The Leadership Lessons from the Battle of Trafalgar for Today’s World

Arnoud Franken
4 min readOct 21, 2022

“Now, gentlemen, let us do something today which the world may talk of hereafter.” — Admiral Collingwood

The Battle of Trafalgar (21 October 1805) and, in particular, how Admiral Nelson thought and led both before and during the battle fascinates me to no end and holds leadership lessons that are relevant to this very day. Let me explain why.

Traditionally, admirals fought naval battles by placing their ships in a parallel line to those of their opponents. This served two purposes.

First, it enabled the admiral, who would place his flagship in the middle of the line, to oversee the battle, and to communicate his orders with relative clarity to all ships up and down the line. The smoke and melee of battle would make this very challenging if not impossible — they communicated by flags — if he’d placed himself at the beginning or end of the line.

Command and control.

Second, it maximised the use of the cannon that were placed along the sides of the ships. Therefore, the longer the line of ships, the greater the number of, preferably, more superior cannon, the more powerful volleys could be fired at the opponent’s ships. The fleet that sufficiently destroyed the other side first and forced a surrender, won.

Gun on a Royal Navy ship in action.

Obviously, the admiral with the most and more superior ships, fire- and manpower etc. had the best chance of success. At Trafalgar, Napoleon’s Franco-Spanish fleet under the command of Admiral Villeneuve had this technological advantage over Admiral Nelson. Thirty-three against twenty-seven ships.

When you look at organisms in nature and how they respond to such survival problems, you see that they adapt by creating variety, with the intent to “break the rules,” learning which approach is most effective under the conditions faced, and reproducing that variant for success.

This Darwinian approach is exactly what Admiral Nelson applied at Trafalgar. He didn’t play by the traditional rules that his French opponent, Admiral Villeneuve, expected him to do. Instead, Nelson used his fleet to create two columns and positioned these perpendicularly to the Franco-Spanish fleet. By doing so, he broke his opponent’s line in three parts, which created confusion and destroyed Villeneuve’s ability to command and control his fleet. In the ensuing battle, Villeneuve lost 22 ships, Nelson lost none.

Think different.

Of course, this disruptive approach also affected Admiral Nelson’s ability to communicate with his captains during the battle. Foreseeing this, he removed his captains’ dependency on his command and control of the battle by enabling them to use their own initiative in the heat of the battle.

Creating the conditions for this level of empowerment and decentralised leadership started well before the Battle of Trafalgar commenced. It involved creating trust amongst his officers, emphasising the role of each captain in his plan of attack, and rehearsing the approach during many tactical discussions in the days before the battle. This allowed Admiral Nelson to rely on simple strategies rather than complicated battle plans, because he knew that his captains — his “band of brothers” — would support each other in achieving the overall objective and that they had the confidence to use their own initiative when required.

“No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.” — Admiral Nelson

What enabled Admiral Nelson to decisively win the Battle of Trafalgar was not a technological advantage, which he lacked, but a cultural advantage geared to adapting and thriving under volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous conditions.

Today’s world is very different from Nelson’s but at a principle level very similar. Admiral Nelson’s approach to strategy and leadership, battle-tested not only at Trafalgar but also for more than 3.5 billion years in nature, is therefore still highly relevant today. That fascinates me to no end.

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Arnoud Franken

Helping leaders to accelerate meaningful change | Senior Consultant, Strategic Change Leadership | Professor | Keynote Speaker