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Organizational Change and Leadership: Lessons from The Battle of Trafalgar

The process of changing organizations is as old as humanity. The study of the Battle of Trafalgar offers insight into the nature of organizational change and the role of leaders in the process. The historical example can be useful to presenters who want a brief illustration for presentations, as well as for human resources practitioners whose task is to support the change process.

At the beginning of the 19th Century, in the Atlantic Ocean off the Cape of Trafalgar, Admiral Horatio Nelson destroyed the combined forces of France and Spain with a decisiveness that gave the British Navy supremacy of the seas through the wars with Napoleon, and for over a century thereafter. The feat is surprising when one realizes that, according to the naval practices of the day, the decisive victory should not have happened.

The issue is one of organizational change. The British Navy resisted change. Nelson embraced change, and transformed naval warfare in the time of wooden sailing ships. The developments that led to battle of Trafalgar offer an illustration of the dynamics of the change process, with lessons for how we ought to approach change today.

Historical Setting

In 1805 France was the most populous and prosperous nation in Europe. The French military was supreme on land, and France ruled, or was allied to, Holland, the Austrian Netherlands (modern Belgium), Nice, Savoy, Switzerland, much of northern Italy, the German states and Spain.

The Austrian and Russian armies each numbered 250,000, but each had to keep substantial forces on their borders with the Ottoman Empire. The French had 350,000 soldiers in 1805, and by 1808, 700,000. Napoleon had created ìthe first modern operational army, in which each formation exactly resembled every other, and all were equipped and trained for instant and effective co-operation in the field . The French had the best artillery, the best logistics and the most highly motivated soldiers. Napoleon’s goal was to defeat the British Navy and
invade England. Like Hitler over a century later, Napoleon had a fleet of barges prepared and 112,000 soldiers on the shore of the English Channel, waiting only for enough Naval protection to invade Britain.

The British Navy had more ships than the French, but had to maintain naval presence around the world so only 60 were available in home waters and the Mediterranean, and many of those were detailed to blockading ports. The French and Spanish navies combined were roughly equal in number to the British navy.

Naval Tactics

In the 18th Century battles between fleets of sailing ships resulted in few ships being captured or sunk. When two fleets met, there were three possible modes of attack:

  1. Line to line-in which the attacking ships would sail bow to stern in a wide line which paralleled the defenders line of ships. The British navy preferred to attack with enemy to the leeward (i.e. with the wind behind them), so it had control of its ability to advance when it chose.
  2. Doubling- in which a group of ships overlapped the enemies front and rear of the enemyís line, thereby seeking to surround them; and
  3. Breaking the line-in which a group of ships would pass through the middle of an enemyís line from the windward and attack from the leeward.

As early as 1691 the British Navy issued instructions establishing line to line as the preferred means of attack. There was a simple logic to the line to line attack. Each line of ships presented its strongest side to the enemy and protected their vulnerable bows and sterns. The tactic resulted in battles of one ship against another, and if the defender was losing it had an open avenue of escape with the wind in a favorable direction. Thus, few ships were captured or sunk in such warfare.

One of the problems with naval warfare in the earely 19th century was communications between vessels. The theory required that the entire line of ships attack at once. In practice, this simultaneous attack did not occur. Ships at one end of the line could not see signals sent by ships at the other end, so they only turned to attack as they saw the next ship in the line turn toward the enemy. Thus, the ships turned one by one, and arrived at the enemy’s line one by one, giving the enemy time to assess the battle and flee if it were losing.

In order for the British Navy to alter its strategy, two changes were necessary: a change in communications and a change in thinking. The change in communications would involve a technical advance. The change in thinking involved overcoming the psychological barrier to change.

Flags hung from the yardarm were used to signal between ships. At a distance and with simple messages this could be quite effective. However, there were several difficulties with the signal flag system. Ships directly to the side could see the flags, but line of sight of ships behind the signaling ship was obscured by sails of other ships. When battle began, smoke increased the difficulty of maintaining communications. The flag code was cumbersome; until around 1800 signal flags were ideograms (i.e. each flag had its own meaning) and the process of sending and decoding anything other than a simple message was slow.

A truly alphabetic signal book, completed in 1800 offered a fast, flexible means of signaling the complex orders, needed to control multi-ship movement in a battle. Also, by sailing in two parallel columns, ships could see the signals of ships diagonally in front of them and to repeat the orders for ships whose view was blocked.

However, the change in thinking, from tradition to a new practice, was slow. Even when the effectiveness of the breaking attack was twice proved by accident, the Navy did not accept the possibility of altering its battle plans.

Psychological change always lags behind technological change, Sir Michael Howard noted, adding that the psychological acceptance of significant technological change usually depends on the making of a mental leap by a single individual, or by several individuals struck simultaneously by the same thought.

The Battle of Trafalgar

Admiral Horatio Nelson made the mental leap. He trained his subordinate captains to use the new signaling system. On Oct. 21, 1805, off the Cape of Trafalgar near the southern tip of Spain, Nelson led the British Navy in breaking the line of the French and Spanish fleet. At the end of the battle the British fleet was victorious and the French and Spanish fleet was devastated. After the battle a violent storm further damaged the battered French and Spanish ships. In the end Britain had lost none of her 27 ships of the line. The French and Spanish lost 23 out of 33 ships, and of the 10 that were not captured or sunk only 3 were fit for service. The victory was overwhelming.

With hindsight it is easy to see that the navies of the Eighteenth Century had clung to a method of attack that was not effective. Evidence from two battles in which breaking the line led to decisive victories did not result in a change of tactics. Change was foreshadowed in two battles, but the evidence was dismissed by the authorities of the day. Change, and with it a decisive victory, came when Nelson broke with tradition, utilized the new signaling system and battle strategy, and transformed naval warfare in wooden ships.

