Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Slaget på Reden

Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Copenhagen. That's the one where Nelson having been ordered by the Commander in Chief, Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, to break off the action, is reputed to have raised his telescope to his blind eye and said "I see no signal". Like all good stories it has suffered from some myth making and probably didn't happen quite like that. But this is not a history lesson so let's stick with this popular version.

It does raise some interesting questions which I am not going to delve into to deeply today but here are two to be going on with:

·Who is and where is the best place to make decisions?

·When is it right to break a rule or disobey an instruction?

I find these questions and ones that flow from them a very interesting area. It leads to considerations of delegation, accountability, responsibility, risk taking, training and development and much more. I fully expect to return these maters over the summer.

Now back to Hyde Parker. It’s interesting to note how his problem differed from yours in interpreting the "old woman/young girl" illusion. (blog 1) You had all the facts.

Hyde Parker had a different problem. He had an incomplete picture and was missing essential facts.  Nelson had deliberately chosen to sail through a shallow, narrow unbuoyed channel in order to create surprise. Parker could see that 3 (out of 12) British capital ships had run aground. Beyond that was the "fog of war". Its not perhaps surprising that with a quarter of the British ships effectively out of action, he should be concerned about what was happening. From his perspective, withdrawing might be a very reasonable or even best course of action. Nelson had a different perspective, he also knew that a quarter of his ships had run aground but he was able to do something else that Parker couldn't. Parker had to rely on visual information (backed up with some audio information). Nelson had both these but critically he was also able to "feel" the battle. Because he was there, he could sense things that Parker simply couldn't. It’s surprising but undeniable how a "sense" for what is happening around you can effect judgement and decision making. The ability to "feel” what is going on relies on at least two things; firstly being in the right place and secondly experienced practiced judgement.

"The fog of war" is often taken to refer to the obscured vision and noise of battle and thus a unique condition of the battlefield. In my view it runs deeper and has a much broader significance that stretches into everyday experience. The fog includes the stress, the incomplete or garbled messages, the half truths, the misinterpreted information, the delay in accurate timely information and much more. These conditions often abound in everyday life, for example the tired parent with a screaming child or the businessman with insufficient hours in the day.

So to be an effective decision maker we often need to accustom ourselves to working with incomplete, and at times inaccurate information in physically and mentally uncomfortable situations when time is short, tension high and perhaps the consequences very real. And the only way to gain mastery of such a demanding but often critical function, is through practice backed up with some clear guidelines and methodology.

I've sailed around Denmark and visited many times and you have probably already guessed "Slaget på Reden" is the Danish name for the battle. I am a great admirer of The Danes and Denmark; both hold some powerful memories and influences for me. Not only are the Vikings a visible and verbal influence on our own culture, language and history but Danes and Denmark are a continuing one. As a soldier I worked with and for Danes on many occasions. My former Regiment stood shoulder to shoulder with Danish Soldiers in Afghanistan. My brother has a longstanding interest in the Danish philosopher, theologian and social critic Søren Kierkegaard.  

So I hope that all my Danish friends will forgive my example and discourse on this anniversary.




  1. While I accept there will always be times when we have to make decisions under stressful conditions, with garbled messages and incomplete information, there are also times when we could get the full picture if we just waited a while. In some cases, we can feel like we have to make a decision now - despite having inaccurate or incomplete information - but that feeling may just be down to being tired, or stressed. The real trick, in my view, is to learn which decisions have to be made now, and which can be held over until we've gathered all the data.

  2. Richard I do believe you may be morphing into a counsellor!