Clock Hands, No Mechanism

Connecting War and Peace with Today’s Leader

As promised my new posts this year will connect whatever classic literature I am currently reading to the modern work, family, or personal life.

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy’s magnificent work about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, part novel, part philosophical treatise, part historical analysis is rich with material I could mine for connections to today’s world.  That is one of the reasons these works endure. This post and the next will connect this classic work to modern leadership.

In September of 1812 Napoleon entered Moscow as one of the last moves in his campaign against Russia.  To his surprise he found that the Russian army and every citizen who had the means to get out had left the city.  And shortly after Napoleon’s entry, fires broke out across Moscow.  His army looted.  The remaining civilians’ basic needs were not met.

Napoleon’s actions in Moscow are astounding and marked by his characteristic genius.  “Order after order and plan after plan proceed from him, from the time of his entry…He does not lose sight of either the welfare of his army, or of the doings of the enemy, or of the welfare of the peoples of Russia, or of the management of the affairs in Paris, or of the diplomatic considerations to do with the terms for the coming peace.” (Vol. IV, Part Two, Chap. VIII)

What a powerful leader, keeping everything in mind, planning everything, orchestrating everything.  He gave orders to find the arsonists and execute them, set up almshouses, resumed church services, issued laws against looting, created a city council, drew up a brilliant plan for his future campaign over the entire map of Russia and on and on. We know leaders who conduct themselves the same way.

“But strangely enough, all these instructions, concerns, and plans, while being by no means worse than others issued in similar cases, did not touch the essence of the matter, but, like the hands of a clock with the mechanism removed, turned arbitrarily and aimlessly, without catching the gears.” (Vol. IV, Part Two, Chap. X)

hands of the clock

We have phrases in our work and lives to describe this phenomenon:

  • Movement without meaning
  • Actions without effect
  • Going through the motions
  • Not understanding what’s needed
  • Busy but not effective
  • Activity without desired outcomes

Napoleon looked like the same genius who had conquered most of Europe, but in Moscow he ran again over his old familiar track which was now the most “disadvantageous and dangerous” path.  And Tolstoy created a powerful metaphor to illustrate the sad fact of this “great leader’s” self-delusion.

“Napoleon, during all the time of this activity, was like a child who, holding the straps tied inside a carriage, fancies that he is driving it.” (Vol. IV, Part Two, Chap. X)

In the end, Napoleon left Moscow with his army which was like a mortally wounded animal hastening its own end. He deserted the army to get back to Paris, and less than half of the million man army made it home alive to France. And though he tried, Napoleon never regained his former glory.

Napoleon leaves russia


Lessons from War and Peace for us as leaders in business or as managers of our personal lives in this modern world?  Yes, there are.



  • Do less and think more.
  • Understand the true nature of the situation you are in.
  • Realize that what worked well in the past may not be what is needed in this current situation.
  • In a complex situation involving many people and circumstances, don’t deceive yourself that you are or even can be in control.

Tolstoy was a genius with metaphor.  Next time I connect his metaphor of a beehive to our modern condition.




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