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When it’s you against all odds

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in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers

By 1810, Napoleon’s occupation of Spain had deteriorated into what he would call his “Spanish ulcer.”

With help from England and Portugal, local insurgents resisted more than 300,000 French soldiers occupying Spain. The rebels managed to force a French retreat and occupy the hills controlling the roads to Seville and Cordoba. What’s more, a Spanish infantry division supported by artillery and cavalry was dispatched to secure the road to Seville.

The division charged down this road in the high sierra, headed straight for a band of French soldiers commanded by a truly remarkable officer.

Capt. Cyr Billot guarded a village under vague orders to secure territory by “dominating and controlling all the main roads occupying strong places until the situation was stabilized.”

Furthermore, Billot had seen his commanding officer blow through town, cynically joking about France’s military policy and mocking the orders to “guard this highly important acre of desert … to the last cartridge!”

The Spanish force of 5,000 men descended on Billot’s 96 soldiers. Despite his boss’s cynicism, Billot knew that stiff resistance could buy time. He decided to fight.

The Spanish general, expecting an empty village, blundered into Billot’s men and lost 200 soldiers. His next attack was more deliberate, grinding down Billot’s unit until 35 of them escaped to the temporary safety of a church. The angry general decided to smoke them out, forcing Billot’s men onto the roof. Amid smoke and gunfire, with only eight men left, Billot felt a tug on his sleeve and was handed the last cartridge.

At that moment, a powerful French counterattack pushed back the Spanish and later thrashed a second army to restore French rule in southwest Spain.

Months afterward, Billot and his eight survivors received the Cross of the Legion of Honor. His tiny unit had tied up 5,000 Spanish troops for 13 hours, exhausting their food and ammo, keeping them from joining another division, and knocking half their infantry out of action for the rest of the year.

Lesson: Steadfast leadership can make the difference between success and failure.

— Adapted from “The Last Cartridge,” Richard Rutherford-Moore, Armchair General.

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