"Once more unto the breach, dear friends..."
Has any mind brooded so long and so deeply on the subject of leadership as Shakespeare?
From Henry V to Titus Andronicus, Richard III to Anthony and Cleopatra, Hamlet to Macbeth - Shakespeare dissected and mapped the psyches of some of the most complex, dynamic, and fascinating leaders that history and literature have given us.
Research from some of the world’s top business schools shows how these highly sophisticated maps of leadership that Shakespeare plotted – can be orientated on contemporary challenges – and help today’s leaders navigate to success.
Joseph L Badaracco Jr., Professor of Business Ethics at Harvard Business School said: “Think of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. You could learn as much about leadership from that play as you would from reading any business book or academic journal.”
The supreme longevity of Shakespeare’s characters is remarkable – and the reasons for his continued relevance to our lives over four hundred years later are manifold. Importantly, Shakespeare understood and wrote about people from every walk of life. The struggles his characters faced were universal and highly applicable to the world we live in today – crucially, to the world of contemporary business.
Business can gain a communication advantage by learning from the great story-teller. Richard Olivier’s consultancy work on mythodrama is anchored in the knowledge that: “Every academic, consultant, coach, teacher and parent, understands the power of story. Telling stories is part of human nature and a fundamental way that human beings learn. A story has the potential to bring complex patterns and relationships alive.” Shakespeare’s leaders, often great story-tellers themselves, give us plenty of examples on the art of persuasion, negotiation, crisis management, and of course, in truly energising motivational speaking.
While leading a team turn of phrase and articulacy really counts. Having a great idea is one thing, but putting it into the right words is what inspires people to make it happen. “Shakespeare has a perfect ear,” says Ralph Allen Cohen, executive director and director of education at Shenandoah Shakespeare’s American Shakespeare Center. “He caught the rhythms of speech; he was able to hear and imitate.”
Warren Bennis, the distinguished professor of business at the University of Southern California, notes The Complete Works of Shakespeare is ‘the best read’ on Leadership and Change there is. He says, “At least read Henry IV, parts one and two, for a vision of heroic leadership. …. Courage is getting people to march behind your ideas.”
Shakespeare’s innate understanding of human behaviour allows him to “wield the scalpel” – as Professor. James Shapiro of Columbia University puts it – and explore how leaders interact; how they recognize threats, build consensus, alliances, leverage power, and strike up coalitions.
Great leadership transcends time. Many of the fatal flaws of Shakespeare’s most famous protagonists are the very same befalling leaders in boardrooms, offices and sales floors across the working world. Similarly the charisma, the wit, the strength of mind, diplomacy and compassion which helps those that succeed in Shakespeare’s plays succeed – can be the same virtues which make up a great leader today.
"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother”
As Professor Shapiro suggests – Shakespeare’s works are an incredibly rich and, “under mined” lode of leadership knowledge.