Wharton@Work | Shakespeare on Leadership

At the battle of Agincourt on October 25, 1415, the young English King Henry V faced extraordinary odds. To make his claim as ruler of France, Henry had crossed the channel to Calais with 10,000 men. In his first battle at Harfleur, he lost 4,000 men. The French army pursued him, with 30,000 to 60,000 men (or more), well armored, well fed, and well rested, with a strong cavalry. Henry chose to stand his ground with his 6,000 men at Agincourt and prevailed against the odds - primarily through his clever strategy and force of leadership.

During a recent session of Wharton's The Leadership Journey: Creating and Developing Your Leadership program, executives considered the lessons from William Shakespeare's play Henry V. Why study Shakespeare? While some managers may be put off by the language of Shakespeare's plays ("It's Greek to me," as the Bard would say), there are three reasons to use Shakespeare to study leadership. First, he offers a window into human nature. Second, he tells the best stories, and stories are critical to leadership. Third, he is a master of language, and leaders need to be effective communicators.

"To be a great leader, you have to understand people," said Carol Adelman, who led the session with her husband Ken, founders of Movers & Shakespeares. After distinguished careers in government service, they have conducted sessions on Shakespeare and leadership in diverse business, educational, and government organizations.

Building Coalitions

The opening scene of the Wharton session could have been a modern business meeting. A bureaucrat drones on about an obscure legal principle while participants in the meeting stare blankly. In a meeting with the king and English noblemen, the archbishop of Canterbury presents the argument for Henry's right to govern France. With little discussion, Henry makes his decision to go into battle.

But before this meeting, Henry astutely had aligned the interests of all the major players. For the nobles, the conquest of France offered access to rich resources and plunder. The clergy, by offering a religious justification for the invasion, gained the king's support to kill a pending bill in Parliament that would have taken half of church lands and imposed heavy fines. The king himself saw the French campaign as a chance to demonstrate his leadership, secure his hold on the English throne, and make his indelible mark on history. None of these issues is discussed during the meeting, but the work in building coalitions was done beforehand. The meeting is a formality that ensures that everyone has bought into the plan. "It can be a very costly mistake if you don't do this kind of consensus building," said Ken Adelman.

Rising to the Challenge of Leadership

Taking up the mantle of leadership changes the leader and all his relationships. Prince Hal was known for his drinking with friends Falstaff and Bardolph. But when he took the crown as King Henry V, he needed to rise to this new role. At his coronation, he brushed aside Falstaff ("Get thee gone, old man.") During his campaign in France, Henry faced a more severe test. Because he hoped to rule France peacefully after the war, Henry had told his soldiers that the penalty for rape and pillaging during the campaign would be death. When his old friend Bardolph was brought to him after taking a pewter goblet from a church, Henry had to choose between his past friendship and his new authority. Henry gave the nod to hang him.

"What we saw here is holding people to certain standards, holding them accountable," said Ken Adelman. "How much should organizations hold people accountable to zero tolerance?"

Attaining a position of senior leadership often changes the leader. US administration leaders expected little change when Anwar Sadat came to power in Egypt. Similarly, Mikhail Gorbachev, a career communist leader in the Soviet Union, and F.W. de Klerk, a proponent of Apartheid in South Africa, were expected to make few changes before they came to power. The world was surprised.

"All three leaders were in their organizations, but when they got to a position of leadership, they changed. They were no longer cogs in the wheel. They were the wheel now," said Carol Adelman. "Henry had to learn to be the boss and handle a supervisory role."

Strategy and Motivation

The triumph at Agincourt was a testament to Henry's strategy and his ability to motivate his followers. Henry's military strategy turned the strengths of his opponents into weaknesses. The size of the French army meant nothing on the narrow battlefield Henry chose at Agincourt, fringed by thick forests on both sides. Only a small portion of the French could face the British at a given time. The superior French horses and armor were a liability on the muddy battlefield, and Henry erected a set of sharpened stakes to drive the horses back. Henry also lengthened his lances and shifted most of his forces to the longbow. These archers, with a range of three football stadiums, could fire tens of thousands of arrows every minute into the advancing French, killing them before they reached the English lines. By the end of the battle, there were 6,000 French dead and only about 475 English casualties. "Henry shaped the battlefield himself," said Ken Adelman.

Even so, before the battle began, Henry's men were overwhelmed by the odds against them. They knew their young king had lost 40 percent of his army at Harfleur. As the king, in disguise, walked through the camp the night before the battle, he heard the grumbling. The next day, on the eve of the battle, Henry made his famous St. Crispin's Day speech. He told the men that they did not want more men here to share the glory of their victory. He said they would all be remembered as heroes on this day. He appealed to their camaraderie, as a "band of brothers." At the end, Henry asked one of the primary doubters if he still wished to have more reinforcements. The nobleman replied, "You and I alone can win this." Henry connected them to a higher mission but also appealed to their own egos and desire for glory.

"He expresses passion, emotion, and total confidence," said Carol Adelman. "He recognizes the people he works with by name and paints a picture of the future, how they will be showing their scars from this battle years later. And he puts himself right there with them as a band of brothers."

Henry V offers many other lessons, including how to win over a new partner after a hostile takeover (as he does with the French princess, Katherine). While the stories and plays are hundreds of years old, the leadership challenges are the same ones that are faced by leaders in every age.

"Shakespeare speaks the language of leadership," said Carol Adelman. "When you have a crisis, you can't just stand behind the podium. You need to think about language to inspire people."

Back to All