Is Shakespeare Relevant In Today’s Commercial World?

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By Sujit Mundul

There have been lots of debates and discussions on the relevance of Shakespeare’s heroes as leaders in the modern commercial world. On this widely debated subject, a great deal of work had happened in the Oxford University under the leadership of Richard Oliver.

I have had the good fortune to interact with Richard many times on the issues of leadership, seeking his guidance. It is increasingly common to hear nowadays that we are facing a crisis of leadership. The ways in which organizations are moving forward can no longer be comprehended through the same models, language and logical analysis that have served leaders in the past.

I could strongly agree with Richard that the time has come when businesses actually need what the arts have to offer in order to survive. We can draw a good deal of similarity between the commercial world and the arts, in that both the streams, apparently poles apart, need creativity, imagination, flexibility, adaptability, effective communication and visionary tendencies for survival as well as  domination in the respective fields.

Stories have been used to inspire and instruct us human beings since we learnt to speak.

Let us take a look at Shakespeare’s stories. Henry V is the story from which we can glean the most about the nature of inspiration. From the first line that calls to our imagination with its plea for “a muse of fire”, to the last scene where Henry, as a Victorian leader, struggles to turn a battlefield into a garden, the plot, to my reckoning, reflects invaluable insights into leadership.

Henry V unites a group of disparate people (his nobles) around a common goal (in this instance, reclaiming the territory of France) and manages to overcome all difficulties in his path to achieve a near miraculous victory against the odds (i.e. winning the Battle of Agincourt).

So, readers are encouraged to see the King as an inspired leader, the nation as an organization, the nobles as the senior management team, and France as a big project.  I am sure that once we start thinking along these lines, we can very well find the relevance of Shakespeare’s characters in today’s changing world. Shakespeare survives gracefully through the changing fads of every generation because he touches so consistently on the truth of human experience.

Henry V takes over as King after the sudden demise of his father, the late King.But people can’t believe that Henry, who has the reputation of a spoiled brat, would allow Lord Chief Justice (a hard critic of Henry) to continue in the same position as also to become his mentor. In addition Henry promises to call Parliament. His journey begins.

In Act 1 we see Henry meets with his nobles to gather support for achieving his mission to reclaim the territory of France. He gets their consent. Henry has sent a message to the King of France asking if he will give up his throne. The French ambassador arrives with an answer; a trunk which Henry assumes will be full of jewels in an attempt to buy him off. Instead, it is full of tennis balls sent by the French Prince with an accompanying message that Henry better stick to the trivial pursuits he is capable of winning like tennis. Henry gives the ambassador a right –royal telling off and sends him out. Finally, he makes a firm commitment to pursue his mission to France.

Management February 2013
In commercial life, when we start our first project as a leader, we need to seek sound advice and believe in the “right” to go ahead. This “right” is granted internally and externally. Internally we can use a “line of service” to draw strength from. But we need certain amount of political intelligence to win the external right, to prepare our nobles (senior management) to take a risk and follow us into new territories. And we will have to make a demonstrable and visible commitment to pursue the project. If people think we are not totally behind this, the project may fail. Henry did follow all these steps.
 
In Act 2 Henry gathers and allocates his available resources and identifies and deals with those who oppose the mission (and the traitors) before it has even started.
 
In all major projects, leaders should be able to identify the forces ranged for and against them. Many a times, a good leader has to be a good actor. He may need to hide certain knowledge from certain people at certain times. He may need to disguise intentions, particularly while attempting to identify those who disagreed with the agreed mission and who may oppose its desired outcome. It is important to identify them correctly and deal with them appropriately for ensuring success of the project.
 
In Act 3, Henry starts with a reasonable plan: arrive in August with 10,000 troops, take the first foothold in a week and march on to Paris by Christmas. He lands at the coastal town of Harfleur as planned but three months later, he is still there having lost 2000 men. He makes a rousing speech to his exhausted troops. An effective leader will have to speak passionately and imaginatively to motivate them through the blocks. The next attack seems to make a difference, for the Governor of Harfleur asks for a peace party. Henry speaks and warns that if the town is not surrendered now; he will be unable to control his troop’s anger. Then when they do succeed, the town will be destroyed and people killed. The Governor surrenders the town. Henry insists that all the inhabitants be treated mercifully. He changes strategy and decides to withdraw to Calais (an English territory at that time) where his troops can rest over winter. 
 
