Colin White Memorial Lecture 2011

Dr Colin White Nelson & Bronte

I hope you will allow me to intrude upon your goodness as I give this, the first Colin White Memorial Lecture.

We used to pull each other's legs as to who had 'discovered' Nelson first! . . . . . . I was seven, Colin was nine. Yet as little boys and without really knowing why, we were attracted to the Hero because of the way he performed as a leader. I doubt whether either of us had come across the word leader and if we had, whether we would have understood what it meant. To a younger person the winning of great victories and dashing across the decks of enemy ships is the stuff of heroes and the compelling and romantic attraction. Yet as adults we knew that these are the end results and that something else lays under the surface that drives people to achieve them.

What is fascinating is that the Great Sailor helped to shape both of our lives.  Colin's more obviously than mine. But it did mean we were close and so to have the profound honour of delivering this inaugural lecture is an emotional experience and one that has weighed heavily on my mind for months. It is both a celebration of a friend as well as a means of digging the foundations he was about to start for the study of leadership - and that means trying to put naval leadership into a wider context with a view to its relevance and to the future.

Dr Colin White was not an academic historian in the typical sense. His career environment was always the museum sector rather than the university campus. Yet he climbed to the top of the naval historical ladder through a range of experiences and talents that allowed him to bring the subject of naval history to a wide and more general audience and so won the affection and admiration of his peers.

He popularised the subject and Nelson in particular. It was Colin's good fortune to live during The Nelson Decade and as 'authority flows from the one who knows' it is fitting to apply the words of Abigail Adams to Thomas Jefferson in 1790, "These are times in which a genius would wish to live. Great necessities call forth great leaders.'  Colin was the leader called forth for the Trafalgar bicentenary. He became the public face of the commemoration and together with his many books, articles and arduous lecture tour (over 100 in 2005 alone) brought Nelson, his achievements and fascinating personality to the public at large, so much so that Colin was dubbed by historian Andrew Roberts as "Nelson's representative on earth"! He received the Desmond Wettern Media Award of the Maritime Foundation as "the most visible spokesman of Britain's maritime interests in 2005".

Many of us are fortunate to remember his lectures and two stand out for me: As ever they both began with him saying, 'Ladies and gentlemen, I want you to imagine…." One was his candle lit Immortal Memory at Newhouse where he captured the melancholy splendour of Nelson's state funeral. You could hear a pin drop. The other was his Great Cabin description here in the Lily McCarthy Gallery.  For many of us it was his last performance. For that is what his talks and lectures were. He was a brilliant story-teller with a vivid ability to re-evoke the immediacy of Nelson and his age. He could fill a hall, and always said that they would come for Nelson. In reality they came for his Nelson.

He was comfortable with fellow enthusiasts as he was with royalty and he was always happy to share his research with others. He was particularly keen to enthuse young people and this gives us another clue as to where his interest in leadership was going. He envisaged himself developing a mentoring role.  

We worked very closely together throughout the Nelson Decade and during the Trafalgar Festival/Trafalgar 200. It was a fruitful partnership and as his star ascended it revealed his sensitivity to the Nelson leadership style, for he wrote to me along the lines Nelson had written to Collingwood, before Trafalgar, emphasising that, ''No man has more confidence in another man than I have in you" and "my dear Peter,  it is to place you perfectly at ease respecting my intentions, and to give full scope to your judgement for carrying them into effect', concluding that he didn't want any little jealousies to come between us. Even though he could be short-fused at times, they never did. 

Colin was generous-spirited, warmly sociable and, though sharp-witted, devoid of malice: what you saw was what you got.

There were similarities between the admiral and the historian. Both were essentially straightforward, inclusive personalities, and charismatic communicators to many types of audience. Each too was sustained by a strong Christian faith, which helped them meet premature deaths at the height of their careers.

The other field where we worked closely together was The 1805 Club. And it was at this time he made what is arguably the greatest of his discoveries that also illuminates aspects of Nelson's leadership, notably vision, strategic insight and a clear objective. He found a scrappy piece of paper in the National Maritime Museum and turning it over, like all good historians and curators should do, recognised the scribble in front of him was in fact Nelson' strategic thinking for his next battle - Trafalgar!  At the same time he had a strategic thought of his own for The 1805 Club. He imagined and masterminded The Trafalgar Captains' Memorial. Colin recognised that Nelson had overshadowed the exploits of his captains for too long and that Trafalgar was a joint effort. That Nelson was able to bring together and inspire a hurriedly assembled task force was all about leadership. Nelson '(he) was a leader of leaders'  (dux erat ille ducum) Ovid: Heroides.

