Nelson's Genius for Leadership

by C J Britton 

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nelsonNelson the Genius?
Genius is an ability in a particular sphere to which others look upwards. For example: Shakespeare in Poetry and Drama, Beethoven in Music, Napoleon as Military Governor, and Nelson as Commander of Fleets.

Naval men, Statesmen and Public alike all looked upwards to Nelson.

Wherein lay the greatness of Nelson? Practically everyone, not being particularly interested, would reply to such a question (perhaps with a shrug of his shoulders) " oh, he won battles at sea, he was brave. Didn't he lose an arm and an eye and was killed at Trafalgar ? "

And that is about all they could say.

This of course will not do. It was not all, by any means. Other men have been great fighters, have won battles, have perhaps been equally fearless, but they were not Nelsons.

When we analyse his great battles, greater in their effects politically than in their actual results (big as these were comparatively), one gets at the root of the matter.

What would have been the results of St. Vincent and Copenhagen had Nelson not been there? In both events he showed the true stamp of leadership by instantly divining the right thing to be done, and in doing it without the loss of a moment.

In the Battles of the Nile and Trafalgar he shewed another side of leadership - a sword-like mentality to produce brilliant tactics.

These two attributes in themselves comprise leadership.

But even they were not all. Nelson possessed the one great requisite to lift him above other leaders - above the high level of front rank leaders. He possessed that elusive quality so rare amongst otherwise big men. It was the rare quality of personal charm, which inspired the all essential team spirit. Officers trusted his ability to be brilliant in his work, and he got out of them a willing desire to obey his orders - even to his slightest wish.

But why ? Look at his portraits. Do they inspire confidence No! Mostly they are the portraits of a weak man. Here we touch upon another secret - if it is one. Here is a weak looking man (Look at Rigaud's portrait). We know that he was not strong, so how did he maintain command over such men as these rough seamen were ? Remember that at the time this particular portrait was made he had not yet made a name for himself with naval personnel generally, and commanding a Man-of- War in Nelson's day was a man's job.

The reply seems to be that he must have possessed firmness much tact, and great personal charm. The latter has beenl recorded, and that fact seems to be the explanation.

Up to the time of Rigaud's portrait (aged twenty-two), we have leadership by charm as it might be termed.

Later we have Lord Hood's assertion made to the Duke Clarence that "Nelson could tell him as much about tactics anyone."

So we can add a brilliant tactical brain to the charm which caused officers to respect him.

Confidence and self-assertion came, and then hard fighting and suffering.

By now his men swore by him, as only men in the navy can when an officer catches their imagination.

The next step was a brilliant exposition of dare-devilry and tactics at the Battle ofSt. Vincent, and all the Fleet realized that they had a great fighter with them - he made possible, by himself a brilliant victory. How proud his ship's company must have been of him, particularly when their ship was cheered by the rc of the fleet !

To send the news home and the name of Nelson round the world came Tenerife and added the "Battered Hero " to his lustre. He was by now worshipped by his men. He had toughened - his wounds gnarled his fibres and a John Blunt forthrightness entered into his makeup.

All of which so far makes for leadership, but perhaps not genius.

Then came the Nile, occurring on his first independent responsibility as an Admiral in charge of a fleet.

Here was his great opportunity. He had his captains again and again on board his ship in conference about tactics. He inspired them. He infected them with his enthusiasm, charmed them with his manners and personality, and no doubt amazed some with his skill not only in command but all round ability. And he guarded their interests. All of which from start to finish is named in two words, " Great leadership." ,

There are few indications in his correspondence (and what has come down to us is large) to show any super intelligence, and one can only realize that his leadership comprised everything both sea officers and seamen required in a leader to get the utmost out of them. The rest follows.

By the time Trafalgar came to be fought officers were almost fighting amongst themselves to serve him, let alone to serve under him.

Now look at Devis's portrait. This devil-may-care-looking portrait, smacking something of Cockneyism (he had a slight nasal twang in his voice) is of the great fighting leader who led by personal magnetism and gentlemanly charm. Something of this latter is seen in the " Terra Cotta " bust at Greenwich.

There are, however, two fine examples of Nelson's outstanding gift of leadership, not only as a leader of men, but as an Admiral entrusted with the safety of a fleet and to use that fleet to the utmost advantage.

One was the Battle of the Nile, and the other was shown in his dash to the West Indies.

