key to your distributed team understanding what they're working towards, braving early morning/late night team calls, working across timezones and geographies, and going the extra mile so to speak to deliver on business goals. Organisation-wide meetings every quarter or so help with sharing your vision, as do one-on-one chats when onboarding new recruits.

Leverage Emotional Intelligence

Taking a cue from his favourite Sun Tzu strategy, Mandela employed emotional intelligence when dealing with his opponents. Instead of plunging headlong into conflict, he took the time to decentre himself to gain perspective from another point of view first – to the extent of forgiving his imprisoners and inviting the person who demanded his death for supper.

Emotional intelligence in the workplace is especially important for long-distance leaders. It is a way to cultivate a level of connection with employees which is often a challenge given that most of the interaction in distributed teams takes place in front of a screen instead of a face – in other ways, it's basically the glue that sticks a team together. Modern leaders without quite the EQ of Mandela can do their little bit by listening actively, and responding with deliberation and thoughtfulness rather than reacting. Part of this is picking up on 'digital body signals' to recognize when employees are unhappy, and then using good interpersonal communication to address issues, motivate them and make them feel valued. Read our article on 5 Communication Strategies to Boost Productivity in Distributed Teams for more tips.

Be A Consensus Builder

Mandela was raised by a prominent tribal chief and spent in childhood eavesdropping on the consensus-building conversations of the tribal council. In this approach, the leader listens first, and then speaks at the end, in an attempt to incorporate the views that have been expressed before him. The role of the leader, Mandela inferred, was to arrive at a consensus rather than force a solution. Later, as a leader, Mandela would practice this lesson in his own meetings.

When demographics and cultures differ as is natural in a distributed team, viewpoints are bound to clash. Rather than let this cripple the company, leaders would be better served by embracing the diversity of opinions. New perspectives and fresh feedback means fewer blind spots and that is the very strength of distributed teams.

Say No To Isolation

His many positive leadership attributes notwithstanding, Madela drew his share of criticism as well. Some accused him of being insufficiently strident – that while he brought about the end of apartheid in South Africa, he left an unequal economic system intact that left a majority of the indigienous population feeling excluded. Other disillusioned parties accused Mandela of being a disinterested, President, show[ing] little interest in administering the country, allowing his colleagues in the African National Congress to divide the spoils among themselves."

Similarly, long-distance leaders may not be aware of certain pain points experienced by members of distributed teams. This means running the risk of learning about a problem only when it is too late to be resolved. Beware isolation to better lead your team to success. Keep communication open.

Leading Like Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte was a master military strategist. By the age of 24 he was promoted to the rank of a general, by 35 he was crowned the Emperor of France, and by 45 he had conquered most of Europe. The impact of Sun Tzu’s strategies are discernible in Napoleon’s battles, such as a combination of direct methods and surprise, which were applied in the victories at Austerlitz, and Jena-Auerstedt. Leaders can consider the following takeaways from Napoleon's leadership style when seeking managerial success:

Blend Strategism With Pragmatism

Napoleon often won battles even when the numbers were against him using tactical ploys like cutting the enemy's line of retreat. And pragmatism was key to this. Napoleon understood the hardships his soldiers faced, and he also knew the importance of keeping up his troops' morale to fuel their ability to fight. One of his most famous maxims for instance, "An army marches on its stomach", is an example of this tacit understanding. As was his efforts to keep his soldiers well shod – Bonaparte wrote twenty-three letters about boots and shoes to procure enough to keep his army marching. His pragmatism was necessary to win his victories. Sometimes it's the little things that make a difference.

Leaders today need to keep both strategy and pragmatism in mind to make the right moves in hopes of increasing efficiency or practical gains. Setting up your distributed team in a city with a supportive innovation ecosystem or that has a strong university or academic presence will pay dividends later. Additionally, equipping teams with the best workplace, tools and platforms to boost collaboration is critical, as making the team feel unified and productive is key to succeeding in modern business warfare.

The Power Of Positive Reinforcement

Napoleon inspired confidence, sure that "moral force rather than numbers, decides victory". Instances of him honouring the bravest man in the battalion with a medal from his own coat spurred the military to even greater service.

Remote and distributed teams are bound to hit the wall occasionally and successful leaders step into such situations with a positive outlook. According to a study by Teem, 49% of survey respondents were unhappy because they felt under-appreciated in their role. Mete out assurance and reward in equal measure to inspire greater personal effort from the team.

Break Down Psychological Barriers

Being present is expected from a leader; but being present where you are needed is more important. Napoleon was able to command the respect of his soldiers by joining his troops on the battlefield, putting himself in the line of fire, and thereby illustrating that they were all in it together, they were all fighting for the same cause.

In a distributed team, leaders have to make the time and effort with breaking down the distance between team members and teams in different geographies and timezones, fostering trust and camaraderie, to make everyone feel unified. To this end, building a strong team culture can help. Click here to read our tips on building culture for your team, with examples from Buffer and Zapier. Having one-on-one chats with your employees can also help, as it emphasises the worth of each person and every job profile. All in all, your approachability humanizes the company.

Say No To Micromanagement

According to historian James MacGregor Burns, Napoleon was a control fanatic. The 33,000 letters Napoleon wrote that still survive illustrate this, Burns points out. "He would write to the prefect of Genoa telling him not to allow his mistress into his box at the theatre, and to a corporal of the 13th Line regiment warning him not to drink so much." But the micromanagement often led to disastrous consequences. Another historian, Isser Woloch, cites the example of when Napoleon enacted conscription for military duty, it was so draconian and restrictive that it produced "mass resistance of a sustained, endemic character." Draft evaders tried to escape over the Pyrenees mountains to escape serving.

Long-distance leaders should likewise be wary of becoming puppeteers and becoming too controlling of workers' time and efforts, as it could lead to discontent, and disengagement. Delegating responsibilities is a better way to inspire trust in geographically spread-out teams. Kevan Lee, VP of Marketing at Buffer agrees, commenting "One of the things we love about remote teams is that the emphasis is on doing the work, not on showing up. We don't time track or prioritize synchronous communication, like video or Slack responsiveness." Indeed, setting targets for the day seems much better than worrying about whether a remote employee is doing the laundry in between tasks.


It's increasingly clear that to successfully employ the strategies recommended by Sun Tzu, a blend of intelligence and character is required. In order to align all the employees in distributed teams, a leader needs to be both strategic and self-aware, pragmatic but with empathy for others.

Therefore, rather than choosing between the two styles of leadership exemplified by Mandela and Napoleon, leaders can combine key leadership qualities from both Nelson Mandela and Napoleon Bonaparte. Mandela's emotional intelligence, and resilience, coupled with Napoleon's tactical brilliance is a recipe for overcoming different challenges unique to distributed teams, and winning the business battles of our new world of work.

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Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by Dailyhunt. Publisher: Talent500 by ANSR