First off, address the bias. There is a substantial fraction of historians who think that Napoleon's armpits smelled like air freshener and posies sprung up in his footsteps. They believe that the word "wrong" is defined as "disagrees with Napoleon", and discussing Napoleon's failings is not just an intellectual but also a moral hazard. I'm not fond of these folks.
Napoleon isn't a single, easily understood instance, he's a generation, and over that generation he changes and he changes the world. He rejects the church, he accepts the church. He frees all slaves, and then re-enslaves the ones he finds necessary. He enfranchies the Jews and then reveals that the enfranchisement doesn't really mean much. He writes the code Napoleon, and then rules as a dictator.
I don't like him; I don't like the revolution, I don't like absolutism, I don't like conquering populism. The problems he confronts are fascinating, but I can't read about him because too many historians think the Napoleonic war is about Napoleon.
I say all that as preface because I have to admit that Napoleon is brilliant by any concievable standard. As a military genius he did things that everyone else in Europe would have agreed were impossible. There are precious few rulers who have singlehandedly written a law code for an entire continent. That law code fell short of his goals, but judged by his aspirations, even I have to admit it is pretty admirable. He was quite simply more capable than anyone around him, and was still able to motivate others to join and support his cause.
The ancien regime was screwed - they had been trying assiduously to reform for at least a generation, but were unable to make the changes that would have saved themselves. Whether you think Napoleon was the agent of the change or a tool of change, he wasn't simply a lucky guy in the right place. He was an incredibly brilliant, incredibly capable man who rode the malestrom.
I think you pose a very good question - it would be fascinating to compare absolutist rulers like Stalin, Franco and Napoleon and investigate how they deployed terror, governance and genius to reform their societies.