His most significant written contribution to the Nelson canon was The Nelson Letters Project which discovered over 1300 letters in museums, libraries and collections around the world and 507 of the most significant were published in The New Nelson letters, where for the first time we see Colin giving a whole chapter to Nelson's 'collegiate' leadership style. His research has allowed us to fine tune our understanding of Nelson, to the point that the book's strap line could have been 'Nuances of Nelson'.  One example in the context of leadership identifies a description of those serving with Nelson that is as powerful as the well known, "I had the happiness to command a band of Brothers", namely, "….a fine and distinguished sett of fellows".  And here, together with his penultimate book 'Nelson: The Admiral' we see Colin being attracted to leadership itself.   

What better person than Nelson to choose! The author Ernle Bradford called him 'The Essential Hero'. In Nelson we find the superb role model for an analysis of leadership, which means looking at the strengths as well as the weaknesses of this 'fascinating little fellow'. But there is also the recognition that Nelson is not alone in possessing these so called 'leadership qualities'. He is not unique. He is merely an icon for the remarkable product/process that was taking place in an organisation that was evolving into the modern age: The Royal Navy.

In my opinion the Royal Navy in the second half of the 18th century and into the early 19th century can be regarded as a nursery, if not the crucible of modern-day Anglo-Saxon leadership theory and practice. There is a link between the quarterdeck of a ship of the line, the ancient Greek ideas of heroes and leaders, and the INSEAD classroom.

While the various qualities and attributes assigned to leadership can be traced back thousands of years to include great names like Alexander the Great, there is really nothing in modern times until the eighteenth century that reveals people were thinking about it as a phenomenon. Coincidentally, the Royal Navy was incubating it in practice. When we study the Service we can see how it:

·         Highlights the values and qualities of leadership. Honour and duty. A person's moral as well as physical courage.

·         Demonstrates that it is not a singular gift given to a very few individuals, and

·         Creates the conditions for team work. An understanding your people's psychology - understanding your enemy in the same way.

These are aspects of leadership which compliment the more glamorous qualities of heroism, dash, élan and courage.

This occurred in the Royal Navy because of the:

·         Nature of a ship and ship-board life - the community of a ship - home and survival - the need for organisation and discipline - the fellowship of the sea.

·         The development of a professional service where officers are required to pass exams to prove their competences, unlike the army at the time where money alone purchased rank or commission - which persisted into the mid 19th century and post the shock of the Crimean War. Lt Colonel Cardigan paid £40,000 for his regiment,  duelled with his fellows and flogged his men. He was notorious, rich, bombastic and arrogant and war was to him a gentleman's game. It led to the unadulterated folly of the Charge of the Light Brigade. Heroic indeed! Yet Cardigan was regarded as a great leader until the true story of the Crimean emerged.

·         The early stages of democratisation of ability breaking away from class and money in favour of meritocracy.

·         Distant communications allowed scope for independent thought and action.

·         The largest work-related organisation in the world

The evidence for this concentration and display of leadership is found in naval officers from Hawke to Nelson, including Cook, Collingwood, Bligh and Cochrane, who exemplified effective leadership and initiative that challenged poor leadership, exposed the weaknesses of the 'old system', and stimulated change.

Duffy and Mackay identify 12 very specific leadership criteria that deliver leadership excellence in the age of sail. However, there are many other studies of leadership criteria in different spheres and these reveal different standards. Like Duffy and Mackay's standards they are not always or obviously transferable from one sphere to another, for instance, 'a brave spirit of aggression' doesn't fit well with the standards required of a Bishop, but does possibly with that of a vulture capitalist. 

What everyone has been hoping to find is a set of universal criteria. We might call this the Holy Grail of leadership studies. Does it exist or is it a chimera?  We shall return to this in a minute.

What is not in doubt is how as a result of this quest leadership has become a buzz subject in the past thirty years or so and largely because of the enthusiasm of the non-military in both the private and public sectors. There are few, if any, hotter topics in organisation and management.  It has become a pervasive and international phenomenon. It is fair to say that today there is a global leadership frenzy.

