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Trafalgar Day Leadership Lesson – Courage

Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar on October 21 1805. I have been thinking about that long ago battle and the lessons we might learn from it.

Image: Lion from Trafalgar Square London with thanks to

After a career of leading people, I now coach leaders. Instead of deal making, negotiating, conflict and collaboration, I also write historical novels about the Napoleonic era, about the life of British hero Horatio Nelson and those around him. I completed Nelson’s Folly two years ago and am now about to launch Nelson’s Lost Son.

Inspiring Leadership

I compare the challenges facing my characters and those facing leaders I coach. Although the circumstances are very different, some aspects of leadership bear comparison. Sadly, inspiring leadership is often missing in today’s executive suites.

Horatio Nelson was killed by a sniper’s bullet while fighting off the coast of Spain, near Cape Trafalgar. Taken below decks, where he later died, his battle plans were carried out by his captains and led to the evisceration of the French-Spanish fleet and the capture of many enemy ships and men. His men knew what they had to do. The culture he had created gave his sailors the temerity and courage to see it through.


Horatio Nelson’s signal before the battle read: “England expects every man to do his duty.” This message has survived as a rallying cry because of its resonance with his sailors - and with us. They knew what he meant by ‘duty’. Nelson walked the walk and talked the talk. By “duty” he meant more than mere obedience. A sense of duty is deeply emotional and personal. Duty is not imposed. It involved determination, loyalty to a cause and inspiration.

British sailors, already feared by their enemies for their outstanding seamanship and disciplined gunnery, were now feared for their implacable fighting spirit and this respect continued throughout the following century and, it could be argued, beyond the Second World War.


Nelson’s victory was also about Trust. When it was time for battle, the junior officers and warrant officers needed to trust their leader. And Trust flowed both ways – from the men to the leader and from the leader to the men. Before the battle, the sailors and marines believed that Nelson had their interests at heart. This was manifested in countless small decisions by Nelson which showed the sailors that he cared about them. His sailors felt part of the same team – everyone would endure the same hardships and rewards of combat.

It was noted by historians afterwards that Nelson made himself vulnerable to snipers by wearing his Admiral’s coat complete with medals embroidered on the jacket. One interpretation was that he was being foolhardy or vain. He was advised not to wear his coat but went ahead anyway. I believe that he knew his plan meant Victory would take more punishment than any other ship in the fleet. He knew if he was asking his men to live with that hell then he would take the same risk to life and limb as they did.

Sacrificial Leadership

Do leaders of our businesses, educational institutions, hospitals, courts and governments believe in personal sacrifice anymore? One is tempted to say that the predilection for virtue signalling rather than personal courage, for healthy bonuses for the CEO over improved conditions for the workers and for symbolism over substance is noticeable. The tendency is for leaders to use social media to amplify their voices. Instead of speaking out honestly against bullying, they hide behind stock phrases and popular “causes.”

The sad thing is that everyone “below” them knows what is going on and recognises narcissism and hypocrisy for what it is. Trust is dead on arrival. The example of the leader is not lost on them. Higher turnover is often a delayed response as young leaders vote with their feet. The collaborators remain in place.


The Trafalgar battle plan was a simple one and was based the enemy’s superiority in numbers. The enemy had more ships than the Royal Navy by a margin of 37 to 33 - which could have made the difference if they had fought them well. Nelson’s response to this imbalance was to break up the enemy formation so that British ships, which had superiority in seamanship and gunnery, could engage at close quarters. Nelson and his deputy, Collingwood, achieved this by each leading a column directly at the enemy line. In choosing to do so the lead ships attracted a disproportionate amount of fire. Victory was smashed beyond recognition. Yet, in taking the punishment, Nelson knew the courage to do what the situation called for would triumph over those whose goal was merely to survive.

Despite the many differences between the situation of today’s leaders and those who won at Trafalgar, there are still similarities. A good leader today is a person who serves rather than dictates. He or she believes in taking the heat personally rather than pushing a subordinate in harms’ way. Above all he or she must show backbone and character – in a word, “courage.”

If our CEOs and Boards of Directors read accounts of the battle of Trafalgar or study the leaders of Ukraine, would they reconsider how they lead? It requires courage to take a stand against Social Media and the populist rhetoric of politicians and the new Jacobins. If they show more “right stuff” they may be surprised. Individual productivity and morale might grow. Not least, people might become proud of their workplace and its leader - as I was when I took my first job. - Oliver.

Image: Trafalgar Square with thanks to

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Nelson's Folly can be purchased as an ebook or in hard copy via Amazon - find the links on the home page. Audiobook available soon!

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