Great Leadership Need Not Be Fatal

Today we watch Admiral Horatio Nelson roaming the quarterdeck in full ceremonial uniform aboard his flagship the Victory, on the afternoon of October 21, 1805. He is preparing for the Battle of Trafalgar off the Spanish coast, and it is to be the most decisive and successful battle in British history, as his fleet of 27 ships takes on the 33 ships of the combined French and Spanish navies. 

It was customary for a captain or admiral to wear a battle uniform, more suitable for fighting than showing off medals, but in addition to being the most ferocious and successful warrior in British naval history, Nelson was also a proud and somewhat vain man. 

He also knew that as the flagship would lead the attack on the enemy ships, his obvious presence on deck would signal to the officers and seamen on every ship in the fleet, that he was a brave man, and that he expected them to be brave also. Just before the engagement, he had his signalman send this message to the rest of the fleet:  “England expects that every man will do his duty.”  Nothing more needed to be said.  The men of the British Navy loved Nelson and were willing to lay down their lives for him.

Nelson’s leadership and the battle plan of running his ships straight at the superior combined enemy forces proved decisive.  By battle’s end, 17 of the enemy ships had struck their colors and one had been destroyed by fire.  The battle established the supremacy of the British fleet and destroyed any hope of a Napoleonic invasion of Britain by sea.  Nelson’s heroism is still celebrated in England today. I once toured the Victory in dry-dock at Portsmouth, and I visited Nelson’s tomb at St. Paul’s in London.  The crowds are still enormous.

But you may also recall that Nelson lost his life at Trafalgar. When the Victory closed on the enemy ship Redoutable, the French captain Lucas had filled his rigging with marksmen who rained fire on the Victory’s decks, and it was one of those snipers who killed Nelson. The fleet brought Nelson’s body back to England preserved in a vat of brandy, so that the body could be properly embalmed and buried on British soil. He was that important to the people.

I share this story with you today because I’m still inspired by Darryl Demos’ blog on the supposed lack of effect of coaching on retail banking sales performance, as Mr. Demos suggests that “leadership” is a more effective means of spurring sales performance. 

No doubt he is right, but I’d like to see a bit more dialog on the subject of “leadership.”  Businesses talk about its importance all the time, but one rarely sees examples of it. And although I gave you a good one here on today’s Fable Friday, it’s clear that a leader need not die in order to drive top performance from his team.  Mr. Demos describes one desirable behavior associated with leadership, and that is modeling.  To be a leader, you should be able to model the behavior you want from your people, as successful sales managers often do, and in fact as Nelson did.

But we know there are other behaviors associated with leadership, and I would like your thoughts.  What are they?  When you think of leadership, what does it mean to you?  What stories can you think of from your career, from life in general, or from history, that made you think, “That was great leadership!”

I’ll take this up next post.  Meanwhile

Think Like Your Customer

About Gregory LaMothe
I teach people how to sell things. I own the company ActionSystems. Visit my website at

One Response to Great Leadership Need Not Be Fatal

  1. Dennis Lewis says:

    What a refreshing take on leadership. And historically informative as well. I, too have visited Lord Nelson’s tomb in St. Paul’s, an amazing structure in and of itself. But what grabs me in this tale is how subtle and brief the message from Nelson, yet everyone knew the meaning. In reality it was not the message, but the messenger that stirred the hearts and minds of the sailors and officers. He did not crack a whip, or threaten death or present ultimatums. He called on his troop’s training and the significance of the mission to motivate. He promised no additional wage, or benefits. All who heard the message knew he would be on deck, risking what each of them would also lay on the line, his life. He lost his and paid the price. Now, because he lived the mission himself, he is regarded as one of the worlds great commanders. Fidelity to the mission is his legacy. How better our lives would be if our leaders would emulate Lord Nelson. Thanks Gregory!

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