Politicians love the word. David Cameron coins the word over and over again and it even featured in the Conservative Party's conference strap line, 'Leadership for a better future'. Ed Milliband and Ed Balls say that the country needs leadership The Eurozone crisis can be solved by 'leadership'. The word 'leadership' is bandied about by politicians so much these days that one wonders how many of them know themselves what it means? (I will leave that as a rhetorical question! And also whether you think Labour chose the right leader!)

One august think tank the Chartered Institute of Management published in 2001 'Leadership: The Challenge for All?' and 'found agreement' that what was required from leadership was 'an ability to inspire' (described as absolute key) along with 'clarity of communication and being able to articulate direction'. Typically, their report makes little detailed examination of the concepts of leadership. Its value is simply asserted and its nature assumed and attention goes to training and development needs to attain a vision of desirable ends - desirable ends that stand for all the qualities required in a top post, and so leadership emerges as a catch-all panacea. It has become the answer to a host of hugely complex, large scale and endemic problems, in fact, anything that needs attention in business land and elsewhere! Everybody espouses the value of leadership but it seems that those given leadership status are the ones who receive the least coaching and tutoring.

The obsession can in part be explained by the focus on individualism - the media reports political and business activity as a drama played out among personalities.

Business land discovered leadership while working on training, strategy, change management, performance management and other related issues. In passing to begin with, managers would often ask about 'leadership' and whether they should be doing something about it. Today there is a mystique about leadership which has more appeal than how leadership qualities can be nurtured. Richard Branson, Lord Alan Sugar . . . . they all carry that mystique.

Then there is an enormous literature and it's expanding at an incredible pace. Far faster than any of us can keep up with. A search of the website in spring 2003 using the single word leadership netted 11,686 results. Today that figure stands at 175,192 - and that's just books!  A simple search for the term "leadership" in Google will give you approximately 164,000,000 (164 million) results.

Maybe we all bandy the term around and feel we know what we mean by it. Yet in reality whether politician, business person or serving in the armed forces we all have different ideas about what leadership is. One thing is for certain. It seems to be imbued with almost magical qualities. Fred Luthans, in his book Organizational Behaviour (2005), said that "it [leadership] does remain pretty much of a 'black box' or unexplainable concept."

To see if he is right it may be helpful to summarise the evolution of leadership theory

The Western tradition of leadership starts in the fourth century BC with Socrates who wrote nothing down but taught Plato and Xenophon that leadership was exercised by the person who knows what to do in a given situation. That is Leadership through knowledge.  Plato quotes in his Republic the parable of the ship's captain:

"The sailors are quarrelling over control of the helm . . . They do not understand that the genuine navigator can only make himself fit to command a ship by studying the seasons of the year, sky, stars, and winds and all that belongs to his craft; and they have no idea that, along with the science of navigation, it is possible for him to gain, by instruction or practice, the skill to keep control of the helm whether some of them like it or not."

And Socrates on sailors is reported as saying:,

"So long as they have nothing to fear, they are, I believe, an unruly lot, but when they expect a storm or an attack, they not only carry out all orders, but watch in silence for the word of command like choristers."

Plato, and also Plutarch in Lives, went further. They asked, "What qualities distinguish an individual as a leader?" If they were looking for more than authority through knowledge it was not until the mid-19th century that the idea of leadership traits emerged. In Heroes and Hero Worship (1841), Thomas Carlyle identified the talents, skills, and physical characteristics of men who rose to power and in Hereditary Genius, published in 1869, Francis Galton examined leadership qualities in the families of powerful men. They both concluded that leaders were born, not developed. The fact that the Oxford English Dictionary traces the word "leadership" in English only as far back as the 19th century owes much to their work.

 This concept of 'Great Men' theories thrived up until the 1940s. 

Nelson is a superb example for promoting Trait Theory. He exhibits the eight personality characteristics that the theorists considered essential: natural intelligence, task-related knowledge, dominance and ambition, self-confidence, energy, tolerance for stress, integrity and honesty, and emotional maturity. However, whether or not he displayed all of them all of the time is questionable. And he needed the opportunity to command at increasingly senior levels to exploit them. Maybe he did get better as he got older. Admiral Lord St Vincent thought so because he moves from saying, 'Nelson will never be fit for an independent command.' to declaring in 1805 that "I never saw a man in our profession who possessed the magic art of infusing the same spirit into others which inspired their own actions, exclusive of other talents and habits of business not common to naval officers… ... It does not become us to make comparisons. All agree: There is but one Nelson."  Colin believed that if Nelson had lived he would have made a most effective First Lord.

