The Battle of Trafalgar, whose 200th anniversary we celebrated on October 21, is one of the hinges of history - it changed everything. Most people know that the British overcame significant odds to defeat a combined fleet headed by the French. Or more likely they have heard of Lord Nelson’s most enduring naval signal hoisted prior to battle: England Expects that Every Man will do his Duty.
Trafalgar is much more than this. Trafalgar was the dropped stone in the still pond of history. Its ripple effects were significant and long lasting.
Trafalgar finally allowed the British to assert total control over the seas, which in turn enabled the establishment and maintenance of its empire and the international trade that made the English language pre-eminent in the world. No doubt if Napoleon had been successful at Trafalgar, or less unsuccessful, he would have challenged this legacy.
Success at Trafalgar stopped a French invasion of the British Isles, allowed Prime Minister Pitt to end the slave trade, and permitted and sustained the Peninsula wars which ultimately led to Waterloo. In truth, much of the process started at the Battle of the Nile in 1798. It was during this battle that Horatio Nelson launched the long dominance of the British Navy over its continental rivals.
There is much that modern leaders can learn from Nelson’s approach to tasks, endeavours and building winning teams.
Nelson reduced everything to its fundamentals. He drilled his gunners to ensure accuracy and rapid firing. The French relied on absolute number of guns. At Trafalgar, Nelson attacked the line in two columns, effectively isolating a third of the combined French fleet, which nullified their numerical advantage.
A corollary of this strategic ability was Nelson’s popularity with his crews. This was in large part because he told them that they were the best in the world and went about proving it to them. He also understood what mattered to them and made sure they got it. He was renowned for the care he took of his crews and they responded in kind.
It was here that Nelson demonstrated real leadership by articulating his goals in a succinct and meaningful fashion. This enabled them to be used as a rallying cry as much as a standard to measure each decision. The epitome of this was no doubt Nelson’s last message to his fleet prior to battle. Ironically, some crew members at the time thought an appeal directly from him would have been more inspirational.
Nelson also ensured that command was diffuse. When the French flagship was taken by the British, the result was an impaired response as the rest of the combined French fleet awaited orders from their Admiral. Compare this to the British fleet where Nelson was shot in the early moments of the battle and yet it did not have any perceptible impact on the British command or their battle plans. Nelson ensured that as many commanders as possible understood the tactics and strategy of his battle plans. He then left execution in the hands of each commander.
This devolution of information and command was very unusual for its time. The other great battle commander to deploy similar tactics was Napoleon.
All this allowed Nelson to seize the initiative again and again. He seemed to comprehend, as Napoleon did on land, that creating a sense of momentum was almost as important as how many guns one had.
Finally, Nelson was able to concentrate on his next steps. He was always thinking three or four steps ahead, and as such he often appeared to possess great insight. His attention to planning and forethought is probably an early forerunner to what we now consider game theory. At Trafalgar he ensured each ship was in order of attack providing an early timing advantage over their opponents, who spent crucial minutes aligning themselves.
Nelson’s final signal before battle was to make anchor in order to avoid an impending storm. An order, had it been followed, that might well have saved hundreds of lives.
Nelson’s leadership above all is a testament to simplicity. Express your goals, tactics and drills as simply and fundamentally as possible and then do not deviate. People can respond to what they understand and are more willing to respond when they understand how it makes a difference.
The writer is a descendant of Lord Nelson.
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