The Burden of Command - The Battle of Trafalgar
Earl Breon 0:09
Hello everyone, your host, Earl Breon here. In today's episode, I'm gonna share another story from history that has a couple of valuable leadership lessons for us. This is a story about the Battle of Trafalgar. Now the Battle of Trafalgar took place off of the Cape of Trafalgar in October 1805 on October 21, to be exact, and this was a naval battle between the British and the Franco Spanish combined forces. On the British side, you had Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson in charge of the fleet, and under Franco Spanish sign for the French you had Pierre Charles VN a wave and for the Spanish Fred Rico Gravina. Now, there's a little backstory about between Vienna wave and and Rome, Nelson, UC, a few years prior, they had been involved in another battle. And Ron Nelson had jumped a fleet that being a way was part of, and due to the command and control nature of the French fleet, being a wave never received orders to enter the battle. So he had to stand by helplessly and watch as Nelson picked apart his fleet. Because UCV in a way of being the great naval officer, he was, he knew that it was his job to follow orders of the Fleet Commander, that Fleet Commander never gave him orders to engage. So he set by, eventually, he had to run but that bitter taste of never being able to actually engage Nelson in that battle, stuck with him for quite a while.
Now, the French or the Spanish should join forces to to defeat the bridge, at least keep them at bay, if you will. Napoleon was waging a land war, trying to take away the British dominance. And there was a long standing history of aggression between the French and the British at this time. So he devised an idea on how to break the British blockade, that was depriving the Franco Spanish forces of their economic value. They weren't able to get goods and and now they were able to get trade routes set up because of this blockade. So Napoleon's idea was to have Vienna wave and Gravina slip through the blockade bug out to the Caribbean joined forces their rally some more troops gather some more French and Spanish ships that were in the area, swing back through and bust a blockade from behind, hopefully catching the British and aware now unfortunate for them. Lord Nelson happened to be in the area and he caught wind of the breakthrough. He saw that the fleet wasn't where it was supposed to be, and he went hunting.
Now, fortunately for them, he made some miscalculations in the beginning, he thought that they had maybe bugged down to the east coast of Africa, going down around the Horn of Africa and coming up from the south into the Caribbean. But instead, they had actually slipped through and they were heading pretty much due west straight line to the Caribbean. Once Nelson figured out what had happened, he was about a month behind. But being a British officer and the British fleet being very well equipped and very well trained, they were actually able to make up that nearly month lag time and catch up to be in a wave and Gravina in the Caribbean. They miss them by just a few islands. And the Franco Spanish scout saw the British fleet coming, was able to get a message back and they were able to bug out and head back. This time. The idea was, well, Nelson's here, if we can get out ahead of him, maybe we have a better chance of busting the blockade, with one of their top admirals missing. So the race was on. Again, the better trained vessels under and Rome Nelson, they were able to close the gap. This time, it was down to maybe a matter of a week or so. And they met up near the cape or Trafalgar. So it's the morning of October 21 1805.
And Admiral Nelson, he knows that he's out shipped, he's out gun and he's out and manned. And that's a time the way traditional warfare naval warfare was fought. It was line battle, you know, very much like you see in movies about the Revolutionary War where the British troops would line up and it was sort of a battle of attrition, they would face you head on that was the way naval warfare was fought. navina wave knew that this wasn't how Nelson fought. But Vienna wave didn't feel comfortable himself finding any other way. See Nelson, kind of relying on what they called at the time old school tactics which he essentially brought back to being new school tactics. Instead of lining up, he would break his fleet into you know, three columns and he would hit enemies line in the in the column formation trying to break it up. And then his ships would essentially wrap around and isolate each one of those segments of the line that they just busted. So Veena wave kinda knew what to expect. But he was relying on the fact that they had more ships and more guns. Because the day downside to Nelson's tactic was the lead vessels would be exposed to the bulk of the gunfire for the longest time. So if you could take some of those ships out, you would have a bigger advantage.
