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There are still too many Richard IIs in business; CEOs should be more like Henry V
Deirdre Macken on Shakespeare’s models of good and bad leaders
Shakespeare has been enlisted to explain a lot about life – politics, religion, family, gender, ageing and all the virtues and vices. Management, however, is a new gig for the bard.
Even though the 400th anniversary of his death has just passed, many in business are appreciating just how clever Shakespeare was in explaining leadership in an Elizabethan age of disruption.
One of those captivated by Shakespeare’s portrayals of power is David Pumphrey, emeritus partner at executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles and life member of the Bell Shakespeare Company. He has focused on the bard’s portraits of kings Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V.
Pumphrey and John Bell, the theatre company’s founder, have put together a publication, Shakespeare’s Mind for the
Future, and give dinner presentations for business groups on the different styles of leadership that Shakespeare explored.
In short, Richard II shows the folly of entitled leadership and how a sense of a divine right to rule is no protection against interlopers. Henry IV is a lesson in autocratic management that is riven by division and again fails to inspire. And Henry V, about a dissolute son who becomes an inclusive and incisive ruler, shows how leadership can evolve in a person and how it is exercised to the best effect. Pumphrey is not the first to spot the management model of
Henry V. Laurence Olivier’s son, Richard, a professor at Oxford’s Saïd Business School, uses Shakespeare’s heroes to explore questions of leadership and an American firm, Movers & Shakespeares, has focused exclusively on Henry V as a model of agile leadership in an age of disruption.
But Pumphrey says the stories of the three kings are compelling to him because they show the evolution of modern management from the autocratic and arrogant to the inclusive and agile. It’s an evolution in the exercise of power that is happening on both an individual basis and business-wide.
“One scene I particularly like is where Henry V goes around the tents disguised as a common soldier to overhear what the soldiers are saying on the eve of the battle,” he says. “That scene is all about what a leader should do – listen to the troops, find out how they’re feeling about a project.
“The other one is a bit brutal, but when Henry, who was a bit of a renegade, becomes king he knows he has to separate himself from his boozy past. So he refuses to recognise his old friend Falstaff and when one of his mates gets caught stealing, he says: string him up. That’s an extreme way of getting rid of friends but it shows that leadership is a lonely job.”
This king’s appeal is partly because he reigned in a period of disruption – rapid economic change, religious strife, uncertain sovereign leadership, terrorism and big demographic changes. “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” says Henry.
As a pin-up for modern management, Henry V is the ultimate agile leader. Facing the powerful and entrenched adversary of France, he embeds himself with his “band of brothers”; he is innovative with weapons and takes advantage of moments of luck. With charisma and courage, he leads 6000 soldiers into battle at Agincourt and defeats 30,000 French soldiers. He is also great with bons mots that resonate today – “all things are ready if our minds be so”.
Shakespeare's rallying call against entitled power resonates with the disruptive tone of management advice to business leaders. In an era where power is up for grabs, executives can no longer operate with the sense of a divine right to rule, like Richard II, or adopt Henry IV’s tyrannical style when faced with challenges.
“What we learn from the mind of Shakespeare and the morality tales of his leadership plays is that it is impossible to resist the forces of change,” says Pumphrey.
“Two of the three kings try to protect their fiefdoms and fail. Only one, Henry V, embraces risk and succeeds against overwhelming odds by changing the mindset of his soldiers.”
Pumphrey denies that he identifies certain companies or chief executives in the plays of the kings – but he concedes there are plenty of Richard IIs left in business circles.
He is keen to take these Shakespearean presentations beyond the dinner party circuit and into workshops. In the meantime, his unusual collaboration with Bell Shakespeare is preparing to take a business presentation based on Julius Caesar to cities in Asia. The title of that presentation is “Anatomy of a Boardroom Coup”, and directors may feel relief only in the sense that the knives of the boardroom are figurative.
Pumphrey says it should be comforting to business that many of the challenges they face today were foreseen 400 years ago and, indeed, that many of the solutions were also explored. “It’s validating that there are so many parallels and also useful.”
Shakespeare clearly revelled in exploring what worked in power and what didn’t. He was an innovator both in his plays and in the ways he ran the theatrical business – if he was around today, he might be working on a start-up in Silicon Valley. But one wonders what sort of play he might write about the corporate annexation of his ideas.