In 1804, Napol?on Bonaparte?was crowned emperor by the people of France.? Five years before, he had seized control of the French government and named himself First Consul.? Until his ultimate defeat in 1815, he led the French military through almost two decades of war where he seized control over much of Europe.? As a part of Napoleon?s thirst for conquest, he set his sights on destroying the British Royal Navy and invading England.? The Royal Navy had established its dominance of the seas in the 18th Century, and during the Napoleonic Wars, the British had blockaded France?s ports.? Napoleon was determined to break the Royal Navy?s supremacy, so he assembled a fleet of barges and over 100,000 soldiers on the English Channel ready to invade once they could subdue the mighty British Naval fleet.
Napoleon tapped Vice-Admiral?Pierre-Charles Villeneuve?to lead the French Mediterranean Fleet.? On September 16, 1805, Napoleon gave the order for the French fleet to put to sea and engage the British Royal fleet if the French had superior numbers.? The British Royal Navy was led by Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, and in the Atlantic Ocean off the Cape of Trafalgar, the British fleet of 27 ships faced the French with 33 ships on October 21, 1805.? Back in these days of sail ships, the cannons were on the sides and the traditional form of battle was to sail line to line against the enemy, and the British preferred to sail into battle with the wind at their backs. This military approach had its limitations, particularly from a communication standpoint.
Admiral Lord Nelson was a gifted leader and saw an opportunity to break from traditional thinking and pursue a different strategy.? Instead of the normal line to line attack formation, he sailed straight at the French military and used a new communication method.? This unorthodox approach achieved a dramatic result as the British lost no ships and the French fleet lost 23 of their 33 ships.? While the Battle of Trafalgar was a major military victory for the British and thwarted Napoleon?s plans for invasion, they lost their hero as Lord Nelson was killed in battle by an enemy sniper.? As he was leading his men into battle, he signaled from the flag ship, ?England expects that every man will do his duty.?? This phrase went down in history as probably the most famous military signal in British military history.
So why take this stroll through some two hundred year old military history? What relevance does this story have in our fast paced modern world?? I believe a great deal.? As a history major in college, I was intrigued when reminded of this story by a friend.? As a student of leadership and a business consultant, I was particularly intrigued by the leadership lessons that Lord Nelson had to offer.? I believe that true leadership principles are timeless, and we can glean insights from throughout history from men and women of true courage and vision.
Consider for a moment, if you were one of the officers or soldiers in the British Royal Navy.? For over a century, there was a conventional way of doing battle.? Your leader has asked you to try a very unorthodox approach which has you sailing straight at the enemy who happens to outnumber you!? As a leader in any organization, you will face times of change.? There will be times of fear and uncertainty.? To be effective, you will need the trust and loyalty of the team.? You will need people to follow you into uncertain situations and believe that you have a vision for success.?? Just because you have a title, it does not mean that you will have that level of trust.
Reward Success/Take the Blame for Failure
According to one Lord Nelson?s biographer, he had a history of taking initiative and being aggressive. His men also knew from experience that if things went wrong Lord Nelson would take the blame.? If the outcome was a success, Lord Nelson ensured that his leaders were rewarded and acknowledged for the victory.? Leaders are not glory seekers.? They don?t hog the limelight.? They are quick to praise and reluctant to ever criticize in public.? Leaders today should consider the need to utilize every opportunity to encourage others by acknowledging their successes, and they should avoid pointing the finger.? As the sign on President Harry Truman?s desk said, ?The buck stops here.?? Leaders are called upon to make decisions and accept responsibility for the outcome.
Lead From the Front
Lord Nelson had the trust and loyalty of his soldiers because they knew he led from the front.? He shared in the danger they faced.? In the Battle of Trafalgar, he sailed on the flagship Victory which was the deadliest spot in the battle.? Similarly, George Washington told his Continental Army in 1777 when he came upon some British troops in New Jersey, ?Parade with me, my brave fellows,??and led the charge into enemy lines. ?Great leaders don?t ask others to do what they would not do themselves.? They lead with a moral authority that inspires others.? Consider in your own organization whether you are truly leading from the front.
As he led his fleet into battle, Lord Nelson would not be micro-managing his other leaders.? As they sailed into the heat of combat, he had to trust that others would act on their training and experience and be responsible for carrying out the plan.? When he signaled, ?England expects that every man will do his duty,? Lord Nelson was unleashing his leaders to greatness.? He expected them to be courageous and to do their job.? While he expected a great deal from his soldiers, he expected even more from himself.? Legendary basketball coach John Wooden would share at the beginning of his pre-game locker room speech, ?Men, I’ve done my job, the rest is up to you.”? Coach Wooden?s team had done the preparation.? On game day, he released them to go get the job done on the court.? In your organization, have you empowered your team?? Do they know you have their backs?? Have your prepared your employees for success?
While we don?t face the heat of military battle every day, we are competing in a challenging global marketplace.? We encounter traditional ways of doing things every day.? If you are not in a period of change then you are probably just coming out of one or about to head into another.? If you are in a leadership position, perhaps the lessons of Admiral Lord Nelson might provide some encouragement and insights into navigating your next challenging season.