Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Nelson Touch

Today – 21 October - is the 204th anniversary of The Battle of Trafalgar, during which the Royal Navy, under the brilliant command of Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, smashed Napoleon’s fleet and ensured both the survival on England and the eventual defeat of Napoleon. Admiral Nelson died during the battle.

All well and good, but what can we learn about leadership from Nelson that is relevant today? There is a phrase that has come down to us through the many biographies and paeans to Nelson – the ‘Nelson Touch’ – that bears a bit of reflection.

The phrase refers to both Nelson’s incredible ability to win battles at sea (his record is truly ‘incredible’), as well as his ability to motivate his crews, to elicit from them performances that were seemingly beyond their capabilities. Again and again the crews of Nelson’s ships performed heroic, seemingly impossible feats. Each time it seemed as if there was no way to improve on their performance. Each time, each victory seemed to lead to an even greater battle and a greater victory.

So, what was the Nelson touch? What was it that Nelson did that led men to not simply follow him, but to perform at levels well above what they might have expected of themselves, and certainly above the expectations of other leaders?

At the most basic level, the Nelson touch was several ‘simple’ ingredients, blended together, and applied consistently over the course of his career: First, Nelson knew his job; he studied and trained and learned all that there was to know fighting a ship at sea. He then applied that knowledge to his crews, training them to become the best crews in the world. Second, Nelson was committed to the mission of the Royal Navy: defend England and defeat the French fleet. He devoted his life to it and demonstrated that in word and deed daily. Third, he communicated both his professional knowledge and his commitment to the mission to his crew.

Nelson’s ability to communicate with his crews is really what sets him apart. Nelson spent a very great deal of time communicating with, talking with his officers and men. He had frequent dinners with his officers that would last long into the night during which he not only could observe them and judge their individual strengths and weaknesses, but he could also impart to them his plans, and, more importantly, his method of thought. It wasn’t necessary for Nelson to be present on each ship during the battle because he had so trained and educated his officers that he knew each would act appropriately irrespective of how the battle developed.

These three traits, tightly interwoven with a fourth – his complete trust in the men who served with him, produced the ‘Nelson touch.’ And each is as applicable today, in any leadership position, as it was then.

Professional Competence: Know your job, and know it better than anyone else. Then train your people. Give them the training and education they need to know their jobs.

Dedication and Focus: Commit to the mission. Before you can expect anyone else to devote himself to your cause, you must. Whether you are fighting the enemy fleet, or simply building a better small business, you must commit to success before you can expect anyone else to do so.

Communication: Talk to your people, tell them what you are thinking, what you expect of them, and listen to them. You need to understand their motivations and you need to make your motivations, your cause, their cause. Work with them on their issues and their ideas. You need to learn their strengths and weaknesses (everyone has both), and then learn how best to use each person’s skills to maximize their performances, both individually and as a team. As a general rule, none of us communicate enough; spend more time communicating WITH (not talking at) your people.

Trust: Once you have trained them and motivated them, once you have placed them where their talents best fit your goals, once you have done your job, get out of the way and let them do their jobs. Trust them. Remember, if you can’t trust them after you have trained them, you haven’t done your job.

These ‘simple’ ideas: competence, focus, communication, and trust – are at the heart of the success of perhaps the greatest admiral in history. But, the Nelson Touch can be applied to any leadership situation.


At October 21, 2009 at 12:32 PM , Anonymous Loren Heckelman said...

Simple, straightforward and missed by so many. We've seen it work and work well... so what gets in the way of it being the standard for leadership in the Navy today?


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