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Donkin on Work - Leadership

August 2005 – The Nelson touch

Every now and again on a visit to Spain or Italy I have come across a little procession where some local saint and a relic or two are born aloft and paraded around the town square in an act of reverence and celebration.

This sort of thing doesn’t happen much in protestant countries but acts of remembrance remain popular, even controversial. The marching season in Northern Ireland continues to inflame divisions between protestant and catholic communities.

There has been no such controversy over celebrations marking the 200th anniversary of Admiral Lord Nelson’s victory over the French at the Battle of Trafalgar. The flotilla of rowing boats that made its way up the river Thames from Greenwich to Westminster last week in commemoration of Nelson’s funeral was a reminder of the place a single individual can command in a nation’s consciousness.

Naturally, the anniversary, could not pass unnoticed within the leadership programmes of business schools, those slumbering sanctuaries of derivation that will happily hitch their horses to any passing bandwagon.

Jesus, Sun Tzu, Confucius, Alexander The Great, Niccolai Machiovelli, Ernest Shackleton, even Shakespeare, have all passed through the business leadership mangle in the past few years. Every ounce of teaching and inspiration has been squeezed from their example and garnished for the corporate table.

It is no surprise, therefore, to find that the self-styled “Nelson Touch” has been given the same treatment in Nelson’s Way*, a new book that marries biography with “leadership lessons”, including hints and tips from management luminaries such as Sir John Harvey-Jones and Henry Mintzberg.

Obviously the publishers think there is a market for this material, but, try as I might, I cannot imagine busy corporate bosses taking time out of their schedules, even on transatlantic flights, to learn how they could do a better job of running their businesses if they copied Nelson.

If in the next few weeks you happen to notice a stream of signal flags running across the office floor, it would be sufficient to suggest otherwise. But how would the modern boss phrase Nelson’s famous signal : “England expects every man to do his duty” for a contemporary corporate workforce? It would need to be gender neutral so “man” would have to go. Expectation could be considered too strong a sentiment. In fact it did not go down too well at the time. Nelson had planned originally to use the word “confides” but his acting signal lieutenant thought that “expects” was an easier word to use. He didn’t have a flag for confides.

“What is Nelson signalling about? We all know what we have to do,” muttered Vice Admiral Collingwood when he saw the flags. This was a far more authentic reflection of the relationship between employees and management. The word “duty” might be resented too these days by people who work because they choose to do so and not out of any sense of obligation.

A modern interpretation could go something like: “The company knows that all employees are doing their best.” But that sounds dishonest when the company knows that many employees are staring out of the window or gossiping by the coffee machine. Neither would it sit well in talent management systems and performance related pay schemes that work on the principle that some people work better than others.

Another supplementary signal might be needed: “The company knows that some can achieve stellar performance and will reward and recognise those who do.” What if Nelson had issued such a message, even subliminally? Men were heading in to an engagement in which their guns would be almost barrel to barrel with those of the French. Their sole job was to work efficiently as rapid-firing teams who would repeat their drills without question under the most withering fire.

Stephanie Jones and Jonathan Gosling, authors of Nelson’s Way, believe that the signal was issued as much for posterity as anything else, reflecting Nelson’s showmanship and his fondness for a sound bite. Their big lesson from this and other Nelsonian gestures is that he knew how to communicate with his fleet. The Nelson touch was really the common touch.

This is an important lesson but how do bosses retain a common touch when pay differentials between those at the top and those at the bottom of companies are broadening constantly? Some large corporations today are looking less like common endeavours and more like divided communities where pools of workers, not always directly employed by the company, work quite detached from those at the top.

The common touch is disappearing among highly paid boards who in trying to develop meritocracies risk leaving an unintended legacy of corporate aristocracies.

Nelson was a great commander and a capable manager. But some of his strongest skills were self-promotional. He knew how to work the system of patronage. This is one message in the book that will indeed be music to the ears of many of today’s corporate leaders.

But why should his story be particularly influential today? Nelson belonged to a man’s world where women were expected to fill the role of wife or mistress. Is Nelson a better inspirational role for leadership today than, say, Dame Ellen MacArthur, the round-the-world yachtswoman?

The way she works with the management and design teams that have helped her to become one of the few women to hold a significant international record covering both sexes, is a model for the kind of project-driven enterprise that is changing the way companies do business.

Unlike Nelson, whose hatred of the French was an underlying source of motivation, MacArthur is as respected and admired in France as she is in the UK, uniting two strong maritime traditions in a way that means something to the modern company. Kingfisher, her long-standing sponsor, uses its branding of her catamaran to promote its B&Q and Castorma subsidiaries in the UK and France respectively.

There is something that smacks a little too much of patriotism about the promotion of British historical leaders in the UK corporate books market. Are we likely to see a book entitled “Napoleon’s Way”? I doubt it. Napoleon was arguably a far better commander, administrator and all round visionary than Nelson ever was.

He was also prepared to steal a good idea from the enemy. When Napoleon heard about Nelson’s famous signal before Trafalgar he ordered that ships of his navy should carry an inscription in a prominent place: “La France compte que chacun fera son devoir.”

Unlike Nelson, however, Napoleon was unwilling to go down fighting. The corporate equivalent might be to stand alongside your employees when times get tough. This explains why the authors of Nelson’s Way have featured Greg Dyke’s short but inspirational reign as director general of the BBC. When leadership of the corporation was criticised in the Hutton report, Dyke did the decent thing and resigned. “You have to manage your visibility,” he writes in the book. It is easier said than done. What everyone should recognise in Nelson and in Dyke, for that matter, is that the common touch is enduringly uncommon. Nelson’s way is a lonely path.

*Nelson’s Way, Leadership lessons from the great commander, by Stephanie Jones and Jonathan Gosling, is published by Nicholas Brealey, price £12.99.

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