Nelson and Mission Command

Edgar Vincent analyses the spectacularly successful, and surprisingly modern, leadership strategy of Horatio Nelson.

It is startling to find that, in this technological age, The Nelson Touch is the first heading in the British Navy’s current bible, British Maritime Doctrine. It extols Nelson’s simple instructions, his belief in delegation, and the time and effort he spent in getting his captains to understand his intentions. What Nelson practised is now  known as Mission Command, a concept that first surfaced in nineteenth-century Prussia (Auftragstaktik), was used in the German Army to distinguish between the role of Headquarters and the role of Army commander, and was eventually abandoned by Hitler in his disastrous personal direction of German armies.

In its current form Mission Command is central to British and American doctrine and applicable at all levels of command. Its key elements are, first, that ‘A commander gives his orders in a manner that ensures that his subordinates understand his intentions, their own missions, and the context of those missions’; and, second, that ‘Subordinates are told what effect they are to achieve and the reason why it needs to be achieved.’ Such a style of leadership promotes decentralised command, freedom and speed of action, and initiative. Its overall effect is probably best summed up in the words of Army doctrine: ‘Commanders who are in each other’s minds and who share a common approach to the conduct of operations are more likely to act in concert.’

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