Call us: +44(0) 1291


Leadership Lessons of Lord Nelson

nelsonNext month sees the 211th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar (21st October 1805), when twenty-seven British ships of the line, led by Admiral Lord Nelson aboard HMS Victory, defeated a combined fleet of thirty-three French and Spanish ships off the southwest coast of Spain, just west of Cape Trafalgar. The Franco-Spanish fleet lost twenty-two ships, without a single British vessel being lost. It was the most decisive naval battle of the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815) and put an end to French plans to invade England.

The British victory spectacularly confirmed the naval supremacy that Britain had established during the eighteenth century and was achieved in part through Nelson’s departure from the prevailing naval tactical orthodoxy. Instead of engaging the enemy fleet in a single line, maximising fields of fire and target areas, Nelson divided his smaller force into two columns directed perpendicularly against the enemy fleet, with decisive results.

Nelson was shot by a French musketeer during the battle and died shortly after, becoming one of Britain’s greatest war heroes. He was also one of Britain’s greatest leaders and over 200 years since his death he still has much to teach us about the art of leadership. In this blog I am going to focus on three aspects of his leadership: creating a personal brand; participative leadership; and inspiring his subordinates.

Personal Brand

Nelson virtually invented the personal brand. People told stories about him: his courage during the amputation of his arm, the way he turned a blind eye at Copenhagen, and more salaciously his affair with Lady Hamilton. Yet he was also very diligent in carrying out his duties, he worked hard, in now widely used naval parlance, ‘to learn the ropes’, seeking out opportunities to improve his experience and get himself noticed. He also read widely in politics, history and literature, and spent time at home in reflection, learning, thinking and preparing for his next assignment. Furthermore, he quickly recognised that it’s not what you know and it’s not who you know that counts. It’s who knows what you know, which really matters. His uncle was already a senior officer in the Royal Navy when Nelson joined and he used his advocacy to good effect, but Nelson also took the opportunity to learn from other skilled mentors, such as Captain William Locker. Nelson served under him as a newly promoted lieutenant for only fifteen months, but his advice, wisdom and backing had a lasting effect.

Participative Leadership

Nelson was a very skilled participative leader. He knew instinctively how to build a team culture (his band of brothers) and this was an important part of his leadership style, which he based upon loyalty and trust. Nelson provided the framework, the overarching aims and objectives, but then gave away leadership when battle was joined. This style of leadership came to the fore at his victory at the Nile. As Captain Berry of HMS Vanguard observed:

“It had been his practice during the cruise, whenever the weather and circumstances would permit, to have his captains on board the Vanguard, where he would fully develop to them his own ideas of the different and best modes of attack, and such plans as he proposed to execute upon falling in with the enemy, whatever their position or situation might be, by day or by night. With the masterly ideas of their Admiral, therefore, on the subject of naval tactics, every one of the captains of his squadron was most thoroughly acquainted. Upon surveying the situation of the enemy, they could ascertain with precision what were the ideas and intentions of their commander, without aid of further instructions; by which means signals became almost unnecessary, much time was saved, and the attention of every captain could almost undistractedly be paid to the conduct of the ship.”

In short, Nelson delegated duties to competent men and let them get on with it. He explained goals and tasks clearly, and then did not interfere. He always supported his officers when they showed initiative and if things went wrong he defended them. He admired bold and decisive action in others as much as he followed this policy himself. He would rather mistakes were made occasionally than his men succumb to indecision and inactivity.


Inspiration is the action or power of stimulating the intellect or emotions in others through affection and communication. You may be effective through manipulative and unscrupulous means, but you will only be respected as a great leader if you aspire to great ideals, and practise them personally in the way you direct your organisation or team. Nelson was an advocate for the ‘we will’ rather than the ‘you will’ school of leadership, he presented himself as a role model.

