The New York Times | On Leadership: The Battle of Agincourt
By Harriet Rubin
James Dimon rediscovered Shakespeare shortly after he was fired from his job as president of Citigroup by the man who had been almost like a father to him, Sanford I. Weill.
As Mr. Dimon recounts it, he was invited to give a talk at Columbia Business School to students who had been studying power and succession using "King Lear." Mr. Dimon said he learned that afternoon in 1998 that in that play Shakespeare had written a case study that eerily predicted his dismissal from Citigroup and the rise and fall of Charles O. Prince III, who got the top job at Citigroup that once seemed likely to go to Mr. Dimon.
In an interview this week, as reporters were pressing him to discuss why his current employer, JPMorgan Chase, has so far weathered the subprime storm better than its rivals, Mr. Dimon took time out to acknowledge Shakespeare's lessons.
"In tough times like these, you see more of the good and more of the bad in people," Mr. Dimon said. "You can go for a long time and be fooled by people's behavior, but Shakespeare gives you insights that help you understand the people you are dealing with.
"I don't relate what's happening so much to the market as to how people behave. You want to know that in the foxhole with you is a person of good character, that they have a true north. Shakespeare is even better than Freud in showing you the characters you are dealing with."
Shakespeare has been a staple of management training for a long time. But only in the last few years have programs been started that use Shakespeare's works to teach chief executives the vulnerabilities to which the powerful are susceptible.
"C.E.O.'s are the modern kings and queens of the global world," says Kevin Coleman, a Shakespearean actor who dramatizes for chief executives how a mistake made in the global economy might have vast and unintended consequences.
Ken Adelman, a former Reagan administration official, and his wife, Carol, have been dressing managers in Elizabethan costumes since the 1990s. Senior executives have been increasingly joining the classes and re-enacting the speech in which Henry V urges his "band of brothers" to fight to the death. In 2002, Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass., became the new home of the Radcliffe-affiliated Arden Institute and offers quarterly seminars that analyze the moral actions of leaders. The Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Va., has had a sideline in management coaching in conjunction with the Federal Executive Institute, but is tailoring its newest programs to leadership development.
David Rothkopf, the co-founder of a consulting firm that helps chief executives manage risks, said that character was "more crucial now than ever because past performance is no indicator of future performance." He added: "Experience falls away and all you're left with is character. That's the master insight of Shakespeare and a necessary insight because the higher a person rises, the less likely that someone's going to call him on his flaws."
Stephen Greenblatt, a professor of Renaissance literature and an expert in Shakespeare at Harvard, said that "Henry V" appeals to chief executives not because there are four or five management principles to be made of his career. "'Henry V' is actually a play about the necessity of betraying your friends at court, and dealing with the cost of that," Professor Greenblatt said. "Studying the consequences of these actions makes powerful people more richly human."
Mr. Coleman said he noticed the chief executives in a recent audience grow pale as he played the role of Hamlet confronted by the ghost of his father.
"The ghost demands, 'if you love me you will avenge my murder.'" The C.E.O.'s told him, Mr. Coleman said: "'This is the dilemma we face: what is our responsibility to shareholders, to employees, to clients?' It became an emotional discussion. C.E.O.'s who have to be so certain, so in control, were asking, 'What do I do as a person? Where does my loyalty and my sense of love and justice lie?'"
Chuck Schwager, chief executive of the Polaris Healthcare Corporation in Boston, said he had a conversion experience at a lecture on Shakespeare and power at Arden and became a part-time actor. "There are sensitivities about power that Shakespeare knew better than I did, and I wanted to find out what those were," Mr. Schwager said.
Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, said that Shakespeare was the last writer who lived at a socially fluid time that permitted him to work in close proximity both to kings and queens and to working people. He grasped the psyche of power, Mr. Gioia said.
"Corporations tend to be run by very ambitious and focused men and women," Mr. Gioia added. "They are not likely to be people who have learned the human truths that art teaches best. The higher you get in corporate life, the more you need the truths you get from Shakespeare, which point you in directions rather than provide you pat answers. We remember truths more vividly when they are embodied in a story."
Shakespeare was fascinated by the art of leadership, Professor Greenblatt said, and used his insight to found and lead London's most profitable theater.
It is Shakespeare's very human language, says Ralph Alan Cohen, director of the Blackfriars, that helps contemporary leaders keep things honest. "Shakespeare's language is not old English. It's young English. It has all its hormones and is full of life. Organizations try to hide the force of human truth in every kind of Latinate term we can find, like 're-engineering' or 'Six Sigma.' Shakespeare empowers people to trust their own language, not the bureaucratic line."
James Fugitte, the chief executive of the Wind Energy Corporation, a start-up company, said the plays' language gave him insight into power. Mr. Fugitte said he was handed the leadership of a bank in Lexington, Ky., at age 27 and discovered that mastering the intricacies of portfolio management was not enough. "I learned the hard reality that people don't always tell the truth, they welch out on deals and don't repay loans."
To grasp human motivation, Mr. Fugitte said he started reading Shakespeare. That, he said, is when he realized that he, too, was not all he seemed, hardly the commanding leader: "I have the banker's habit of trying to avoid chaos. I don't let myself completely out. I feel like I've got to have a reserve against the next emergency."
To put himself in a fresh mind-set, he memorized the speeches of Falstaff, the king of amiable chaos, who keeps nothing in reserve. " 'A plague on all cowards,' Falstaff shouts. He's out there and that's what I need to do, to get beyond the impulse to analyze, control everything and stop it from happening.
"It's a Falstaffian world. When I began my career, there was a scarcity of capital. Now there's an abundance of capital." Falstaff, he added, "C'est moi."
Mr. Coleman, the actor, said that no other author "has as great a hold on our psyches." Shakespeare, he added, is "the operating system in our brains, always there, quietly humming." Of the top 10 books on almost all high school reading lists, 4 are usually by Shakespeare, and the others, like "A Separate Peace" or "To Kill a Mockingbird," are inspired by Shakespeare, Mr. Coleman added. "He becomes the voice of authority. Whatever you do, he'll haunt you for the rest of your life."