John Harvey-Jones: We need Nelson now more than ever

Endless detailed command is expensive and ineffective
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The Independent Online

Nelson was the founder of participative, consensual leadership. I don't pretend that he was a nice man, and his personal life was a mess, but I admired him greatly during my 30 years in the Navy, and when I switched to industry the lessons of his approach seemed even more applicable.

The biggest lesson that Nelson could teach the leaders of today is the importance of trust. Without that, no leader can achieve their ends. A leader has to show those under him that he has the ability to listen, and has faith in their ability to do the job.

While a leader has to provide the framework, he has to give away the leadership when going into battle, so to speak. People will do what they themselves are committed to. Getting commitment is a matter of talking and reasoning until everyone is clear what the objective is. Endless detailed command is enormously expensive and ineffective because it switches people off.

People need headroom if they are to contribute, and they can only do this if they understand what the enterprise is about. Leadership is about getting people to buy into the same ideal. Nelson was brilliant at this. He explained everything, then trusted his people to get on with it. When people feel trusted, they perform better because, a) their confidence increases and b) they don't want to let the boss and the rest of the team down.

Yet we seem to be forgetting these lessons, and the art of leadership has become badly devalued. This is particularly true in government, where they don't seem to trust their people. (Drawing up a list of performance indicators is the antithesis of giving employees a sense of being trusted). We tend to micromanage. We look for short-term gain at the expense of the bigger picture. Precious few bosses - maybe only John Browne at BP - shows a proper willingness to trust their people to do the job.

Of course bosses have to be more than listeners and delegators. As a boss, you have to take risks. Generally it is you who has to generate solutions. Problems can't be handed over. And once a course of action has been set, you must show that you believe in it totally. It is impossible to bullshit your staff. They will know you better than you can imagine, but you must show your most consistent and brave face at all times.

Like Nelson's captains, you must be aware of the value your colleagues will put on your actions. People seldom believe the things they hear others say - they believe the actions they take. Courage comes into it: it is sometimes more courageous to run away than to stay and fight because of the public opprobrium which you must bear yourself.

It takes a lot of courage to trust the people you lead, but loyalty is not something you can command. Nelson won the loyalty he enjoyed. Loyalty is something you give your people, you share with them, and you'll get it back in return. If you don't give it, there is no way on earth you'll get it back.

Sir John Harvey-Jones has contributed to Nelson's Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Commander, by Stephanie Jones and Jonathan Gosling (Nicholas Brealey)