Nelson's Genius for Leadership
by C J Britton
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Nelson 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 !
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.
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.
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
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.
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. ).
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.
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.
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.
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.
information proved that he was correct in every part of this interpretation.
(Nicolas 7, p. 2).