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
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
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
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
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.