Empowerment in Action: A Life and Death Battle

battle title

The most recent video I made, The Empowerment Escalator, talks about the importance of empowerment.

I don’t know why I find reading books about military strategy so fascinating. Perhaps it is because poor leadership can literally be a life-and-death decision. Recently I read about a fascinating battle that was a true-to-life illustration of this principle. Here is it is with little Strategy Sketchnotes illustrations.

I’ve wanted to output more videos, but since they are made in my spare time and it is very time-consuming to make them, I decided to write some other posts in-between the videos to go a little deeper on the principles. So here we go!

The Empowerment Escalator talks about how it is important to empower your people, and provides a very simple framework for ways to empower them. If you haven’t seen it, take a look — it’s only a few minutes. It will help the explanation below make more sense.


Once upon a time (i.e. in the 1800’s), Britain faced their daunting enemy, the French Napoleon, who had a weeeee bit of megalomania and decided Britain was next on his most wanted list. And what better place to start than dominating the seas?

Unfortunately, there was someone who was in his way. Lord Nelson (Admiral Viscount Lord Horatio Nelson, to be precise), an admiral in the British navy. And too bad for Napolean, because Lord Nelson was not your typical naval leader.

In those days, ships would line up in two rows and sail on by each other and use each other as target practice. There were explosions and injuries and deaths and half of the ship would get damaged, while the other side looked totally fine.

Not only was this costly (the ship repair tab was starting to skyrocket), but it wasn’t terribly effective. Both sides pummeled each other and limped away for repairs, without anyone really winning the battle. Plus, only half the ship was used.

Lord Nelson thought this was a waste, and he seemed to have a super competitive streak, so he devised a clever scheme called “The Nelson Touch.” He lined up all his ships in columns and sailed full-on collision style.

This meant that he could:

  1. Cut the enemy in two — literally. Now they couldn’t help each other.
  2. Use both sides to spray the enemies, thus doubling their attack ability.
  3. Totally shock his enemies and paralyze them because they wouldn’t know what to do with such an unusual situation.

This tactic also worked because it crippled the enemy’s ability to communicate.

In those days, the navy was led by the Big Boss being on the lead ship and sending out directions to all the ships. Using a lot of flags, the Big Boss would give the ships directions, and the ships would then do whatever the Big Boss said.

This only worked until the Big Boss got blown up. Then there was a slight problem. No more instructions!

Nelson, instead of acting like a Big Boss, used the Empowerment Escalator model and gave his people guidelines of what to do. During a battle, there would be no time for his people to go up the escalator. He gave clear instructions to the captains of every ship, telling them “they might adopt whatever they thought best, provided it led them quickly and closely alongside an Enemy.”[1]

He told what they were supposed to accomplish (get close alongside the enemy) but not how (do whatever you think best). He gave them freedom to make decisions to accomplish the goal.

Empowerment in action!

So even if Lord Nelson did get blown up or die (which, sadly he did at the battle), the captains of each ship would still know what to do.

In the end, Nelson was successful. His plan was smart, cutting off the enemy’s flag ship so no one could see the flag signals. Because he sailed right through the middle and split the enemy fleet, they were no longer able to communicate with each other, causing confusion. But Nelson’s armada decimated their enemies. In fact, not a single English ship was sunk, but over 50% of the enemy fleet’s ships sunk. At the bottom of the page, look at all the ships in blue that got sunk or caught!

When leaders empower others, it strengthens the teams to enable team members to make decisions, increase effectiveness, and ultimately achieve the goal. Great example for all of us, even 200 years later!



Interested in the battle? See more articles: Wikipedia’s Battle of Trafalgar • Triumph of “The Nelson Touch”Battle of Trafalgar written by a historian • Lots of cool paintings

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