The head-on attack exposed the leading ships to injury they could not immediately return, and then placed them in the heart of the enemy fleet where they either had to fight with skill and courage or perish. Nelson communicated to his officers both his plans and the reasons for them, preparing these officers to improvise when necessary. He treated officers and men humanely, with respect , as opposed to the formal, rigid, manner which typified the British Admiralty. Nelson inspired the confidence that strengthened people to overcome the psychological barrier to change.

Lessons about Organizational Change

What lessons can we draw from the Battle of Trafalgar?

The first lesson is that change can be foreshadowed by events, which hint at more effective methods for achieving one’s goals. However, when such events occur they tend to be dismissed as abnormal. The leader’s task is to assess which technological or theoretical advances will effectively serve the organizationís needs, which are mere fads, and which are legitimate advances but without benefit for the purposes of the organization.

To assess changes that will serve the organization, a leader must understand the organization’s needs. An accurate understanding of the organization’s needs clarifies the purpose of an organization and then discerns the problems which prevent the purpose from being achieved. The on-going awareness of problems which need solutions can encourage a leader to looking for new technology, and then to discern which technological advances which will be of value.

Separating fads from actual technological or theoretical breakthroughs is a matter of using data rather than hype as the basis for decision-making. The best defense against fads is information. Any change effort should be fueled by data. Problems should be measurable. When change occurs the results of the change should be measureable and measured. Fads will not withstand such scrutiny.

Another challenge in managing change is consistency of effort. Some organizations try something new and lose heart; altering course before the impact of the new policy or practice has been proved either effective or ineffective. For instance, in many organizations, implementing change can be extremely difficult because of a history of changes that were reversed or ignored by management within a short period of time. Older staff have been learned through bitter experience that change is simply a fad, and that ignoring change is the most effective way to respond. The use of accurate and publicly disseminated data to document the reason for change and then the evaluation of the results of change will help dispel the suspicion that all change is about fads.

Change is frequently resisted, even when the original reasons for doing something have been overcome. A technological breakthrough does not by itself bring change – it takes time for people to catch up. Psychological change always lags behind technological change. (Sir Michael Howard , quoted in Keegan p. 50.) Effective leaders recognize that change involves recognizing technological advances and getting people to embrace these advances, a process which is slow and which has the risk of backfiring. Since resistance to change is to be expected, the task of leadership is to plan how to help people make the psychological leap from tradition to something new.

We know that when people help shape a process they tend to be more supportive than if the process is forced upon them. Thus, employees will usually be more open to change efforts if they have had in-put into the need for the change, and to the change process itself. A common problem involves lack of clarity about the difference between in-put and decision-making. Some people, when asked for their opinion, conclude that they have not been heard if the result is not what they proposed. The distinction between giving in-put and decision-making needs to be very clear. One way to help make the distinction is by taking care that after employee in-put is gathered, it is reported back to employees (summarized) before decisions are made.

Providing the rationale for change can help with the psychological adjustment. People want to know the reason their lives are being disrupted, and that the expected results will be worth the discomfort. The more this rationale is supported by data the higher the likelihood that the change will gain a positive reception. We need some semblance of control in our lives, and knowing what is happening and why helps people feel their lives are not out of control.

Any change effort that does not give serious attention to helping people overcome the psychological barrier has not heeded the lesson of history. In organizations implementing change, failing to heed this lesson may lead to low morale, rapid turnover (both of managers and line employees),failure of employees to support change, and at worst, sabotage.

Leaders must know their role in the change process. They have to risk doing things differently, and to convince people to join them in breaking new ground. Nicholas Tracy concludes his work on Nelson with these words:

“Nelson’s genius lay firstly in his command relationships with subordinates, and also with his superiors. Being sure of getting the best performance out of officers and men alike, he was able with confidence to assess the technical risks. Any mistake made by the enemy could and would be instantly exploited with overwhelming force.” (Tracy p. 218.)

Nelson’s greatness lay in his ability to see the potential for changing naval tactics and then to get everyone to follow his lead. The French and Spanish fleet did not recognize the potential, even though they had the same information as Nelson, and the price they paid was defeat. An alternative possibility to resisting change was demonstrated in France a decade earlier. The royal government resisted change and the result was the French Revolution.

How did Nelson inspire loyalty? He communicated to the captains and others -his leadership team; he explained what he intended and why. He gave them the overview of his tactics, so they understood the rationale. In addition, with this information they could respond to problems that arose in the course of a battle people. He cared for people in his command. He was physically brave, resulting in wounds and at Trafalgar in death, but he did not ask others to risk more than he was willing to risk. He eschewed the usual top-down approach of “follow me because I am admiral”.

The role of leaders is to manage the change process. Leaders must make sure that change efforts are based on accurate needs assessments and a careful examination of new technology or practices. Leaders must ensure that the rationale for change is clearly communicated to the rest of the organization. Leaders must control the pace of change, not rushing faster than the ability of members to incorporate the psychological aspects of the change. Leaders must create a climate of trust which eases the stress of change. And finally, because psychological change is slow, leaders have to take the risk and lead the way, withstanding cries to return to the old ways.

Today, with technological advances developing more rapidly than ever before in history, change is inevitable. However, the change process remains the same. Useful technological advances have to be recognized. Fads have to be separated from significant breakthroughs. People have to have time to adjust psychologically. Leaders have to understand their role in the process. The lessons of Trafalgar are essential today if an organizational change effort is to succeed.


John Conbere

JOHN CONBERE, ED.D. Associate Professor & Dept. Chair, Organization Learning & Development Dept., Univ. of St. ThomasMinneapolis, MN Dr. Conbere is Professor and Chair of the Organization Learning and Development Department at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, where he specializes in conflict management in organizations. He received his… MORE >

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