October 2013

It is a tremendous honour for me to be invited to make the address on this Trafalgar Night. As a former Trustee of the Foundation for some seven years, I once had the honour to preside over the dinner but always confident in the knowledge that successive Admirals would command the floor for the speech preceding the toast to the Immortal Memory.

To be frank with you, I still feel something of an interloper making the speech this evening and it is as I say a huge honour. I cannot stand here and regale you with the finer points of Naval tactics. I can like you be thankful that the Navy had moved on from the time in the mid-18th century when Admiral Byng was executed on Board his own ship for failing to follow Naval tactics. Because Nelson of course flouted them when he thought the battle required it, to his great credit and the success of our country. Had he not, we might well be clearing our throats in 15 minutes for a rousing rendition of the Marseillaise.

Talking about Nelson one is struck by just how many facets and approaches one can examine: a war hero; a martyr; a defender of his country; a self-publicist; an adulterer. Nelson was vain and sometimes rather full of himself. He was accused in Parliament of what we might today call war crimes. The Leader of the Opposition referred to his execution of the Jacobites in Naples.

'Naples…stained and polluted by murders so ferocious and by cruelties of every kind so abhorrent that the heart shudders at the recital'. People, he said 'notwithstanding the British guarantee were actually executed'.

And yet, he showed a different side to his men and those he was leading. He was bold, decisive and courageous. He secured the confidence of those whose very lives depended upon his judgement and decision-making and upon whose performance in their own posts depended the fate of our country.

So, in Nelson we have a life which is one of rich achievement, shrouded in historical myth, laced with service, sacrifice and scandal. It is difficult to believe today more than two centuries after his death that an Admiral could behave in the same manner and avoid disciplinary action. As was said of him at the time: 'There is only one Nelson.'

Selecting two things about Nelson, what fascinates me is the concept of leadership and the flawed nature of some parts of his character. We tend to think of our heroes as having to be perfect. Yet we know no human being is. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses and the circumstances in which these are tested vary widely. Churchill was among the poorest Chancellors of the Exchequer this country has ever had. And yet, on becoming Prime Minister said at the age of 64, he said that he felt, his entire life had been but a preparation for this moment. It seems difficult to believe that Nelson would not have had a similar feeling upon the break out of the French Revolutionary Wars. Before then, he had thought of standing for election to Parliament. What a waste that would have been!

The French Wars and the threat of invasion created the imperative for the Royal Navy to secure our trade, and protect our waters. Nelson was thrust into the most dramatic period of Naval battle in our history. As the Battle of Britain in the skies over southern England demonstrated in the last century, command of the means of invasion was critical to ensuring Britain could and would survive. His leadership and reputation grew – battle by battle – although not before the British were beaten away from Genoa in a retreat which left Nelson questioning his very future in the Service. These doubts surfaced again following the loss of his right arm at Santa Cruz de Tenerife when he convinced himself that:

'A left handed Admiral will never again be considered as useful, therefore the sooner I go to a very humble cottage the better, and make room for a better man to serve the state.'

Knowing what we do of his personality and his love of seafaring it is difficult not to believe there was something in him which just wanted people to tell him how much he was still needed. We know all too well today that even those with the strongest reputations still question themselves and are often their own most severe critics. And perhaps that is how it should be. A heightened sense of whether one’s powers are waning is not altogether an unhelpful trait to possess. So I find Nelson’s self-doubt and self-questioning somewhat reassuring. I would want to think that those charged with defending our country in the most perilous of times thought very deeply about whether they remained the right people to carry on.

The ability to reflect upon his own performance seems to me to be a major contribution to Nelson’s successful leadership. And I wanted to reflect also on how the lessons of his leadership are important for us today. My own role leading the Royal Borough of Greenwich has enabled me to watch other leaders and organisations closely. To assess their capacity and how each has adapted to their leadership role. Many of the issues are the same Nelson faced. The circumstances are thankfully less dramatic but vision, tactics, the management and buy in of people to shared objectives are all intrinsically the same. And it helps us all to know Nelson had moments of self-doubt as well. None of us will face the challenge Nelson did of having to save our country from invasion. None of us will lie in State in this magnificent hall or have dinners held in our memory more than 200 years later. Nor shall we be afforded a State funeral.

But whatever it is each of us does, Nelson provides numerous lessons. Whether we lead businesses, community organisations, teach children or guard the streets, all people have leadership roles – in our families, at work and in our normal daily lives. The quality of leadership whether a teacher in a classroom, a parent in a home, or an Admiral on a ship defending the country face similar challenges. It is only the scale which makes them different.

There are clear objectives, tactics and strategies to deploy and a willingness to be creative and flexible about their implementation. All too often we view our heroes as beyond imitation and so extraordinary that we deny ourselves the chance to learn from them. The most important thing about us all are those qualities which enable us as human beings to think creatively, to use our minds, judgement and reason to operate according to the circumstances and environment we face.

Nelson’s success seems to me to be in no small part to his deployment to maximum effect of those essential human qualities. He broke the Rules of War when they did not suit the circumstances of the battle he faced and when to do otherwise would have led to the destruction of himself, his men, his ship and his country. He implemented tactics to win. He created innovated and explored new concepts in Naval warfare.

Today, it seems obvious. No politician would second guess his or her admirals or generals to the point of overruling the commander at sea or in the field. Nelson created that concept and no book written decades earlier could fit the circumstances he felt he faced.

The same is true in our own lives and in the areas where we exercise leadership. So, for me regardless of the myth, legend and hero worship behind all this is a very human man, occasionally wracked with self-doubt but demonstrating to the maximum the most human of characteristics and leadership which are available to us all should we choose to put our own minds to the tasks we hold in trust.

Thankfully they will not be on Nelson’s scale but they are intrinsically the same issues. And surely it also helps us that he had such a scandalous private life. No one, whatever his achievements could say he was perfect. But we can, as he himself said with his dying breath, 'Thank God… (he)…did… (his)…duty'.

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