Magazine article History Today

Nelson and Mission Command: Edgar Vincent Analyses the Spectacularly Successful, and Surprisingly Modern, Leadership Strategy of Horatio Nelson. (Cross Current)

Magazine article History Today

Nelson and Mission Command: Edgar Vincent Analyses the Spectacularly Successful, and Surprisingly Modern, Leadership Strategy of Horatio Nelson. (Cross Current)

Article excerpt

IT IS STARTLING TO FIND that, in this technological age, The Nelson Touch is the first heading in the British Navy's current bible, British Maritime Doctrine. It extols Nelson's simple instructions, his belief in delegation, and the time and effort he spent in getting his captains to understand his intentions. What Nelson practised is now known as Mission Command, a concept that first surfaced in nineteenth-century Prussia (Aufiragstaktik), was used in the German Army to distinguish between the role of Headquarters and the role of Army commander, and was eventually abandoned by Hitler in his disastrous personal direction of German armies.

In its current form Mission Command is central to British and American doctrine and applicable at all levels of command. Its key elements are, first, that 'A commander gives his orders in a manner that ensures that his subordinates understand his intentions, their own missions, and the context of those missions'; and, second, that 'Subordinates are told what effect they are to achieve and the reason why it needs to be achieved.' Such a style of leadership promotes decentralised command, freedom and speed of action, and initiative. Its overall effect is probably best summed up in the words of Army doctrine: 'Commanders who are in each other's minds and who share a common approach to the conduct of operations are more likely to act in concert.'

Nelson's realisation that this was the key to commanding fleet operations was probably crystallised by his experience of the battle of Cape St Vincent in 1797. This showed him what could happen when a battle was conducted by an admiral who relied on signals, employed his ships as so many chess men to follow his signals, and relied purely on his own speed of thinking and his own mental energy. As a result, John Jervis's admirably resolute attack on the Spanish fleet was fading into a rather laborious chase--until Nelson wore out of the line to head off the Spanish leaders. The key point is that no other ship followed Nelson's example until, almost twenty minutes later, Jervis signalled that the whole rear division, of which Nelson was a part, should in effect do what Nelson had already done and head by the most direct route possible at the enemy. Nelson had read the unfolding situation and Admiral Jervis's signals in a way none of the others had. He had used his initiative. The others had felt obliged to wait until told what to do.

A year later, in command of a squadron charged with finding and destroying the French fleet that had sailed from Toulon, Nelson set out to do things very differently. His Flag Captain, Edward Berry, recorded the process and concluded, 'With the masterly ideas of their Admiral, therefore, on the subject of Naval tactics, every one of the Captains of his Squadron was most thoroughly acquainted, and upon surveying the position of the Enemy, they could ascertain with precision what were the ideas and intentions of their Commander without the aid of further instruction, by which means signals became almost unnecessary.'

We should not imagine that Nelson's mind was a blank sheet of paper or that he was hoping for strategy to evolve from a process of 'group think' or brainstorming, or that careful plans were then drawn up to meet every conceivable set of circumstances. None of this was in Nelson's nature. He knew what he wanted to achieve; his intention was to enable and empower his captains to deliver it. Having formed his concepts, he set about selling them in a process which enabled each of his captains to discuss and contribute to the extent of his talents, but at least to understand the battle plan. Like Montgomery, Nelson knew that it was the prime responsibility of the commander himself to invent the strategy. His process also demonstrates that Nelson would not be out of place in the company of the most sophisticated of modern managers. He could probably teach most of them a thing or two about strategic vision, communication and collaboration, trust, delegation and empowerment, all underlying ideas of mission command, all relevant to all organisations, and all part of Nelson's actual management style. …

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