We shall never know how many people have also exhibited these traits but have never been able to exploit them effectively in a given situation. There's something missing and this makes trait theory of limited use when exploring leadership overall.  One wonders whether the traits are just ascribed post hoc to Nelson and leaders generally?

In the 1940s and 1950s the next step on from trait theory opens up a Pandora's Box of Behavioural theories, first developed in the 1960s. These observed autocratic, democratic and laissez faire styles and highlighted task-related aspects (managing the nuts and bolts). They evolved into various derivative theories, beginning with the relationship between leaders and led in different trades and situations, and moving to the 'meaning-making' behaviour of leaders. Here, 'leaders' are those who interpret the complexities of a given situation within their environment on behalf of the followers. They both weigh up and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the situation, which in turn requires them to possess a set of capabilities, such as clarity of vision, the ability to reduce complex data into simple compelling information, and the ability to communicate clearly.

Prior to the 1980s 'leadership' and 'management' were terms rarely subject to differentiation and were often seen as interchangeable or overlapping. If anything leadership was a supervisory matter. During the1980s there was a paradigm shift and transformation emerged as key. Leaders were now differentiated from managers.

Nelson did not distinguish between leadership and management and nor did he see the functions being carried out by different people - leaders and non-leaders. That is not the case today. The majority of people see a clear distinction between the two. Admiral Sir Jonathon Band for instance suggests that management is about maintaining the status quo, whereas leadership is about instigating change.[1] Not everyone would agree with this because there is a school that believes that operational performance and administration requires leadership at all levels.

General Slim first posed the question - managers or leaders? He saw a difference. In his words, 'The leader and the men who follow him represent one of the oldest, most natural and most effective of all human relationships. The manager and those he manages are a later product, with neither so romantic nor so inspiring a history. Leadership is of the spirit, compounded of personality and vision; its practice is an art. Management is of the mind, more a matter of accurate calculation of statistics, of methods, time tables, and routine; its practice is a science. Managers are necessary; leaders are essential.  

 Managers versus leaders:



Are transactional

Seek to operate and maintain current systems

Accept given objectives and meanings

Control and monitor

Trade on exchange relationships

Have a short-term focus

Focus on detail and procedure

Are transformative

Seek to challenge and change systems

Create new visions and new meanings


Seek to inspire and transcend

Have a long-term focus

Focus on the strategic big picture

Source: Leadership in organisations, John Storey

 Caught up in this shift is a critical reassessment of attempts to identify and catalogue a set of 'competences' associated with leadership and required of leaders:  vision, strategic sense, ability to communicate the above, and the ability to inspire and motivate. These competences moved the thinking towards charismatic and visionary leadership, where leaders transform organisations and situations - what Admiral Band calls 'instigating change'.

Also, more attention has been paid to the part played by 'followers' postulating that leaders are those who enact the behaviours and articulate the messages which are in tune with the requirements of the followers who confer the status of leader. Winston Churchill is a case in point. He is widely regarded as a great leader because of his role as Britain's prime minister during World War II. Yet for the rest of his career both before and after the war he was marginalised and at times even isolated. His famed leadership attributes and capabilities, including his oratorical skills, decisiveness and clarity of vision had not left him, but they were no longer tuned to the social circumstances. Leaders cannot live by capabilities alone.

Nevertheless, the New Leadership - charismatic and transformative leadership - has dominated the picture for over twenty years until the first decade of this century which is now witnessing a re-appraisal. The study of leadership is moving into a post-charismatic and post-transformational analysis that has yet to run its course.

Transformational leadership is waning because it does not take account of some pretty critical issues:

1.       The importance of integrity as a crucial quality of leadership following corporate collapses, like Enron, and corporate and political scandals.

2.       The extent to which leadership can be evaluated by analysing a set of 'competences' and how these can be incorporated into training and developing leadership capabilities.

3.       Is there evidence for a linkage between leadership and organisational performance? Does it make a difference?

The range of different 'theories' of leadership fuels the debate on what constitutes leadership. Their emergence requires us to ask why leadership has been defined in different ways at different times and why different theories gain popularity at different times?

Does this say more about us and our changing social values?


I would like to highlight how important our own values are when considering the nature of leadership by reflecting on the way typical attitudes have changed over the last hundred years to the great polar explorers, Captain Robert Falcon Scott and Sir Ernest Shackleton. I characterise polar exploration as a part of maritime history because the techniques of navigation on the ice were the same, ships were needed to get the expeditions to the polar regions and the majority of explorers were sailors, not least Scott and Shackleton, Scott from the Royal Navy and Shackleton from the merchant service.