Throughout the play, Henry demonstrates the wonderful leadership quality of painting pictures of the future. Here he uses it to paint such a negative view of the future that the Governor gives in rather than risk that picture becoming reality. He does not press on to his initial goal regardless; he revises his strategy on the ground. Nor does he admit failure and simply retreat to England. He finds a third way; a strategic withdrawal.
 
The French army is chasing Henry’s exhausted 8000 walking men with 40,000 fresh mounted troops. Inevitably they catch up and surround the English on the field of Agincourt. The French Herald is sent in to offer Henry a simple choice; give in now (and pay a huge fine but Henry and all his troops leave), or fight tomorrow and die. Henry says he does not seek a battle at the moment; he wishes to march to Calais, but if challenged he will fight. The French prepare for battle.

Managers have to solve problems. Leaders have to solve dilemmas, complex issues with no happy solutions. When leaders meet the real test, they will require to call on all their skills to hold a line that will give their people enough confidence to carry on. Act 4 shows Henry going through the long dark night before the battle, facing up to his fears and duties before being able to inspire his troops to an apparently miraculous victory against the odds.
 
Henry cannot really want to be out talking to his troops at 3 o’clock in the night. But he does it because it is required of him. He exercises visible leadership which is seen by others thus bolstering their confidence.
 
Leaders need to allow themselves to enter “the dark night of the soul” and face their own innermost fears, doubts and uncertainties, especially in a crisis, and particularly before they make decisions that affect the lives of others. If they don’t, they may make wrong decisions for the wrong reasons. There is a point in most meaningful projects when the leaders are forced to ask themselves: “Is this the right thing to do? And are we the right persons to do it?” In these times they will have to manage their own fears and the fears of others simultaneously but differently.
 
Henry is courageous enough to listen to what the troops really think. But if he listens carefully to what they are thinking, he may just be able to inspire them later. However, he also feels the weight of responsibility that they put on him. He needs to unload this or he may make his decision on what others want rather than what he thinks is right. When Henry arrives back at his tent, he overhears the nobles wishing for more troops. He speaks to them from the heart, telling them why he personally believes they are doing the right thing. He says they are enough to win honorably or die trying. He says those that do not wish to fight can leave. But any that chose to fight and survive will remember this day for the rest of their lives. They go off to start the battle.
 
The whole process of surviving the “Dark Night” has served to strip away layers to reveal Henry’s center, his core values - what he is doing all this for. Mind you, it is from this core that he speaks to inspire others.
The battle is going well for the English. They deal with the first wave of French attack and capture many prisoners. Another attack is sounded. Henry orders his men to kill the prisoners. Meanwhile the French have raided the luggage tents and killed all the boys who were guarding them. The Herald enters and tells Henry the day is his. He thanks God and forbids everyone to boast of the victory. They set off for Calais.
 
Most leaders wish they could get through their career without having to take any tough decision. Very few get their wish. There is usually a situation where we are forced to compromise the values on which we prided ourselves when we started our journey to leadership. It is the ability to take these hard decisions and live with the consequences that separates “the men from the boys” amongst the leaders.
 
In Act 5 Henry is encouraged to make peace and turn the battlefield into a garden. He attempts to court Princess Katherine (daughter of the French King) but realizes he has much to learn about building relationships before the political necessity becomes a heartfelt reality.
 
Katherine agrees to the marriage but Henry can tell she does not yet love him. He understands that he has to change his approach and learn a new way of life.
 
Many leaders have got where they are because of their ability to fight and win. Sometimes though, this is not enough.  We may have to nurture the new territory we have achieved rather than look for the next target.
 
To my mind, Shakespeare’s relevance in the modern complex world of commerce holds good adequately. Nevertheless, I leave it to the readers to decide on this enunciation, as they feel apposite.
 
Mundul is a Director with Standard Chartered Bank Nepal Ltd.

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