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Horatio Nelson LeadershipHoratio Nelson Leadership


Horatio Nelson (1758-1805)


The greatest naval leader in British history (pictured right).

His decisive victories at the Battle of the Nile (1798), and at Trafalgar (1805) , in his ship, the Victory, saved Britain from a French invasion.

Also famous for his passionate, extramarital affair with Emma (Lady) Hamilton.

Nelson was well liked, even by her husband (all three lived happily together!).


For more detail see... 

The Battle of Trafalgar in the History Highlights section.


Why was he a great leader?


1. Kind but tough

His men loved him dearly (they cried when he died), because he was

  • selfless (always putting their interests before his own).
  • a good listener, grateful, and positive.
  • kind, fair and empathetic (always talking to people at their own level without condescension).
  • humorous, courageous and charismatic. Horatio Nelson Leadership 

At the Battle of the Nile he refused to be treated before the other injured men.

When he was dying at the Battle of Trafalgar, he covered his face and medals with a handkerchief so that his men wouldn’t see he had been hit (pictured right).

But he was also a

  • strict disciplinarian (hating incompetence).
  • tough negotiator.
  • decisive, sometimes ruthless, decision maker.

He knew the value of speed, saying:

“Five minutes make the difference between victory and defeat”.


2. Empowerment and trust

He clearly communicated his broad battle plan and its purpose, giving his men total freedom to carry it out.

When he signalled to the fleet before the Battle of Trafalgar, “England expects that every man will do his duty”, everybody knew what they had to do, because of this close attention to detail. 


  • trusted his men to act well and quickly without orders.
  • wanted them to have the ability and confidence to do things for themselves (so their training and morale were his top priorities).
  • improved their food.
  •  treated them as human beings (constantly reminding them of their vital role in defending Britain).

Horatio Nelson Leadership 

3. Learning and reflection

He was not intellectually brilliant, but he thought deeply about his battles (including his mistakes) and learned from them.

He also learned the value of professionalism and discipline from his former bosses, Admirals John Jervis (pictured right) and Samuel Hood (pictured right below).

 Horatio Nelson Leadership


4. Rebellious revolutionary

He rejected the old tactic of bombardment between two parallel lines of ships in favour of directly and quickly attacking the enemy’s commander-in-chief, as at the Battle of Trafalgar.

He was never made a full admiral because his bosses hated his rebellious disobedience (what he called the “Nelson Touch”).

At the Battle of Copenhagen (1801), he ignored an order to stop fighting by famously turning his telescope to his blind eye.

At the Battle of the Nile he broke the rules by attacking after dark in uncharted waters.

He was a brilliant opportunist who had the ability to discover and exploit any advantages.


5. Leading by example

Nelson always led the attack, without caution or hesitation, for death or glory.

His legendary bravery was shown by his famous wounds, a missing arm and a blind eye.

“I will be a hero”, and “I will brave every danger”, he said at the age of 18.

His supreme self-confidence, and calmness under bombardment, rubbed off on his men.

 Horatio Nelson Leadership

6. The will to win

His ambition to be a hero came from an insecure childhood, his mother dying when he was nine.

He joined the Navy aged 12, and his determination to succeed made him the Navy’s youngest captain at 20 (pictured right aged 23).

He was always optimistic and never wasted time.


7. Vision, purpose and duty

He had the clear aim of destroying the enemy to

  • improve Britain’s trade and sea power.
  • achieve peace.
  • create a new future based on kindness and understanding to everyone.

He also had deep sense of duty to serve:

  • his country.
  • his men.
  • God (above all) - “I commit my life to Him”, he said just before the Battle of Trafalgar.

His father was a Church of England priest, and he was always deeply religious.

His last words were “Thank God I have done my duty” (not “Kiss me Hardy” as is sometimes thought, see point 8).


8. Teamwork and support

He worked incredibly well with his senior officers.

At the Battle of Trafalgar his famous remark on his deathbed, “Kiss me Hardy”, shows how well he got on with them.

He was helped by:Horatio Nelson Leadership

a) the superiority of British guns which (unlike the French) could withstand rapid fire.

b) well trained, inspired and disciplined men who could fire their guns much quicker than the enemy.

c) brilliant deputies like Admiral Collingwood (pictured right above).

d) Lady Hamilton’s love (pictured right below in 1782). Horatio Nelson Leadership 



Key quotes on leadership and management

Desperate affairs require desperate measures.

I could not tread these perilous paths in safety, if I did not keep a saving sense of humour.

When the enemy is committed to a mistake we must not interrupt him too soon.

You cannot be a good officer without being a gentleman.


Key quote on ethics

May humanity after victory be the predominant feature of the British fleet (said before the Battle of Trafalgar)

England expects that every man will do his duty.


Key quote on death

Life with disgrace is dreadful. A glorious death is to be envied.


Key quote on strategy

Engage the enemy more closely (Nelson's favourite battle signal).


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