Nelson and mission command: edgar vincent analyses the spectacularly successful, and surprisingly modern, leadership strategy of horatio nelson

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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.
We can be certain that he concentrated not on detailed plans for each of a wide range of hypothetical circumstances but on the principles he saw as applicable in all circumstances. These were likely to have been simple. Forget the formal Order of Battle, we shall form up as most convenient at the time. We shall immediately attack the enemy and immediately get close to our target. We shall concentrate our whole force on one or two parts of the enemy, two of our ships to every one of his. We shall aim first for a knock-out blow and then a mopping-up operation. We must be prepared with anchors to hold positions and distinguishing lights for night actions.

If Nelson could succeed in implanting such a simple but clear framework of intentions in the minds of his captains and could then debate their own reactions, their 'what ifs', 'hows', their 'suppose we encounter them thus', their minds would be prepared. Nelson's intentions would become their own.

Recent research based on an examination of the ships' signal books, seems at first sight to deny Captain Berry and undermine this whole thesis. On only two occasions were three or more of Nelson's captains on board Vanguard on the same day. But Berry nowhere says that all Nelson's captains were on board simultaneously. Nelson would have realised that a persuasive process is best conducted either one-to-one or in small groups. More seriously, Brian Lavery's research indicates that five of his captains (a third of the total) were never signalled to come on board at all. But whatever the evidence of logs (which can vary greatly in accuracy and detail), it seems inconceivable that Berry should have been so wide of the mark, or that Nelson with his very personal approach to leadership should have failed to find an opportunity for a meeting with each of his captains, possibly arranged by unrecorded hailings between ships in close company.
Nelson was also a leader who never for a moment lost sight of his core objective, 'to sink, burn and destroy' the enemy; he was determined to make this happen, determined to dominate and shape events. His obvious intention was to lead from the front and place his own life on the line. In thus communicating and, in today's terminology, 'living his values' as a fighting commander, he increased the fighting capacity of an already elite force by an order of magnitude.

At the Nile, close to sunset, there was no hesitation. Nelson went straight for the enemy, signalling his intention to concentrate on the van and the centre. His tactic of two ships against one was instantly upgraded when Thomas Foley, in the leading ship, saw that he could get round to the inner and unprepared side of the French line. Four more captains had the skill and discipline to extemporise on Foley's initiative and follow him round without causing a logjam. The French van was doomed by this encirclement. Driven by Nelson's simple ideas, unleashed by his transfer of responsibility to individuals, it was a brilliant combination of individual talent and team effort. And we must remember that Nelson was on deck for only an hour and a half of the first eight and a half hour phase of a battle that lasted until noon the following day. He literally could not, in today's naval jargon, micromanage the battle. Indeed, after his opening gambit the Nile was neither commanded nor directed, especially after darkness fell. It was a wonderfully successful example of Mission Command.

The supreme test comes if the commander is killed. Do his subordinates lose the plot? At Trafalgar Nelson was carried below less than an hour after Victory opened fire: the battle would last for another three hours and twenty minutes. Again, what he did before the battle was evidently of far greater importance than what he did during it. Again he had sold his plan to his captains. His overall aim was annihilation of the enemy. His strategy involved a headlong two-pronged assault, destroying the enemy's rear with a force never less than a quarter stronger, an overpowering of its centre, readiness to meet counter-attack from the van; above all, there was to be a fight at close quarters, hence his words on contingencies, 'No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of an enemy.'
Nelson had adopted a strategy whereby his ships had to seek out the enemy and fight. This time he issued a memorandum making his intentions clear, and he publicly delegated command of one line to Vice-Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood. His officers were enthralled by the level of trust he placed in them, but it was the clarity of his intention, the opening of his mind to them, his personal leadership and reputation that provided the foundation of their confidence, even though there were those who rightly judged that his headlong assault, exposing his leading ships to enemy fire without possibility of reply, would be very risky and possibly costly.
Again Nelson could personally supervise only the opening gambits and, like Collingwood, lead from the front. After delivering their hammer blows both Nelson and Collingwood were hemmed in and their ships immobilised, but their individual tasks were accomplished. Each had taken out a command centre, the Victory the Beaucentaure (Vice Admiral Villeneuve's flagship) and Collingwood's Royal Sovereign the Santa Ana (Vice Admiral De Alava's flagship). In the melee that followed there was a constant feed of British ships into the battle area, each committed to finding a fight, captains going for the enemy, if necessary running into them, or manoeuvring their ships to help outnumbered fellow captains.
In this battle courage was not an essential difference between the two sides. Several of the enemy fleet fought as fiercely as the best of the British. Louis Infernet of the Intrepide, Gabriel Denieport of the Achille, Jean Jacques Etienne Lucas of the Redoutable, Pierre Gourrege of the Aigle, their officers and men, all deserve their laurels. Of course it is indisputable that Nelson's fleet was superior in seamanship and gunnery but this could only be a foundation for victory.

The greatest single factor that enabled courage, seamanship and gunnery to reap their dividend in the scale of the victory was that Nelson's captains knew what was expected of them and delivered it.

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