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Nelson: The leader who puts current British leaders to shame

Today, Wednesday 21st of October, sees the 215th anniversary of the Battle that gave Trafalgar Square its name.

Nelson: The leader who puts current British leaders to shame

Towering over this is the statue of Admiral Nelson, looking towards Parliament and beyond that to the open seas. His victory over the French and Spanish gave the British Navy supremacy of the seas for nearly a century, allowing them to police the world’s oceans and stop the transport of slaves.

Recently the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich has announced a review of the ‘heroic status’ of Nelson, a move prompted by suggestions of his complicity in the slave trade. In reality, a letter of Nelson purportedly supporting slavery is most likely a forgery and claims that he used his seat in Parliament to vigorously defend the slave trade is contradicted by his silence on this subject during his appearances in Parliament.

So, perhaps the Museum could use the anniversary of Trafalgar to spearhead a re-evaluation of Nelson, based on his leadership skills? We cover some of that territory here, taking a look at his man-management skills, relating them to his achievements and to modern management theory and comparing them to the skills of those directing the coronavirus crisis in Britain.

Nelson’s superb leadership

According to Andrew Lambert, Laughton Professor of Naval History in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, Nelson was ‘an admiral of genius who inspired those under his command with a sense of fellowship, of shared endeavour and of national pride’. Nelson learned his trade from the bottom up, joining the Royal Navy at the age of 12 and passing his lieutenant’s exam at under the official age.

His genius?

In addition to a talent in unconventional battle strategy, Nelson provided inspirational leadership by putting himself on the front line and leading by example (for example, at the Battle of St Vincent 1797 and at Trafalgar); he would share his battle plans with his captains, providing intellectual stimulation and listening to their criticisms; he would have dinner with his captains, showing individualised consideration and getting to know them as individuals strengths and weaknesses; he showed stewardship in being prepared to defy orders and face the risk of a court martial if he felt that his solution would safeguard the lives of his men and the country (for example at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801).

After Nelson was shot at Trafalgar, his final words were ‘Now I am satisfied. Thank God I have done my duty’.

The effect?

As he wrote in a letter to Lord Howe following the battle of the Nile in 1798, he had ‘the happiness to command a ‘band of brothers’ (Jan 1799 he even once described his captains as ‘my darling children’ and as ‘noble-minded friends and comrades, a gallant set of fellows’. He even wrote how his ‘heart swells at the thought of them’ and this last comment betrays the strong feelings and empathy that bound him to them.

This strong bond produced inspirational motivation and unshakable loyalty. So, at Cadiz in 1797, Nelson’s coxswain, Sykes, saved the admiral’s life by placing himself between Nelson and the enemy cutlasse. Then, following Nelson’s resounding victory at the battle of the Nile (1798), the surviving captains commissioned a sword and a portrait of Nelson as ‘proof of their esteem’ for his ‘prompt decision and intrepid conduct’.

In return, Nelson proclaimed the conduct of every officer to be ‘equal’, awarding Naval Gold medals to all. The creator of the modern-day ‘Equity theory’ (Adams, 1963) would have been proud of him.

Note also that by involving and empowering his captains, Nelson encouraged the use of initiative; and his message that captains who engaged the enemy could not go far wrong grew their confidence.

Ahead of his time: inclusive leader

We have seen how Admiral Nelson used at least eight leadership attributes – listening, idealised leadership, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, individualised consideration, empathy, growing the confidence of others and stewardship. These are in fact eight of the fifteen competencies that can underpin the style of leadership known today as ‘Inclusive Leadership’.

In fact, the use of around eight competencies is typical of many of the organisations profiled in my book Inclusive Leadership (2019) and, in all cases, the effects were extremely positive. This type of leadership was associated with higher productivity, higher motivation and greater well-being than was found with authoritarian managers.

Note that a very wide range of organisations fed into these results. In industry, they emerged from a study funded by the Employers Network on Equality and Inclusion (enei) involving just under 1000 employees from eleven organisations including EY, Santander, Sodexo, Network Rail and the NHS. In the world of Higher Education (a sector typified by remote and authoritarian senior managers) they held true of students in a British and in a Norwegian university. And in the world of schools, a study at a top British independent school, Sevenoaks, revealed similar benefits to maths pupils taught by teachers with an inclusive style of leadership.

So Nelson was way ahead of his times in using Inclusive leadership and, as we have seen, with winning results. What of our government? Are they also following in the tradition established by Nelson and exemplified by some of Britain’s best organisations? The best way to judge this is by looking at the same eight attributes that Nelson practised so superbly.

The government’s handling of the Covid crisis

We can start with listening. The government has in fact been accused of failing to listen to 7000 scientists and doctors who have signed the Barrington Declaration, an initiative spearheaded by doctors at Harvard, Stanford and Oxford Universities.

This proposes that young, healthy and low-risk people should be permitted to go about their lives as normal, while “focused protection” is offered to the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions – the groups most at risk from COVID-19. 

Then, in terms of stewardship, many have said that the British government is failing to safeguard the financial and health interests of British citizens. It stands accused of blindly following the predictions of Neil Ferguson which, some say, were based on a flawed computer model. Indeed, some ask why they would heed the views of a man whose 2002 predictions about “Mad Cow Disease” (he foretold 50,000 deaths) were proved wide of the mark after only a little more than 200 people died.

Where idealised influence is concerned, government personnel in Britain have left a lot to be desired. From talk of officials breaking the lockdown (remember that trip by Dominic Cummings to Durham County?) to rumours of Matt Hancock drinking in a Commons bar past the 10pm curfew. As for individualised consideration, we can probably think of all too many arrests that show complete disregard for this.

What of intellectual stimulation? Many of those in the Cabinet had privileged educations but the sight of Matt Hancock floundering under the questioning of Talk Radio’s Julia Hartley-Brewer (see this video in which she asks about the 90-100% of positive tests which may be false) is hardly uplifting. Neither does it give confidence – any more than the epidemic of legal cases which implicate MPs in fraud. Then of course at a human level, many have commented on the absence of empathy (along with scientific rigour) in government guidelines since many prevent family and friends from visiting loved ones, in hospitals and care homes.

The lessons of Nelson

One of Britain’s greatest leaders towers above Trafalgar Square. He took Britain to unparalleled heights using a form of leadership that is inclusive rather than exclusive of those under his control.

This appears to be in short supply in government ranks and we can only hope that the lesson of Nelson – facing down to the Houses of Parliament – can shift the authoritarian stance of those directing the current crisis.

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