October 15, 2018
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Business lessons from the Bard

Shakespeare on business — really? Shakespeare’s plays provide timeless insights for managers because so many deal with the dynamics of leadership — themes of power and its abuse, character and its flaws, ambition and its destructiveness, loyalty and its betrayal.

Macbeth, Othello and Lear offer lessons in failed leadership by warning about the dangers of obsessive ambition, mistrusting intuition and holding onto power for too long. In contrast, Henry V portrays a role model for future leaders with lessons about the importance of vision, mission and motivation.

In “Henry V,” the hard-drinking, hard-playing young Prince Hal is transformed upon his father’s death into a responsible king. “Consideration, like an angel, came and whipped the offending Adam out of him,” observes the Archbishop of Canterbury. Henry distances himself from his former disreputable companions and asks the archbishop to become his mentor: “Presume not that I am the thing I was … I have turned away my former self; so will I those that kept me company.”

Shakespeare teaches us that a new leader must shed old habits, perhaps even old friends, and choose wise advisers. As he assumes the throne, Henry is no longer just “one of the guys.” The Chorus calls on the “muse of fire” to give Henry the creative spark to lead — a lesson that leadership requires imagination to see new possibilities.

Henry unites a divided group of nobles with a vision of unifying the kingdom and a mission to reclaim the territory of France. First Henry turns to the archbishop to learn whether he has the moral and legal right to invade France. He does not want his mission to be merely his personal ambition but a moral cause that will rally the entire country.

Having secured justification for his mission, Henry uncovers a plot to undermine him — a warning that leaders must be vigilant for those who will sabotage the vision, perhaps motivated by vested interest in the status quo or wedded to an alternative future. With an army of 10,000 men, Henry fights for a foothold in France, but after three months 2,000 are dead and another 3,000 too sick to fight. The lesson is clear: Be prepared for setbacks.

At Harfleur, Henry gains his first victory by imploring his war-weary troops: “Once more, unto the breach, dear friends, once more, or close the wall up with English dead.” He encourages his men to imitate the tiger, “stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,” and to “disguise a fair nature with hard-favored rage.” We learn from Henry that a leader inspires followers not by giving orders but by providing a persuasive rationale for action and an imaginative way to get the job done.

When his friend Bardolph is caught looting in defiance of the king’s order, Henry learns to make hard decisions. He chooses justice over mercy as he weighs friendship against the good of the entire organization. But Henry faces an even more difficult decision, as the French amass an army of 40,000 to prepare for the Battle of Agincourt.

Even though the nobles clamor to discuss strategy with the king, Henry wisely steals some time alone to ponder his decision. He walks in disguise among his troops where he hears them blaming the king for their impending ruin, which only heightens his burden.

Henry returns to the nobles who are also worried about their fate, wishing they had more troops for a fairer fight. But Henry has emerged from his solitude convinced of the rightness of his cause. He delivers one of the most impassioned and inspiring speeches in all of literature, pointing to advantage in the undersize army because fighting with fewer men gives each a greater share of honor.

Henry inspires his troops by elevating each soldier to royalty: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.” He offers to pay transport for any who wish to leave and envisions a future when those back in England will “think themselves accursed” and “hold their manhoods cheap” in the presence of those who fought victoriously. With good fortune and a well-executed strategy, the English prevail despite the overwhelming odds. Henry defeats the French and unites England and France by marrying the Princess Katherine.

Shakespeare’s “Henry V” should be required reading for anyone who leads an organization. What is your vision of the future? Do you have a specific mission that excites diverse constituents? Are you equipped to implement your vision despite the forces arrayed against it? Learn from Henry to become an inspirational leader.

Joseph McDonnell is dean of the College of Management and Human Service at the University of Southern Maine and faculty member in the Muskie School of Public Service. He formerly served as dean of the College of Business at Stony Brook University in New York and has held executive management positions within both Fortune 500s and start-ups.

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