Like all naval officers he employed formal sources of power: legitimate, reward based and coercive. But from this formal power Nelson also developed informal influence through his knowledge of the Navy, the workings of a ship and the demands of war. His reward power was limited in terms of cash and material benefits, but he never rationed praise and recognition. Nelson believed in public and profuse praise, openly acknowledging achievements. He assumed honour and recognition was as important to his crew as it was to him. Crucially, he was intrinsically motivated and this was infectious. It is difficult to inspire others if you’re not inspired yourself, so perhaps the key message to be a good leader is doing something that inspires you. Do you know what that is yet?

A lot more could be written about Nelson’s leadership style and I would be delighted to read your own thoughts and observations.

Read More

Dealing with Conflict: Embracing ‘And/Both’ instead of ‘Either/Or’

integration_0_1The EU referendum offered voters a simple binary decision, ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’, an either/or answer to a hugely complex question. Neither was going to solve the problems we face in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, and either way a significant portion of the population were going to be dissatisfied with the answer. What was lacking was a shared exploration of how we get the best out of our relationship with Europe, which includes aspects of ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’, and a clear understanding of the broader needs of the British electorate in all its many guises. In the absence of shared conversation and genuine dialogue the best story won, just.

Business leaders face similar challenges, when either/or masks more complicated and/both solutions, and when factional interests get in the way of shared needs. Should they improve existing products, services and methods incrementally or invent radically new products based on new business models. Should they maximise profits for shareholders or generate wider benefits for investors, employees, customers and communities. Should they pursue the company’s social mission or focus on the bottom line.

Ideally, they should do both, but typically the answer is to choose one option over the other (or at least prioritise one over the other), or to seek the middle ground and find an acceptable compromise. Yet there is an alternative. That is for leaders and managers to shift from an ‘either/or’ to a ‘both/and’ mind-set, by recognising and nurturing the aims of competing constituencies and strategies while finding ways to unite them.

Mary Parker Follett, social worker, management consultant, and pioneer of organizational theory and behaviour, suggested three ways to respond to conflict: Dominance, Compromise and Integration. Dominance means victory of one side over the other, which may work in the short term but can be counterproductive in the long run, with one side remaining disgruntled. Compromise means each party having to give up something for the sake of agreement and a reduction in friction, but again this is far from ideal as it can leave all parties dissatisfied, each having given up something of value. Finally, integration, the option advocated by Follett, means creatively incorporating the parties’ fundamental needs and interests into the solution. As she observed:

“…when two desires are integrated, that means that a solution has been found in which both desires have found a place, that neither side has had to sacrifice anything.”

She recognised that integrative bargaining is not always a viable option and there are a lot of obstacles in the way of cooperative negotiation: on the one hand, a natural distaste for conflict, and on the other, a zero-sum mentality. Those caveats aside, however, the method to integrative bargaining is based upon bringing real differences out into the open. Taking the example of psychology, Follett wrote:

“The psychiatrist tells his patient that he cannot help him unless he is honest in wanting his conflict to end. The “uncovering” which every book on psychology has rubbed into us from some years now as a process of the utmost importance for solving the conflicts, which the individual has within himself, is equally important for the relations between groups, classes, races, and nations. In business, the employer, in dealing either with his associates or his employees, has to get underneath all the camouflage, has to find the real demand as against the demand put forward, distinguish declared motive from real motive, alleged cause from real cause, and to remember that sometimes the underlying motive is deliberately concealed and that sometimes it exists unconsciously. The first rule, then, for obtaining integration is to put your cards on the table, face the real issue, uncover the conflict, bring the whole thing into the open….”

This type of “uncovering”, explained Follett, often leads to a “revaluation” of one’s desires and interests. In other words, uncovering leads people to move from position to interest-based thinking and negotiation.

The first step is to illuminate and differentiate between people’s needs, interests and strategies. We all have the same basic needs (think of Maslow’s hierarchy for instance), but we have differing interests arising from those needs, and choose different strategies to meet those interests and needs. Conflicts arise when the strategies we choose to achieve our interests and needs stand in opposition to the strategies of others. We end up fighting over strategies and positions instead of looking more broadly for effective ways to meet our needs. For example, a need for safety and a desire (interest) to live in a safe neighbourhood can lead to two contradictory, ‘either/or’ strategies: gun ownership should be unrestricted or gun ownership should be restricted.

