Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, the triumph of Admiral Viscount Lord Horatio Nelson, is the culmination of a leadership style that we can all take as a lesson today.
In a time where leadership was largely of the command and demand variety, Nelson spent his time developing the ship’s captains under his command to make decisions as he would. He met with them regularly to teach them his fighting philosophy. He brought them together at dinners to encourage teamwork and build strong bonds. And in battle, in one of his biggest detours from accepted practice, he allowed them to fight and lead on their own.
In those days, battle was a confusing melee where communication was nearly impossible, and coordinating any choreography was largely a futile pursuit. Nelson confidently relied on the competence of his captains to make their own decisions and to execute based on the things he had taught them. Although he may have signaled direction in order to get things into place before the battle, once the fighting began, the signaling stopped and encouragement ensued. He simply trusted his men to do what they knew to do.
Nelson’s use of what, at the time, seemed a disorderly strategy, relied on a few key leadership principles that might be best summarized by Vice-Admiral Villeneuve, the French fleet commander defeated at Trafalgar:
“To any other Nation the loss of a Nelson would have been irreparable, but in the British Fleet off Cadiz, every Captain was a Nelson.”
Here are a few key principles of Nelson’s style that today’s business leaders would do well to borrow:
Trust: Nelson trusted his captains to do what he knew they could do. He also did things to bring them together to build trust among each other. By demonstrating his trust in them, he modeled what he expected from their behavior with each other and the men under their command. Each captain knew they could make decisions without fear of retribution and because Nelson had shown them how he made decisions, it was probable that they would simply do things he would do anyway. One Nelson with many “mini-Nelsons” authorized to think.
Engagement: Nelson activated the team by involving them, getting them together regularly and communicating with them. This communication included listening to and considering their thoughts and ideas as part of making strategy. He motivated them to have their own minds and to feel free to question things if they saw dangers that had not been voiced. He also taught them how he did what he did so that they would impart that same knowledge to their charges. By communicating his philosophy so that it cascaded throughout the ranks, the need for direction in the heat of battle would be unnecessary.
Action: Nelson took action by not taking action. It may sound like a Zen koan but his action was to create a basic strategy, then delegate thinking to his captains and trust them to do what they knew to do. Nelson got results and by doing so got the admiration and loyalty of those who followed him. This enabled him to lead and get more and greater results culminating in the victory at Trafalgar. Although this battle proved to be his last, the legacy it left was the ultimate undoing of the despotic threat of Napoleon, a great result indeed.
To be a leader requires being someone people want to follow, not simply holding a title. This requires character that holds to values like trust and respect. From there a leader must engage their followers to move the movement forward and they must work in the best interest of the team so they can get results. In the case of Nelson, he saw the power in trusting, teaching and allowing his followers to achieve the mission and get the results. Overall, Nelson’s example proves a timeless lesson in leadership for all of us today.