Why Shakespeare’s Henry V is Relevant in Today’s Leadership

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Quite sometime back I had written an article on “Why Shakespeare is still relevant in today’s business”. I must confess that I was deeply influenced by Prof Richard Oliver, during my sojourn at Oxford University on an academic course.  He showed to me the innate leadership qualities of Henry V and how it bloomed through the journey of this famous play. In this article I will make an attempt to bring Henry’s leadership to the readers with its relevance to modern business management. 

Act 1 of the play deals with Vision to Commitment
It sets the scene, assesses the past, vision of the future and shows Henry building consent around his mission and then visibly committing to it.

Those of us who have seen this drama will remember that the chorus asks for “a muse of fire” that will help us move beyond “the brightest heaven of invention”. It is indeed a call for the imagination and compels the audience not to sit passively but to engage their creative faculties.

There is a similar move happening in the world of business today. We need people at all levels in organisations to be creative, imaginative, and adaptive, not to wait for instructions.

In the first scene we are reminded of the recent Civil Wars and the chequered past of the new king (Henry 5). However, it comes to light that at the moment of his father’ s death, “consideration like an angel came and whipped the offending Adam out of him,” and since then he has acted like a model king. Henry has a challenge to prove that he has a claim to the throne of France.

The transition into leadership is difficult to achieve smoothly and effectively, particularly if you are surrounded by people who you have known for a long time. If you don’t take the time to assess where you have come from, and where you are now, you may have to struggle hard to find out where to go. New leaders can usefully seek a worthwhile project on which to cut their teeth and prove themselves.

Now in the drama we see Henry himself, meeting with his nobles to muster support for his proposed mission to reclaim the territory of France. He will not go unless it can be proved he has the “right to go”. Henry has sent a message to King Charles of France asking him if he will give up his throne. The French Ambassador arrived 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 with an accompanying message that Henry had better stick to the trivial pursuits he is capable of winning. Henry feels insulted and makes a visible and firm commitment to pursue the mission to France.

In starting any big project - especially our first project as a leader - we need to seek sound advice and make sure that it is “right” to go ahead. This “right” is granted internally and externally. Internally we can use “a line of service’’ to draw strength from. We need a certain amount of political intelligence to win the external right, for preparing our senior management to take a risk. We will also be required to be demonstrational and show a visible commitment to pursue the project in hand. If people around us think we are not totally behind the new initiative, it will probably fail.

Act 2 of the play deals with Traitors and other bad habits. In this Act 
Henry endeavours to gather and allocate his available resources and identify and deal appropriately with those who oppose the mission before it has even started, especially the traitors. We see in this play that three traitors have been paid by the French to kill Henry before he can set sail.

In any major project a leader should be able to identify the forces ranged for and against him. A leader also needs to be clear about how they are going to deal with their old friends and whether those friends have a place around the top table. It is also necessary for a leader, on an inner level, to know his/her “appetite”, old habits and behaviours that could stand in the way of success. 

Henry enters, walking with the traitors, seemingly unaware of their intentions. He plays a game with them before revealing he knows of their treachery. They are sentenced to death.

Sometimes a good leader has to be a good actor. We may have to hide certain knowledge from some people at certain times. We may also have to disguise our intention from the traitors and critics. They exist in most organisations. It is very important for the leader to correctly identify them and deal with them appropriately. Emotion must not become an impediment in dealing with these people.

Act 3 of the drama delves into battle, first footholds and first setbacks
 This act sees Henry taking the first step into France, interfacing the first block to success, overcoming them, staging a strategic withdrawal and ending up surrounded by a vastly superior force, to whom he is asked to surrender or die. Henry starts with a reasonable plan and makes a rousing speech to his exhausted troops.

However grand the mission and vision, they must be a practical place to start. When things get stuck – especially when it is not the troop’s fault - an effective leader will have to speak passionately and imaginatively to motivate them through the blocks.

As the drama progresses, we observe that the next attack seems to make a difference, for the governor of Harfleur asks for a peace parley. Henry warns that if the town is not surrendered now he will be unable to control his troop’s anger. The town will be destroyed and people get abused and killed.  The governor surrenders the town. Henry insists that all the inhabitants be treated mercifully. He changes his 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 a picture and revises his strategy on the ground. Nor does he admit failure and simply retreat to England. He finds a third way, a strategic withdrawal.

Managers have to solve problems, leaders have to manage dilemmas; complex issues with no happy solution. They will be required to balance justice against mercy and truth against loyalty many times. When any seriously important project has a crisis, a point at which it seems impossible for the originally desired outcome to happen, this is the time where leaders meet the real test. They will need to call on their skills to hold a line that will give their people enough confidence to carry on.

Act 4 of the play takes us to the “Dark night of the Soul”
 It shows Henry going through the long dark night before the battle, encountering his own fears and duties before being able to inspire his troops to an apparently miraculous victory against the odds. At the wee hours, Henry walks around visiting all his troops inspiring them. He does this because it is required of him. He exercises visible leadership seen by others and he sees them, thus bolstering their confidence.

Leaders need to allow themselves to enter the “dark night of the soul” and face their own innermost fears and doubts and uncertainties, especially in a crisis and before they make a decision that affects the lives of others. If they don’t, they may make wrong decisions for wrong reasons. There is a point in most meaningful projects where we are forced to ask ourselves, “Is this the Right thing to do? Am I the right person to do it?” 

In these times a leader will have to manage his own fears and the fears of others simultaneously. Most leaders wish that they get through their careers without having to take any tough decisions. In reality, very few get their wish. There is usually a situation in which one’s own innocence dies – in which we are forced to compromise the values on which we prided ourselves when we started our journey into leadership. It is the ability to take these hard decisions and live with the consequences that separates the unique leader among leaders.

In Act 5, we observe that, Henry is encouraged to make peace with the French King and turn the battlefield into a garden. He attempts to court Princess Katherine but realises he has much to learn about building relationships before the political imperative becomes heartfelt reality.

In modern times, many leaders have got where they are because of their ability to fight and win. But in many real life cases this may not be enough as the world of business is evolving. We may have to consolidate our position, keep on enhancing our competitive advantage– protect the market share, rather than look for the next target. If the leader never takes the “armour” off and builds real and lasting relationships the work may eventually lose its meaning. 

I will conclude by remembering what Richard Oliver said, “it is never too late to adapt our habitual styles. The older we get the longer it takes to unleash, but if we find the motivation we all have boundless potential”.

The writer is a Member in the Board of Directors of Standard Chartered Bank Nepal Ltd. But the views expressed in this article are his personal and do not necessarily represent those of his institution.

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