There are a variety of ways to meet needs and interests, but a focus on the strategy narrows the range of solutions. It is easier to consider alternative strategies when needs and interests have been heard and named. In seeking solutions to a seemingly either/or issue, start by helping the people who are in conflict to get a full a full picture of what is important to each of them. This is the beginning of dialogue, formed by the two words ‘dia’ and ‘logos’, which can be literally interpreted as the two way exchange of meaning. It is the foundation of truly meaningful conversations that get beyond either/or and explore the possibilities for and/both.

Read More


Winston-Churchill-PortraitSometimes, when delivering a session on leadership, I go back to basics and start by asking what are the traits or qualities of a leader. Among the usual suspects of integrity, determination, knowledge, courage etc. reference is normally made to charisma. When pressed, however, this turns out to be something indefinable that somehow makes others want to follow you. R.J. House was more explicit, describing charismatic leaders as having an ideology baseddespite his terrible legacy, is still recognised for having had immense charismatic appeal. But the source of his charisma did not reside in him, but in the beliefs he espoused – his hatred of the Jews, his belief that all Germany’s problems stemmed from them, and his vision of how to lead Germany out of misery – all of which struck a chord with his audience, it was what they wanted to hear. On the other side of the channel, Winston Churchill was seen as a dangerous maverick in the 1930s, but the classic prototype of the stoic British bulldog under threat during the Second World War. Again in the post-war period a more congenial and inclusive leader was required.

From this perspective, charisma is perhaps best explained by Social Identity Theory, the idea that we place people in categories that are either favourable, because they support our own identity, or unfavourable, because they are deemed to be different from us. Once categorized people are either in the in-group (us) or the out-group (them). This process also produces prototypes who emulate the social identity of the group. They are most representative of the shared social identity; they exemplify what members have in common and what makes them different; and they make ‘us’ feel different and better than ‘them’. Unsurprisingly, those closest to the prototype are likely to have the most influence. They are our charismatic leaders.

So what are the lessons for aspiring leaders today? Well, barring those with an urge to megalomania, I would suggest the following:

1. Fundamentally, most people want to be led. They want to have someone explain in relatively simple language, what is happening, why it is happening, what is likely to happen in the future and what we are going to do about it. In short, have your own vision and a mission.

2. Role model the company culture as well as your team’s culture. Develop an image that mirrors the posture and profile of the organisation – what you all have in common (see our April blog). But also be sure to reflect the sub-culture of your team, what makes you and them different.

3. Have a clear purpose for your team. Explain why they and what they do are important for the organisation, and why the organisation is important in the wider world. Why do you and the organisation exist? What unique value do you bring to the organisation and what does the organisation bring to the world? What sets you apart? And, why and to whom do you matter?

Read More

Leadership as Conversation


Leadership as Conversation

A few years ago Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind suggested that ‘leadership is a conversation’ (HBR 2012). Given our belief in the centrality of the conversation, we naturally found this idea intriguing. In short, they questioned the top-down model of leadership in the face of globalisation, new technology and changes to the economy, society and organisations. Instead, they suggested that part of the solution lay in new ways of communicating between leaders and led, which should become more conversational: ‘intimate’, ‘interactive’ and ‘inclusive’, to create trust and open up the flow of ideas and information; but also ‘intentional’ in order that the organisation can derive strategically relevant action from the debate. It is not without its flaws, but it is a great place to start a conversation.

