Nelson developed a reputation as a very good commander, who was daring, bold and – when necessary – willing to disobey orders. He also picked up several serious injuries and was blinded in one eye. When he was given a command to withdraw at the Battle of Copenhagen, he ignored the command putting his telescope to his blind eye and pretending not to see. His boldness paid off with his persistence gaining victory.
Nelson was a complex character, at a time when navy discipline was often extremely severe, he was said to have had empathy and love for his men – he didn’t adopt an overly authoritarian manner. His men definitely responded to his courage and confidence. But, he was also vain and loved to be flattered and receive praise. He had a great need for attention and was often bedeviled by insecurities. However, he was admired as a leader and had a very strong sense of duty to his country.
Legend says the three white stripes on the present dress jumper represent Admiral Nelson’s three great battles – Trafalgar, Copenhagen, and The Nile. Someone may well decide 100 years from now that the Navy eliminated the stripes because it figured Admiral Nelson couldn’t possibly have won those battles because he didn’t have any carrier air support.
Here are a few lessons from Nelson: Britannia’s God of War:
- Reward success and take the blame for failure. Nelson’s subordinates enjoyed working for him because they knew they would be able to contribute to the plan, as well as exercise initiative, aggression, and personal skill. They also found comfort in knowing that if things went wrong, Nelson would take the blame. However, if the mission was a success, Nelson ensured that his leaders received their proper reward and acknowledgment. Lambert wrote that “[Nelson] never overrode the judgment of those whom he had ordered to execute well-defined tasks. He always worked through the proper chain of command to avoid giving offense, or undermine the confidence of promising officers. If things went wrong, he was the first to leap to the defense of a bold and decisive subordinate.”
- Remember that political courage is as important as battle courage. Throughout his career he witnessed several of his commanders get bogged down in orders and rules, resulting in the loss of initiative or sailors in battle. He felt that leaders needed the “political courage” to sometimes disobey superiors to accomplish what was in the general interest of the cause. He once said to the Duke of Clarence: “To serve my king, and to destroy the French, I consider as the great order of all, from which little ones[subsequent orders] spring; and if one of these little ones militate against it…I go back and obey the great order and the object.” His disobedience, or putting the mission before his career, avoided disaster or accomplished the overall intent on more than one occasion.
- Communicate clear and simple concepts. Reinforce with discussion. In addition to producing memorandums that explained what his subordinates should do, he also brought them in for dinners and councils to discuss the greater picture and his intent so they could exercise proper judgment when required. On the eve of battle, Nelson penned his famous Trafalgar Memorandum, and wrote “something must be left to chance…in case signals can neither be seen nor perfectly understood, no Captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.”
- Lead by example. Nelson understood the realities of combat, and he understood that when leaders set the example, their subordinates are more likely to rise to the challenge. Nelson’s sailors loved him, because he shared the dangers alongside them. In his final battle, The Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson put himself at the deadliest spot of the battle, the flagship Victory. This location allowed him to quickly modify battle plans as well as be with the ship that would take aim to destroy the enemy’s command and control ship. Even though his personal example on Victory ultimately cost him his life, it provided the fuel for those whom he commanded to eventually overcome the French and win one of the most famous battles in naval history.
- Trust is a powerful enabler. Mahan wrote that Nelson’s trust in subordinates rested, “upon the presumption in others of that same devotion to duty, that same zeal to perform it…which he found himself.” Before the first shots of Trafalgar were fired, he sent a note to all his ships letting the men know, he trusted that they would do their duty. Nelson had absolute faith in those who followed him.