FIVE FOR THE FIFTH: Five Leadership Lessons to be Learned from Cinco de Mayo

By Jim Noles, Tuesday, May 05, 2020

No, Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s Independence Day. In fact, the day is, actually, the annual commemoration of Mexico’s victory, on May 5, 1862, over an invading French army at the Battle of Puebla.

But did you know that there are at least five leadership lessons – whether you are a corporate executive or a military officer – you can take from Cinco de Mayo? And I’m not talking about lessons along the line of “ordering that third margarita was probably not such a great idea.” 

Instead, I’m referring to what we can learn from France’s humiliating defeat on its drive on Mexico City 158 years ago. But first, here’s a little historical background you may find useful: 

In early 1862, Napoleon III, using Mexico’s repudiation of outstanding international debts as a pretext for armed intervention and the expansion of France’s colonial empire, landed troops at the Mexican port city of Vera Cruz. So did the French Allies: Great Britain and Spain.    

The French allies ultimately negotiated a settlement and withdrew; French forces, under the command of the general Charles Ferdinand Latrille, Comte de Lorencez, did not. By April 1862, he was marching inland, bound for the Mexican capital, Mexico City, some 190 miles distant.

The city of Puebla, however, sat astride the route to Mexico City, and, on the heights northeast of the city, the Mexicans made their stand at Puebla. Three assaults by elite French troops – the third effort a flailing, bloody mess unsupported by artillery and in the midst of a driving rainstorm –  failed to dislodge the Mexican defenders. Spared a counterattack that might have ended the French intervention then and there, de Lorencez retreated ignominiously back toward the coast.

So what leadership lessons can we take at the expense of de Lorencez’s experience?

  1.  Be Humble.  By 1862, de Lorencez had been a military officer for thirty years. In those years, he had participated in wars ranging from France’s conquest of Algeria to the storming of the Russian stronghold at Malakoff, which secured the beginning of the end of the Crimean War. In his career, he had never seen France lose a war. “We are so superior to the Mexicans in race, organization, morality, and devoted sentiments,” he reportedly assured his superiors in Paris, “that . . . as the head of 6,000 soldiers I am already master of Mexico.”  History would prove him wrong.
  2. Hope Is Not A Strategy.  As de Lorencez’s army pushed forward, climbing higher into the Mexican hinterland, he welcomed assurances that the conservative forces in Mexico, who were still licking their wounds from their loss in Mexico’s Reform War of a few years earlier, would flock to the French banner. Did I already mention that history would prove him wrong?
  3. Take Care Of Your People.  A former managing partner at my former law firm often said, “our most important asset here at the firm goes home every night.” He was talking about our staff and associates, and he was correct. Perhaps de Lorencez felt likewise but, by the time battle drew nigh at Puebla, the French general had, by some accounts, already lost 1,000 of his original 7,000 soldiers to yellow fever and dysentery. Those missing 1,000 troops might well have proven the difference between victory and defeat in the assaults to come.
  4. Understand Your Situation.  My dad, a retired Army officer, once said, as we stumbled across an irritated Timber Rattlesnake in the woods of north Georgia, that “it’s better to have good information in a bad situation than bad information in what you consider a good situation.” De Lorencez, it seemed, had no idea that the French soldiers he was committing to an uphill assault, with ineffectual artillery support, were facing a well-entrenched, defense-in-depth that was more than ready to handle them. And they did.
  5. Learn From Your Mistakes.  Puebla, the French realized, was a tough nut to crack. Therefore, when they returned (under a new commander) ten months later, they came with thousands of more troops, heavy artillery, and more patience. After a siege of two months, Puebla capitulated and the road to Mexico City was opened.

And so there you have it – cinco leadership lessons for Cinco de Mayo. 

About Our Guest Author:
Jim Noles, a self-professed “Army brat” from Fort Hood, Texas, graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1990 with a major in International History. At West Point, he earned Dean’s List recognition as well as the History of the Military Art Award and the Nye Award for Excellence in Research in Military Affairs. Upon graduation, he commissioned as an Aviation officer and served at Fort Rucker, Alabama, and Fort Bragg, North Carolina, with the XVIII Airborne Corps. After his military service, Jim attended the University of Texas School of Law. He now practices environmental law for corporate and municipal clients in Birmingham, Alabama, at Barze Taylor Noles Lowther LLC.  Jim writes as an independent historian and his most recent book, Undefeated: From Basketball to Battle – West Point’s Perfect 1944 Season (Casemate: 2018), is now in print.