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There are still too many Richard IIs in busi­ness; CEOs should be more like Henry V

The Australian - The Deal - - News -

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.

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