Henry V leads businessmen unto the breach

December 7, 2001

A CEO in search of excellence should avoid the insipid management books in airport bookstores and turn to Shakespeare - so Richard Olivier believes. Huw Richards reports.

" We few, we happy few, we band of brothers
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother be he ne'er so vile
This day shall gentle his condition
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day
"

Few words in the English language have greater resonance than the king's speech before Agincourt in Shakespeare's Henry V , impressed upon the national consciousness by generations of English teachers preparing pupils for examinations and, perhaps most of all, by Laurence Olivier's declamation in the 1944 film of the play.

Rather more recently, they could be heard in the conference room of a hotel at Cheadle near Manchester, spoken to an audience composed largely of senior public-sector managers and staff from Manchester Business School. The speaker wore a collar and tie rather than armour, and his tone was one of a man reasoning and cajoling rather than the regal exhortation seen in the film.

This was not a play, film or rehearsal, but a key moment towards the end of a day school on Henry V as a means of learning the skills, techniques and, most important, the mental outlook necessary for inspirational leadership, led by Richard Olivier. (The answer to the obvious question is "yes, his son.")

Olivier has been running training sessions based on Henry V and other Shakespeare plays for the past five years. His thoughts are also available in a book: Inspirational Leadership : Henry V and the Muse of Fire .

He is too honest to deny that his name is an asset. There is an undoubted frisson in seeing the son of Britain's most famous actor delivering a course based on arguably his father's most memorable performance. But when Olivier started, Shakespeare was not exactly a selling point: "Quite a few people said they didn't want to have anything more to do with Shakespeare after their experiences at school, but attitudes seem to be changing."

The juxtaposition of celebrity, literature and management has had some dubious byproducts - speaker circuits burgeoning with the famous peddling alleged insights based on their own success, airport bookshelves groaning with volumes drawing lessons of variable relevance from literature or history. It can be only a matter of time before Management Secrets of Harry Potter hits the shelves.

Olivier now devotes himself full-time to his company, Olivier Mythodrama Associates. His only continuing theatrical connection is as an adviser to the Globe Theatre. He is a long way from such quick-buckery. He points out that in putting together his programmes, he draws on a mix of mythology, psychology and organisational development, as well as the skills from his time as a theatre director.

He can point to a long list of hard-headed customers, including Manchester Business School's innovative North West Change Centre. John Arnold, director of MBS, said: "We do look out for different and interesting ways of teaching, but there are no gimmicks (here). We would use something such as this only where it fits in with already established academic interests and standards." Olivier's sessions are endorsed by the Industrial Society's Campaign for Leadership.

Olivier's work is based on the theory of indirect learning - that "people are far likelier to remember something they have learnt indirectly through a story than through looking at a graph full of statistics". Always intrigued by mythology, Olivier concluded a few years ago that myths and stories are ideal for teaching about leadership.

His sessions vary in length from one hour to five days, and his repertoire includes four plays. Alternatives to " Henry V : Inspirational Leadership " are " Julius Caesar : Emotional and Political Intelligence ", " Hamlet : Managing the Edge of Chaos " and " The Tempest : The Art of Leading Change ".

The Henry V session is the most in demand. For it, Olivier draws on a personal knowledge deepened by directing the play, with Mark Rylance in the lead, as the Globe's opening production in 1997. "It was one time when I was conscious of following directly in my father's footsteps," he recalls.

Of its relevance, Olivier says: "It is a play about leadership. It is the only one of Shakespeare's 36 plays that has a successful leader as its main character, someone who is in a position of power where he has to manage people, resources and budgets in pursuit of a big project."

The session at Cheadle was introduced by Ian Lawson, chief executive of the Campaign for Leadership, who explains how leadership differs from management. He said management is about "systems, implementation and quality", while leadership is about people, "inspiration, passion and emotion - the things that capture people's imaginations and hearts. Leadership gives meaning to process". Leadership is not a matter of position, Lawson asserts. "An organisation can put you in a management position, but only followers can anoint a leader. It is up to them whether they put in the extra 'discretionary effort' of people who have been inspired by a purpose."

Olivier opens the course by talking the audience through the play, explaining Henry's "journey" through becoming king, securing his position at home, embarking on the invasion of France, suffering initial setbacks and then overcoming self-doubt to inspire his army to victory at Agincourt before seeking to ensure the future by marrying the daughter of the king of France.

Direct quotations are used judiciously - Olivier's performance of the 50-line Saint Crispin's Day speech was, by some margin, the longest direct quotation of the day - and parallels are drawn between Henry's world and that of the modern leader, with his leading nobles described as "his senior management team" and the archbishop of Canterbury and bishop of Ely acting as "internal strategy consultants".

Participants are asked to imagine "What is your France?" - their cherished project - and divided into groups to discuss the questions arising from the dilemmas that Henry faces at different stages of his journey.

Questions are at the centre of the process. Olivier argues against a problem-solving style of leadership, saying that understanding in a modern context comes from "managing dilemmas" and the ability to cope with uncertainty. "We artists have been insecure for 400 years - now it is your turn," Olivier tells participants.

Questions also define the precise shape of the session. While pointing out that one of a theatre director's essential skills is the ability to keep a play fresh during a long run of performances, Olivier says the variety of questions in the sessions helps to ensure that he never gets bored even if he spends 200 days a year working on Henry V . "The questions are never the same, and there is no shortage of them."

Participants go through various exercises, in teams or individually, aimed at bringing out leadership skills and styles. At times, the play provides the framework for discussion, at others just a starting point from which issues spin out - such as dealing with varieties of dissent in a team or coping with one's own emotions and self-doubt. Kath Hamblen, a participant from the Department for Work and Pensions, commented that: "I did not know how it would go, but I was particularly impressed by how seamless it was."

For those whose image of Henry V is framed by the martial hectoring of Olivier the father, perhaps the most striking insight from the son's approach is the variety of leadership styles Henry adopts to achieve his aims - approaches he defines as "warrior", "medicine woman", "earth mother" and "wise king". Each has strengths and weaknesses - the nurturing earth mother can become over-protective and smothering of colleagues; the creative medicine woman can become a chronic source of instability. Although any individual will prefer some styles to other, the best leaders can use - and know when not to use - all four.

Olivier argues that this approach will generate leaders who are much more flexible, aware and responsive to the needs of their colleagues, their organisations and society as a whole than many current leaders. "We badly need something more community-minded and sustainable," he says.

Hamblen has no doubt that her day has been "relevant and meaningful. Metaphors and stories are an excellent way of inspiring the imagination and different ways of looking at things."

And if the lunchtime conversation was any guide, Olivier may also be helping his former profession: "If people say 'I must go and see Henry V performed', that is the icing on the cake."

Inspirational Leadership : Henry V and the Muse of Fire is published by The Industrial Society, £16.99.

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