They had different leadership styles, partly because they came from different services, but was one style really better than the other?  In the 1980s the smart money was on Shackleton who achieved an extraordinary popularity that in turn further damaged Scott's. Scott is now being re-appreciated. In truth, what we see as leadership is studied at different times is how we have changed.

Nonetheless, the search for the Holy Grail will continue and this conference series will be no exception. Let us therefore recognise that naval leadership cannot be understood in isolation from the wider social and organisational tendencies. It is one part of a big organisational picture and this may be one of the main lessons to emerge.

Admiral Arleigh A. Burke said "Leadership is understanding people and involving them to help you do a job".[2] Our job is to use our knowledge and experience to help inspire young people, mentoring individuals to help them understand the role of history and particularly naval history in its contemporary context - from so-called sea blindness to the very defence of the realm. That is how important it is. I am sure Colin was passionate about sharing his learning with others. Young people are the future of a sustained interest and awareness for naval history and I believe it is important that collectively we support them to be the best we can. If that is the long term outcome of this series of conferences we shall have shown true leadership!

I leave you with Nelson's words taken from Sketch of My Life, 1799:[3]

"Thus may be exemplified by my life, that perseverance in any profession will most probably meet its reward. Without having any inheritance, or having been fortunate in prize money, I have received all the Honours of my Profession, been created a Peer of Great Britain, and I may say to the Reader, 'Go thou and do likewise'.

Select Bibliography

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Barczewski, S. (2007) Antarctic Destinies: Scott, Shackleton and the Changing Face of Heroism, New York Hambledon Continuum.

Carlisle, T (1841) Heroes and Hero Worship and the Heroic in History,

Council for Excellence in Management & Leadership (2001) Leadership Development: Best Practice Guide for Organisations, London: CEMI; (2002) Managers and Leaders: Raising Our Game, London CEMI.

Fox, Loren (2003) Enron: The Rise and Fall, Hoboken, New York, John Wiley & Sons.

Galton, F (1869) Hereditary Genius,

Grint, K (ed.) (1997) Leadership: Classic, Contemporary and Critical Approaches, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Horne, M. and D. Stedman-Jones (2001) Leadership: The Challenge for All? London: Institute of Management/DTI/DEMOS.

Jones, S. and J. Gosling (2005) Nelson's Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Commander, London, Nicholas Brealey.

Knight, R. (2005) The Pursuit of Victory: The Life and Achievements of Horatio Nelson, London, Allen Lane.

Leiner, F. (2001) 'Decatur and naval leadership', Naval History 15(5): pp30-7.

Luthans, F (2005) Organisational Behaviour, London, McGraw Hill

Lloyd's, (2005) Calculating Risk: Nelson and Lloyd's. London, Lloyd's

Mackay, R and M Duffy (2009) Hawke Nelson and British Naval Leadership 1747 -1805, Boydell, Woodbridge.

Manz, C. C. And H.P. Sims (1991) 'Superleadership: beyond the myth of heroic leadership', Organizational Dynamics 19: 18-35.

Modernising Defence People Group (2000) Sustaining the Leading Edge: A Report on Leadership Training and Development, London: Ministry of Defence.

Nicolas, Sir Harris (1844-1846) The Dispatches and Letters of Vice-Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson, UK, Chatham.

Peters, T. and R Waterman (1982) In Search of Excellence, New York, Harper & Row.

Pfeffer, J. (1977) 'The ambiguity of leadership', Academy of Management Review 2: 104-12.

Rodger, N.A.M. (2004) The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815, London, Allen Lane.

Storey, J. (ed.) (2004) Leadership in Organizations: Current Issues and Key Trends, London, Routledge.

White, Colin (2005) Nelson the Admiral, Stroud, Sutton; (ed.) (2005) Nelson: The New Letters, Woodbridge, Boydell.  

Work Foundation (2003) Developing Leaders. London: Work Foundation.

Zaleznik, A. (1992) 'Managers and Leaders: are they different?' Harvard Business Review, March-April: 126-35

[1] Quoted in Nelson's Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Commander (2005) by Jones, S. and J. Gosling, p. 205

[2] Quoted in Naval Leadership: Voices of Experience (1998) by Karel Montor, p. 18

[3] The Dispatches and Letters of Lord Nelson (1844) by Sir Nicholas Harris Nicholas, p. 15