He took his fleet from its station in the Mediterranean to the West Indies, and it was this voyage which further revealed the greatness of his mentality. He had mellowed.

Clarke and McArthur in their Life of Nelson stated that whenever opportunity offered of going on board the Victory, without causing any delay to the squadron, he would occasionally call some of the captains to him to discuss tactics, etc.

But although pleased to hear their opinion, he adhered to his own, and in his turn with his usual charm and frankness, assigned the reason on which his decision was founded, and continued to be maintained.

According to the same authors, Nelson, in one of these unreserved conversations, said " I am thankful that the enemy has been driven from the West India Islands with so little loss to our Country. I had made up my mind to great sacrifice; for I had determined notwithstanding his vast superiority to stop his career, and to put it out of his power to do any further mischief. Yet do not imagine that I am one of these hot-brained people who fight at immense disadvantages without an adequate object.

My object is partly gained. If we meet them, we shall find them not less than eighteen, I rather think twenty sail of the line, and therefore do not be surprised if I should not fall on them immediately - We won't part without a battle. I think they will be glad to let me alone if I will let them alone; which I will do, either till we approach the shores of Europe, or they give me an advantage too tempting to be resisted."

(The authors add a footnote that there had been a report whilst our Fleet remained in the West Indies, that the enemy had received a reinforcement of two Spanish ships of the line. ).

Sir Julian Corbett, in his The Campaign of Trafalgar, p. 169, points out that the authors do not mention their source of information and proceeds to give a version of another somewhat similar legend, which came to him via two or three previous relaters of the story from Captain (the late Admiral) Mark Kerr, who also records it in his The Sailor's Nelson.

This discussion of strategy with his captains is reported in versions of the Battle of the Nile, in which particular case the discussion resulted in the great victory being won, for, without direct orders having been given to do so, the leading ship of Nelson's Fleet took the inshore side of the enemy's line, which proved exactly the right thing to have done to comply with Nelson's strategy.

Altogether, therefore, it does seem that the legend is based on fact. However the exact wording goes does not matter for the purpose of emphasizing Nelson's outlook.

During Lord Nelson's passage from the West Indies, an American Merchant Ship, spoken by one of the Frigates, had fallen in, a little to the westward of the Azores, with an armed vessel, having the appearance of a Privateer dismasted, and which had evident marks of having been set fire to, and run on board of by another ship, the impression of whose stern had penetrated the top sides. The crew had forsaken her, and the fire most probably. had gone out of its own accord. In the cabin had been found a log book and a few seamen's jackets, which were given to the officer, and taken on board the Victory ; and with these the Admiral immediately endeavoured to explain the mystery, and to discover some further intelligence of the enemy.

The Log Book, which closed with this remark, " Two large ships in the W.N.W." showed, in his opinion, that the abandoned vessel had been a Liverpool Privateer cruising off the Western Islands. In the leaves of the Log Book, a small scrap of dirty paper was found filled with figures, which no one could make anything of but Lord Nelson, who immediately on seeIng it remarked, " They

are French characters," which probably stimulated him to a stricter observation.

After an attentive examination, he said, " I can unravel the whole; this Privateer had been chased and taken by the two ships that were seen in the W.N.W. The Prize Master, who had been put on board in a hurry, omitted to take with him his reckoning; there is none in the Log Book and this dirty scrap of paper, which none of you could make anything of, contains his work for the number of days since the Privateer last set Corvo, with an unaccounted for run, which I take to have been the chase, in his endeavour to find out his situation by back reckonings.

The jackets I find to be the manufacture of France which prove the enemy was in possession of the Privateer; and I conclude, by some mismanagement she was run on board of afterwards by one of them and dismasted.

Not liking delay (for I am satisfied these two ships were the advanced ones of the French Squadron) and fancying we were close at their heels, they set fire to the vessel, and abandoned her in a hurry. If my explanation, gentlemen, be correct, I infer from it they are gone to the Northward, and more to the Northward I will look for them.

Subsequent information proved that he was correct in every part of this interpretation. (Nicolas 7, p. 2).

In the United Services Journal for 1831, part I, is a very good article on the difference of the treatment of their respective captains by Rodney and Nelson, illustrating something again of Nelson's Machiavellian brain. He formed his own opinion first and later consulted his captains, then leaving them with the impression that he had adopted their views when it agreed with his own. Rodney had to bring his Captains " to heel."