The Pursuit of Victory: The Life and Achievement of Horatio Nelson

By Roger Knight
Basic Books, 2005
910 pages, $35.0

We now have the definitive biography of Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson — The Pursuit of Victory: The Life and Achievement of Horatio Nelson by Roger Knight, visiting professor of naval history at the University of Greenwich. It was published to coincide with the bicentenary, on October 21, 2005, of the Battle of Trafalgar and the heroic death of England’s most famous fighting admiral at the moment of his victory over the combined Franco-Spanish fleets. In England, where Nelson is second only to Winston Churchill in popular admiration, the celebrations lasted the whole year and were held throughout the country. Almost every village, it seemed, had been touched by Lord Nelson and the events that surrounded his life.

Although the book is written for general readers rather than businesspeople, it contains lessons on the development of leaders that are entirely relevant to organizations today. With more than 900 ships and up to 150,000 men, England’s Royal Navy was by far the largest and most efficient organization of the 18th century. Commercial firms were still in their infancy, and naval service was a magnet for able young men who, with neither wealth nor family connections, needed to earn a living.

We know today that the best leadership development programs deliver particular kinds of experience: principally, challenging assignments, significant bosses, and hardships. As Professor Knight makes clear in 32 chapters, these three conditions can be said to define life in the Royal Navy during that era. Horatio Nelson himself went to sea at the age of 12, and he was to spend 30 of his 47 years on 25 different ships, commanding vessels of progressively larger sizes. His challenges covered all the perils of sailing and fighting in wartime conditions as well as a variety of land-based tests — everything from assaults by way of rivers to formal sieges of towns and forts.

Horatio Nelson tackled many of these assignments while he was young, and there is no doubt that, as is the case for many successful managers, his development was aided greatly by the role models he had on his way up the ladder of promotion. They ran the gamut of leadership styles, from fierce disciplinarians to kindly teachers. Later, as he rose in seniority, Admiral Nelson made a habit of playing a similar mentorship role with his subordinates, introducing them to people in power who could help them in their careers.

There were hardships aplenty: long, monotonous periods away from land and family, close quarters, a boring diet, and heavy manual labor. There were also the ever-present hazards of disease and accident, along with shipwreck and enemy action. These harsh conditions actually helped the Navy build cohesive work forces on each of its vessels. Everyone onboard a ship is alive to the dangers inherent in the environment. Orders and discipline are seen not as arbitrary dictates from above, but as necessary responses to the existing situation, designed to promote the welfare of the organization as a whole. English ships spent long periods of time at sea, and this gave their commanders plenty of time to develop and hone the teamwork so essential for excellence in sailing and gunnery. These skills in turn allowed them to engage their enemies confidently and closely. In contrast, penned up in their ports by the British blockade, the Franco-Spanish fleets had far less opportunity to train soldiers effectively. French Admiral Pierre Villeneuve knew he was beaten even before he put to sea from Cadiz on October 20, 1805. After his capture, he was said to have remarked ruefully of the English captains, “They were all Nelsons.”

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