While leaders may use conversations to achieve their ends that does not mean that all leadership is a conversation. A leader certainly needs to engage in purposeful (intentional) conversations in order to gather as much information as possible in order to generate plans and respond to problems, but at some point the conversation must end and decisions need to be made. There may also be times when a conversation is just not suitable. For example, when dealing with critical problems or crises the leader has to take command. Taking decisive action in a time sensitive environment when collective action would take too long is the perogative of the leader. There is no doubting however, that in order to improve decisions, leaders need all the critical information, both good and bad, to help them understand what is happening. In practice however, encouraging employees to volunteer bad news often proves difficult. In part, this is down to human behaviour, which makes people reluctant to be the bearer of bad news, but it is also an aspect of organisational culture. Changing the mode of communication in organisations from monologue to dialogue is always going to be challenging.

This was recognised by Groysberg and Slind. Differences in authority and responsibility make it difficult to have meaningful conversations, instead the leader will often be told/hear what they want to hear. Simply put, this could be described as the ‘observer effect’, whereby the presence of the leader in a conversation tends to distort what is said. There may be a tendency for people to suggest things to gain favour, impress and create influence, rather than engage in open communication. For internal communication systems to work you need to have genuine interactive leadership, which encourages and rewards a culture of sharing information and the ill-formed thought. Does your organisation have that?

Having the right conversation with the right people is an important goal in any organisation, and when applied in the right context leadership can be a conversation. If leadership is about dealing with uncertainty and deriving innovative responses to complex problems, it is more likely to require collective solutions. In this case, leaders who ask the right questions and encourage honest answers are key. Our suggestion would be to adopt the southern African concept of Ubuntu, which encourages everyone to have an equal voice, then the leader decides

Read More

The Power of a Good Question

QuestionsIn January’s blog I wrote that PSA’s role is not to tell, but to ask useful questions that will ignite effective conversation. I would add that it is also our role to help leaders to ask those same questions. We agree with Ian Leslie, the author of ‘Curious’, that those with the ability to ask penetrating questions will increasingly be in demand. Leslie quotes the former CEO of Dow Chemical, Mike Parker, who observed that:

A lot of bad leadership comes from an inability or unwillingness to ask questions. I have watched talented people – people with much higher IQs than mine – who have failed as leaders. They can talk brilliantly, with a great breadth of knowledge, but they’re not very good at asking questions. So while they know a lot at a high level, they don’t know what’s going on way down in the system. Sometimes they are afraid of asking questions, but what they don’t realise is that the dumbest questions can be very powerful. They can unlock a conversation.

So what are we afraid of? Leslie, drawing on the work of Michael Marquardt, identifies four reasons why people don’t ask questions: first, a desire to protect ourselves from the danger of looking stupid; second, because we’re too busy and tend to focus on action at the expense of thinking and questioning; third, because the culture discourages questioning – either because it is are authoritarian, blinded by groupthink or disposed toward action not reflection; and finally, because we lack the skills (or knowledge) to ask them (we don’t know what we don’t know).

So what can we do about it? Be curious. Have the courage to ask the stupid question, if you can’t who can? Take time to think and compose penetrating questions that go to the nub of an issue, and ask yourself if it’s just you, or does a fear of questioning permeate your organisation.

Read More

It’s All About The Conversation

There are many websites and self-help books aimed at improving your social skills, turning you from hapless mumbler to magnetic raconteur, this is not one of them. For us, the conversation is not about the superficiality of making a good first impression or introducing yourself at parties. It is quite the opposite. It is about allowing everyone a voice and bringing forth all that has previously been left unsaid, in order to reach a better understanding of a situation, and so act.

In Issue 1 of the RSA Journal 2014 Peter Senge posed a question to consultants: Is the client more effective when you are gone? He observed that 90% of consulting is expert: someone comes in and tells you what to do (they give you the answer). Whereas, for the other 10% it is about capacity building and growth: helping managers think through things for themselves, recognising their own development needs and building their own and their organisation’s capacities. The former tries to offer a formula for unlocking complexity and giving it form, while the latter accepts and delights in complexity and chaos. It lives in the question and recognizes the need for humility. We are definitely in this latter category. Our role is not to tell, but to ask useful questions that will ignite effective conversation.

Read More