Nelson, Trafalgar & Leadership in Business

I was looking through Wikipedia the other day and like many found myself hopping from page to page until I landed on

The way I think about business is to review new ideas and see what “fits” with my business, pre-dispositions and talents. I couldn’t help being impressed with this portrayal of the Battle of Trafalgar when taken as a lesson in business leadership. I’m going to try and re-phrase a few lines and hopefully convey the lessons that I picked up along the way.

Firstly lets start at the end.

If the measure of victory in battle is inflicting casualties on the opposition then Nelson was 8.5 times more successful than his opposition.

Always have a measure of success in business, if you don’t keep a score then it doesn’t count.

“…The prevailing tactical orthodoxy at the time involved manoeuvring to approach the enemy fleet in a single line of battle and then engaging in parallel lines….One of the reasons for the development of the line of battle was to help the admiral control the fleet. If all the ships were in line, signalling in battle became possible..”

Understand the role that communication plays in your business, identify the problems you face, in the main, they are the same ones that your competitor faces.

“….His solution to the problem was deliberately to cut the opposing line in two. Approaching in two columns sailing perpendicular to the enemy’s line, one towards the centre of the opposing line and one towards the trailing end, his ships would break the enemy formation in half, surround one half, and force them to fight to the end…”

In business there are times when you need to dare to be different. Some plans don’t allow you to be “half pregnant” and require you to reach for decisive outcomes and not a status quo.

Nelson demonstrates a clear plan that is simple to understand, simple to communicate, with clear goals. In business success is often the product of a small number of small clear objectives being met. Avoid making the job harder than it needs to be by adding unwarranted complexity.

“…Nelson hoped specifically to cut the line just in front of the flagship; the isolated ships in front of the break would not be able to see the flagship’s signals…”

Don’t attack to defend; attack to achieve clear goals. Look for opportunities that are compounded by circumstance. In business, in a limited market, push for preferred supplier agreements and make it more difficult for competitors to hold ground. Each sale you make removes market from them compounding the double edged effects of more revenue and less competition. Make them react to your plans.

Nelson identifies that communication is king and identifies this weakness of his proposition as a vulnerability in his competitions and, more to the point, he exploits it.

“…The plan had three principal advantages. First, it would allow the British fleet to close with the Franco-Spanish fleet as quickly as possible, reducing the chance that it would be able to escape without fighting…”

Business plans don’t belong in desk draws, they belong in the domain of action. Don’t put off business success by making plans. Plans are not about driving to the boxing ring, they are about swinging punches.

“…Second, it would quickly bring on a mêlée and …the British were likely to prevail…”

“…Nelson knew that the better seamanship, faster gunnery, and higher morale of his crews were great advantages…”

You have to know your organisational strengths and to know this you need to know your people and have faith in them. If you don’t have faith in them then why are they here? Assess your people in terms of skills, experience, credibility, attitude against that of your competitors.

“…Third, … the enemy fleet would have to turn back … and this would take a long time…”

Get your competition to react to your plan of attack. Anticipate what they will do and decide what you are going to do about it.

If you have set up preferred supplier agreements, will your competitors drop prices to win back business? Do you have a “value selling” capacity in your sales force or are you going to react to your competition?

“…The main drawback of attacking head on was that as the … ships approached, the Franco-Spanish ships would be able to direct ….. a raking broadside fire to which they would be unable to reply. In order to lessen the time the fleet was exposed to this danger, Nelson had his ships make all available sail. This was yet another departure from the norm…”

Identify weaknesses in your plan especially if they give advantages to your competition. Think through how you will go about countering them and don’t be afraid to break the rules or innovate.

Nelson uses speed to minimise the risk to his fleet. Speed and timing can cause competitors who are slow to react miss the opportunity to exploit your situational weaknesses.

“…Nelson was also well aware that French and Spanish gunners were ill-trained, would probably be supplemented with soldiers, and would have difficulty firing accurately from a moving gun platform…”

Know your competition and their people. Understand the messages and tactics that they will use. Try to see the “battle” from their perspective.

“…The Combined Fleet was sailing across a heavy swell, causing the ships to roll heavily and exacerbating these problems. ..”

Know the business environment and how it applies to you and your competition. If there is an environmental factor that you can use to deliver advantage then use it.

“…Nelson’s plan was indeed a gamble, but a carefully calculated one….”

Be prepared to take risks but only carefully calculated ones.

“..During the period of blockade … Nelson instructed his captains, over two dinners aboard Victory, on his plan for the approaching battle. The order of sailing, in which the fleet was arranged when the enemy was first sighted, was to be the order of ensuing battle, so that no time would be wasted in forming a precise line…”

Get your business leaders to know your plans. Get them to completely understand their role and the value of their contribution. Collaborate, share, motivate and lead. Most of what happens in your business is not done by you so make sure that your message is conveyed throughout the organisation.

“..Nelson was careful to point out that something had to be left to chance. … he left his captains free from all hampering rules by telling them that “No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.” In short, circumstances would dictate the execution…”

No plans survive contact with the enemy. Make sure your business leaders – whilst aware of and committed to your plans – are going to have to use their own initiative and tenacity to prevail.

Try to dilute the whole plan into a single action statement. “If your people are making 10 new business calls each day then we are going to hit budget”.

“…Nelson was mortally wounded during the battle…”

Understand that commitment to business success doesn’t come without a cost. Often it is the team that puts in the most hours and dedication, often at the most personal cost, that ultimately prevails. For many business owners and managers this means time away from family and friends. Nelson was leading from the front, leading by example and ultimately he paid a costly price for success.