Nelson: the leader who puts current British leaders to shame

by Gloria Moss PhD FCIPD

A time to re-evaluate the role of Nelson

Wednesday 21 October sees the 215th anniversary of the Battle that gave Trafalgar Square its name.  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 the 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 considerationand 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 cutlasses. 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’ (Moss, 2019).   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. 

Given the positive effects of this style of leadership, we might asking whether our own government is following the example of Nelson.                                                          

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 stewardshipmany 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 50-50,000 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 the video at in which she asks about the 90-100%% of tests that deliver false positives) 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                                                                                                                                

He took Britain to unparalleled heights and achieved this using Inclusive Leadership, a style apparently absent from the current government.  Let us hope that the lesson of Nelson – facing down to the Houses of Parliament – will act as a source of inspiration to those directing the current crisis.

Gloria Moss PhD FCIPD is the author of six books including ‘Inclusive Leadership’ (Routledge, 2019, ).  She has a background as a Training Manager in blue chip companies and a Professor of Management and Marketing and will be speaking at the ‘Questioning History’ conference on 18-20 2020, not far from London with details at

John Hamer will be giving two important presentations at the above conference, one on Winston Churchill, questioning his hero status, and one on the ‘real’ truth about the Titanic disaster.

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