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  • Writer's pictureEarl Breon

What You Can Learn From The Battle Of Trafalgar

The Battle

On 21 October, 1805 the British Royal Navy faced off against a combined fleet of French and Spanish vessels just west of Cape Trafalgar, Spain. Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson (British) commanded 33 ships while Vice-Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve (French) and Admiral Federico Gravina (Spanish) commanded 41 ships in total. This put Admiral Nelson at the disadvantage of being outnumbered in terms of vessels, men, and most importantly guns.

The Battle of Trafalgar by Clarkson Stanfield

You see, naval warfare at the time consisted of lining your ships up and volleying waves of cannonballs back and forth until one side surrendered, ran, or sunk. It resembled very much the lines and lines of men firing muskets at one another your are probably more familiar with from all the various movies and TV shows set in the period. So, suffice it to say that being outnumbered by 8 ships was a severe tactical disadvantage that almost certainly spelled defeat. For Admiral Nelson and the British, defeat was not an option. Napoleon had a clear plan to rid the English Channel of the British Royal Navy so he could safely transport invasion armies and supplies without worry. What happened at Cape Trafalgar could make or break Britain's defense of Napoleon's advance. The stakes were extremely high and Admiral Nelson was going to have to get crafty!

He devised a plan of attack that would send his ships toward the Franco-Spanish line in two columns, dividing their line into thirds. He identified the two best areas to hit in order to create maximum chaos by disrupting the command and control elements of the French and Spanish elements of the line. He knew that, due to the culture of their fleets, that the French and Spanish subordinate Captains would be slow to respond and maneuver without direct orders from their respective flagships. Disrupting that ability would give his ships an extreme advantage. Now, the prevailing British culture was not so different. Admiral Nelson had to free his subordinate Captains from the very limiters he was leveraging against his enemy. He had to give them the authority to think and act on their own. But, he knew that would be a hard habit to break in such short time so he decided to give an order in a way that would accomplish just that. He sent the following order to each of his Captains:

"No Captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy." ~ Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson

It was short. It conveyed all that needed to be said. And, it conveyed what success would look like and left the Captains free to determine how to achieve it.

The results? The British decimated the Franco-Spanish fleet. Britain lost no ships, 458 dead, 1,208 wounded. France had 11 ships destroyed or captured, 2,281 dead, 1,155 wounded, and 4,000 captured. Spain had 11 ships captured, 1,025 dead, 1,383 wounded, 4,000 captured. It was a staggering defeat and cemented Admiral Nelson's legacy as well as the British Royal Navy's supremacy at sea. Unfortunately, one of the British dead was Admiral Nelson himself. He had been shot through the spine by an enemy sniper during the battle but he lived long enough to hear the news that his plan had panned out.

The Lesson

One of the Shields of The Phalanx is, "Define success, empower team members, achieve results." The Battle of Trafalgar and Admiral Nelson embody this shield. You can see in this story how rigid command and control style leadership sets your team up for failure by having that culture exploited by someone not afraid to trust their team to get creative. If you have the right team simple guidance is all you need. All you need to do is define what success looks like, trust your team enough to let them meet that criteria the best way they see fit with their skills and the skills of their team, and sit back and watch the result blow past your expectations.

Admiral Nelson, for instance, had faith in his plan but expected it to be a closer battle. Nowhere in his imagination did he expect to not lose a single ship. He was outgunned by nearly 400 guns which, in those days, was a wide margin. But, by allowing his Captains to think and act freely that is exactly what happened.

So, ask yourself, do you hold on to a command and control type of leadership or are you employing this powerful Shield of The Phalanx?

If not, what is stopping you?
After seeing how successful it can be in an environment like naval warfare, just imagine what it can achieve for you in your team's environment!

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