Now at the time beta wave had six ships of the line advantage and about 400 guns advantage. And he should have won. I mean, he really should have won, he had such a large advantage, he should have won this battle. But on the morning of the battle, Lord, Admiral Horatio Nelson not just like saying that name, it's got a nice ring to it, convened his captains and gave them their marching orders so to speak. And they were simple. No Captain can do much wrong, who pulls his vessel up alongside that of the enemies. That was it. You know, your ships, you know your people, you know how to win at naval warfare, go to it. So they sent the columns up, his captain's had their orders, and the battle commences. Now as soon as, as soon as Nelson's fleet comes into range, VN wave starts opening fire. And he's using the old school tactics of command and control. There's a flagship that's somewhere near the center where everybody can see it. And he's running orders of what to do where to maneuver up through this flagship. Nobody moves without orders from the flagship. Now the genius behind what Nelson did was part of breaking up the line meant that the flagship got isolated, and it got obscured. So shortly into the battle, the vast majority of the Franco Spanish fleet was not receiving any orders whatsoever. And the captain's didn't have the there wasn't the culture of taking initiative and doing what you felt need to be done. So they were paralyzed, they didn't know what to do because they weren't receiving orders. So in short order, the British won the day because of the flexibility that ratio had embedded in them. Because you see, about 15 to 30 minutes into the battle, depending on whose clock you're on and whose logbooks you want to go by. Nelson himself was incapacitated and eventually died from his wounds as he took a sniper round through the spine.
So if he had still been operating under the command and control type of structure, his fleet would have probably been the one that had been overwhelmed and overran because they lost their leader. Now, yes, there was a line of succession. Yes, there were officers that could have stepped in. But in this type of warfare, minutes are critical. And by the time that had happened, and everybody realized what was going on, it could have turned the tide. Now, how big was this victory, the British had about 458 dead 1200 and eight wounded for a total of 1666 casualties. They didn't lose any ships. The French, they had 10 ships captured, one ship destroyed, they lost 3373 sailors 1155 were wounded, and over 4000 were captured. The Spanish, they had 11 ships captured 1022 dead, 1386 wounded, and between three to 4000 captured. So they're total casualties between dead wounded, captured, and ships last number somewhere 15,001 simple change in tactics led to such an overwhelming victory, and what any other day would a veteran sounding defeat. You see, this is the thing that we struggle with a lot in today's businesses, some businesses are still operating under the old command and control structure. People are paralyzed to show any initiative they're paralyzed to, to do anything without. Without guidance. If it's not something that isn't a directive, it's not something that comes in a memo, they're not going to do it for fear of repercussions.
Some organizations have a culture where you are expected to take the initiative, you're expected to go the extra mile, and you're expected to do your job because you were hired to do your job. Now, the first type of business is a dinosaur and it's all its way out. And if you still run your organization, that way, I've got bad news for you. You're on a deathbed and you may not even know it. The organizations that are following the the Horatio Nelson model, no Captain can do much wrong, that pulls their vessel alongside that if the enemy have given their team, the flexibility, the agility, the the resiliency to be able to make decisions on the fly. And and stay relevant. You know, this isn't a new concept either. I mean, this goes back to 1805. General Patton once famously said, don't tell your people what to do, tell them what needs to be done and let them dazzle you with their brilliance, this is the same concept. So you can manage an organization with the Iron Fists command control structure, and it may continue to work for another 510 years or so.
But as the more nimble, the more agile, simply define success and let your team run with it. Attitude takes takes hold. command and control is fastly fastly becoming outdated. So think about that. As as you go forward. Do you want to be the British fleet and Lord Admiral ratio, Nelson, and win because you gave your team the flexibility and the authority to make decisions on the fly? Or do you want to be V in a wave and have all the assets and resources in here advantage. But because you rely on command and control and you don't have a culture where people are comfortable thinking on their feet, you eventually get taken out by the quote, little guy. Just some things to think about with this story from the Battle of Trafalgar and some of the lessons that you can learn here.
Again, my name is Earl Breon. This is the burden of command podcast. If you have any ideas for guests coming up, or if you have any ideas for stories you'd like me to share and relay those leadership lessons from reach out to me at burden dot command at gmail. com. That's burden dot email@example.com. With that, thank you for your time. Look forward to talking to the next episode and keep those shields up.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai