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Executive Training, Elizabethan Style

“Executive Training, Elizabethan Style”

From motivating employees to strategic planning, Shakespeare teaches a slew of leadership lessons.

One of today’s hottest management gurus is more than 400 years old.

William Shakespeare is making a splash in MBA schools and on the seminar circuit. Consider:

  • Columbia Business School professor John O. Whitney teaches a management course based on Shakespeare.
  • Cranfield University School of Management teamed up with Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre last year to offer leadership development seminars to British executives.
  • The Aspen Institute, a prestigious nonprofit organization that provides values-based leadership training, offered a Shakespeare seminar for the first time this summer.

Forsooth, what’s all the fuss? What can an Elizabethan possibly know about running a company in the 21st century? Plenty, say pundits. After all, management is a social science that ultimately boils down to understanding people. Marketing trends may come and go, today’s hottest technology may be one-upped tomorrow, but people haven’t changed.

Shakespeare offers insights into the underpinnings of human relationships. He shows us what makes people tick, what keeps them loyal and what makes them thirst for revenge. Julius Caesar, for example, is the tale of a corporate takeover that turns sour.

In fact, experts believe that Shakespeare is more applicable than ever. In today’s tight labor market where workers have more options, "command-and-control" management doesn’t fly. People have to want to work for you, which means executives must fine-tune their motivational finesse.

From team building to time management, Shakespeare covers a slew of business lessons. That’s not surprising, when you consider that Shakespeare was a businessman himself: Besides being a writer and actor, he was a principal shareholder in his theater company (which generated the majority of his income, rather than his writing). He also was an astute investor, amassing a sizeable fortune in real estate.

Don’t Get Caught Up in Corporate Perks

Especially in his histories and tragedies, Shakespeare spent considerable time exploring the concept of power — how to get it, how to keep it and how to wield it effectively.

Lesson: Don’t confuse the trappings of power with power itself. Wearing a crown and sitting on a throne doesn’t make a king wise, and flying around in a corporate jet doesn’t make a CEO more savvy.

In Richard II, Shakespeare shows us a manager who is fixated on the amusements of court life rather than his responsibilities. Instead of sage advisers, Richard II surrounds himself with "yes men." Richard further abuses his position by auctioning to his courtiers the right to collect unlimited taxes from the common people. Shakespeare calls such a leader "a skipping king."

Today there are plenty of "skipping CEOs," points out Columbia’s Whitney. Becoming too enamored with the symbols of power can lead an executive and his company into trouble. Case in point: James D. Robinson III, former CEO of American Express, started his 15-year reign well enough, but things got shaky as Robinson began jet-setting about, "playing the statesman from Wall Street on Washington" and generally taking his eye off the ball, notes Whitney. This attention to big deals instead of details caused Robinson to be ousted by American Express’ board of directors in 1993.

Whitney has served as hired gun in several corporate turnarounds and uses Richard II as a role model for what not to do. On his first day on the job, Whitney:

  1. Paints out all names on parking places.
  2. Takes down the time clock.
  3. Locks private executive washrooms.
  4. Sends out a memo — banishing memos for the next 30 days. If managers want to communicate with employees or each other, they should do it face to face.

Whitney also gets rid of corporate jets, makes managers fly coach and cancels country club memberships. When a company is in trouble, you have to focus on survival and what’s important, says Whitney.

Besides sending the wrong message, many corporate perks isolate executives from employees. The best managers are good listeners, stay accessible and pay attention to all employees.

You don’t have to eliminate all perks. Business is a stage, and symbols of power can be effective props. Just remember to use perks at the proper time and place.

More Power Moves

In MacBeth we see the wrong way to climb the corporate ladder. Murdering your CEO, especially when he’s an overnight guest in your home, is simply not a good career move.

MacBeth was a good manager in the beginning. However, his appetite for power is so strong that he pursues an unethical path: slaying King Duncan while he sleeps. Though Henry IV was justified for deposing Richard II, MacBeth had no valid reason. Unlike Richard II, Duncan was a good ruler. Even though MacBeth wins the corner office, his tenure is short and unsatisfying (he literally loses his head at the end of the play).

MacBeth’s mistake: not thinking about the consequences of his act. To attain success and peace of mind, leaders must align tactics with their values.

Succession plan gone awry: King Lear shows us the wrong way to transfer a family business. Lear’s first mistake is to retain his title and executive perks while turning over the day-to-day responsibilities of running the kingdom to his children. Worse, he pits his heirs against each other in a contest, promising the largest share to whoever demonstrates the greatest love for him. Lear’s eldest daughters begin brown-nosing, but when Cordelia, his youngest child, speaks, she refuses to join in the hypocrisy. His pride wounded, Lear disinherits Cordelia (and in doing so, loses the most-promising successor).

The Perfect Prince

When it comes to role models, Shakespeare gives us more cautionary tales than exemplary executives. But one standout for managerial panache is Henry V.

Henry V wins votes for being an effective leader and a balanced individual. He was a roll-up-the-sleeves manager; in battle, you’d find him at the front where the greatest danger was. He was also a persuasive communicator and won respect by treating everyone equally.

Yet Henry V got off to a shaky start. Since his father, Henry IV, was busy suppressing rebellions, Prince Hal (Henry V) spent his early days hanging out with Sir John Falstaff in saloons and brothels, devoting his energies to drinking and "wenching." Though displeasing his father, Hal’s earthy education becomes invaluable later. It taught him about the people he would lead — more than he would ever learn at court.

Leaders must be able to move in different worlds. They must assess external markets and look ahead to the future; they must also understand and be comfortable with the people who are actually doing the work.

Get out of your office. Indeed, Henry V knew the value of management by walking around. On the night before the Battle of Agincourt, he disguised himself and strolled around the camp to talk with his men and find out what they were thinking. They were scared stiff. The French outnumbered the English five to one. The next morning, Henry delivered a rousing speech, turning disadvantage into opportunity, saying:

"If we are marked to die, we are enough
To do our country loss, and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater the share of honour."
(Henry V, 4.3, 20-22)

The chivalric code was the glue that held Elizabethan society together, and people were perfectly willing to die for honor.

Deploying an Effective Strategy

In Hamlet, Shakespeare shows u
s that it’s not enough to have a strategy — tactics must be carefully thought out and deployed at the proper time.

The prince of Denmark returns home to find his father dead and his mother remarried to his uncle Claudius. An encounter with his father’s ghost reveals that Claudius poisoned dear old Dad, and the ghost now wants Hamlet to avenge the murder. Hamlet tries to do that, but he has a big problem: He doesn’t think his strategy through before announcing his intentions.

Let’s face it, profits don’t increase just because you want them to — or promise such a thing to your board of directors. To achieve a goal, an effective strategy must align beliefs, expectations and actions. Hamlet’s strategy is flawed on several levels:

  • Poor risk management. Hamlet doesn’t have the resources to accomplish his mission. Having been away from court, he doesn’t have any powerful friends around to lend a hand.
  • Wavering. He’s conflicted about his mission from the get-go: One moment Hamlet believes the ghost is his dead father, and the next minute he believes it’s a figment of his imagination.
  • Procrastination. When Hamlet gets a chance to kill Claudius, he hesitates and his opportunity vanishes.
  • Rash behavior. When Hamlet does act, he acts rashly and arouses Claudius’ suspicions, causing Hamlet to be sent out of the country, further impeding him to act.
  • Inability to reframe. Hamlet could have avenged his father’s murder by deposing Claudius instead of trying to murder him.

Part of Hamlet’s problem was that he was growing up between two worlds, the pagan age that promoted retribution (an eye for an eye), and a new religion that taught "vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord." Similarly, today’s managers are at a cusp, moving from a traditional brick-and-mortar environment to a dot-com era, which makes operating strategies difficult. Whereas your competition used to be across the street or across town, in a global economy competition can spring from anywhere.

Order and Disorder

One of the greatest challenges for entrepreneurs is to provide sufficient structure and freedom for employees.

At the time Shakespeare was writing, the Elizabethans were concerned about order and disorder, for they had just experienced 140 years of civil strife. In Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, the Greek commander Ulysses talks about the need for order:

"The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre
Observe degree, priority, and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office, and custom, in all line of order." (T&C, 1.3, 85-88)

When order is observed, things run smoothly, Ulysses says. But when something is out of place, "Then enterprise is sick."

Just like nature, structure and rules are necessary to keep organizations running smoothly. Yet Shakespeare knew that disorder also plays an important role in the corporate world. Without "maverick thinking," it’s impossible to innovate.

Shakespeare’s epitome of disorder was Sir John Falstaff, Prince Hal’s drinking companion and partner in crime. It was Falstaff who taught Hal the importance of humor, how to use language effectively for debate and persuasion, and how to be comfortable in different environments.

Because mavericks see opportunities where others don’t, they can be instrumental in breaking new ground and sparking creativity. Yet because they don’t like to stick to the rules, mavericks can be difficult to have around. Henry V fires Falstaff after he embarrasses Henry publicly.

Ironically, entrepreneurs are usually mavericks themselves, but they don’t always know how to manage the same behavior in others. Leaders must learn how to walk the delicate line between order and disorder, when to let mavericks bloom and when to rein them in.

No Spoon Feeding

Shakespeare is so powerful because he makes us think. Rather than offering pat answers, his plays present a variety of characters, showing both strengths and weaknesses and their response to different issues. We see what succeeds and what backfires and are left to draw our own conclusions.

Perhaps most important, we see problems that are similar to our own. But because they’re set in a different context, we’re able to think about our own dilemmas from a fresh perspective. Shakespeare helps strengthen our problem-solving muscle, which is crucial. On today’s business stage, there’s no set formula, no cookie-cutter model that will guarantee growth.

Writer: TJ Becker