The New York Times | Forsooth, Check This Consultant
By Doreen Carvajal
BALTIMORE - James G. Roche faced a retinue of mostly middle-aged engineers wearing clip-on identity cards and called for his rubber sword.
A ruby-studded cardboard crown rested askew on his thinning silver hair, and his loafers clashed with a royal robe of blue trimmed with fake ermine. But there was no awkwardness in his voice as he delivered a classic stemwinder: "The game's afoot: Follow your spirit; and upon this charge cry 'God for Harry! England and Saint George!'"
Reciting King Henry V's fabled rallying cry to his troops, Mr. Roche, president of Northrop Grumman's Electronic Sensors and Systems Sector, is the self-crowned leader of his own company's effort to imbue its top executives with management skills inspired by characters in Shakespeare's 400-year-old plays
Shakespeare's monarchs may have relied on the chopping block as the ultimate pink slip and pillage as an acceptable threat. But his timeless characters are taking on fresh appeal lately, inspiring a minor literary boom in new management books and prompting executives like Mr. Roche to rely on Shakespeare as a corporate consultant.
"We had some problems with the union, and their complaint was that the executives were wimpy; they didn't know how to manage people," explained Mr. Roche, a former Navy captain who likens Northrop, the No. 4 military contractor, to Henry V's outnumbered forces at the Battle of Agincourt. "So we came up with this idea of studying the strategy of war. War is hell, and we're at war."
Northrop's unlikely theatrical coaches are Kenneth L. Adelman, a former arms control director in the Reagan administration, and his wife, Carol, also a former Reagan administration official for the Agency for International Development. They travel much like medieval itinerant actors themselves. With a collection of costumes and scripts, they have created a company called Movers and Shakespeare, which offers leadership training and improptu playacting like this recent daylong retreat for two dozen Northrop executives. The session was jokingly referred to as "drive-by Shakespeare."
"Business revolves around people, and no one has either the depth of insights into people or the appeal to reveal those depths greater than Shakespeare," said Mr. Adelman, who acknowledges that some executives remain wary about such lessons because of the fear that they know little about Shakespeare or - O viper vile! - might be forced to don tights.
Mr. Adelman has also written a management guide, "Shakespeare in Charge," with Norman R. Augustine, a former chief executive of Lockheed Martin. The guide, published by Talk Miramax Books, an imprint of Hyperion, is just one title in an expanding collection of new business books that a Globe Theater view of mergers and acquisitions, public relations and productivity.
In the executive suite version of Shakespeare, Henry V is a flexible leader and a motivational speaker who exudes confidence and rallies his followers by masking private doubts. His treatment of errant followers is decisive (translation: executions), but he is also capable of great charm and humor during critical merger talks (translation: a marriage proposal for the anxious French princess, Katherine).
This year, Shakespeare and his characters have inspired at least three business books, with two on such a similar wavelength that they carry the same title: "Shakespeare on Management." A fourth also tentatively carried that name but is now scheduled for publication in June as "Power Plays." That book was co-written by Tina Packer, founder of the Massachusetts-based Shakespeare & Company theater, and John Whitney, a former president of Pathmark Supermarkets, who teaches a popular Columbia University business class on the same theme, In Search of the Perfect Prince.
The Shakespeare books reflect an even broader trend in business literature - seeking guidance from historical events or disasters that test the mettle of leaders. Viking, for instance, part of Penguin Putnam, is preparing to publish a management book next year called "The Shackleton Way," which explores the leadership skills and hiring strategies of the polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, whose expedition was trapped on drifting ice caps and survived for months on dwindling supplies and meals of seal blubber.
"It doesn't matter if the story is ancient or modern, the key thing is if it's gripping when leadership is on the line," said Michael Useem, a professor of management and director of the Center for Leadership and Change at the Wharton School and the author of "The Leadership Moment: Nine True Stories of Triumph and Disaster and Their Lessons for Us All" (Times Books).
"You can talk about the 12 great qualities of leadership and two hours later the students may not remember what was on the list," Mr. Useem said. "You've got to draw people into a story."
For the last two years, for instance, Mr. Useem has led a two-week management seminar in the Himalayas, at the base camp of Mount Everest, that costs each participant about $4,500 and is essentially an on-the-scene exploration of the leadership lessons culled from an Everest climbing disaster in May 1996 that left five people dead. Jon Krakauer's first-person account, "Into Thin Air," is required reading, and another survivor, Sandy Hill, was a guest speaker.
Northrop's daylong Shakespeare seminar was considerably more sedate, although some executives were wincing as Mr. Adelman showed movie snippets of the Battle of Agincourt with Kenneth Branagh playing King Henry in grunting, hand-to-hand combat as blood and mud mingled in a relentless scene of French and English soldiers clawing, grappling and hacking one another. The English waited for attack, using long-bow assaults to thin the rain-soaked French cavalry, whose shiny armor weighed them and their horses down in the mud. Sharpened stakes placed by the English forced the French into a funnel that blocked their retreat.
"What are the leadership traits that Harry shows here?" Mr. Adelman asked after the house lights flickered back on.
George E. Pickett, vice president for marketing and business, raised his hand. "Henry doesn't show any exhaustion," he said. "I think a great characteristic of his leadership is that he pushes himself as hard as his men."
Perhaps that is why Mr. Roche was the first seminar participant to don a gilded crown and emote, to the polite laughter of other executives. He also played George Washington when his executives took a leadership field trip to Valley Forge. And he assumed the roles of George Meade, the Union general, and Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, on trips to Gettysburg battlefield in Pennsylvania.
This strategy of leadership training by role-playing is a matter of necessity, Mr. Roche acknowledged during a break in the Shakespeare seminar. In 1996, Northrop Grumman acquired Westinghouse Electric's military electronics and systems business, which ultimately became the division that Mr. Roche now leads.
The company went through a long period of consolidation after the cold war ended. With the collapse in business, Mr. Roche said, a wide age gap developed between older executives who stayed and younger people hired more recently.
The battlefield tours and the Shakespeare crash course are part of a grander strategy to raise a new generation of executives to think more creatively and nimbly, Mr. Roche said. "It does feel like we're in a war," he said. "Remember, we're the little guy in the industry. And our strategy is to teach all our executives to think like chief executives."
The training sessions, Mr. Roche and other Northrop executives said, also helped to build cohesion among executives merged together by the Westinghouse acquisition. They acknowledged, though, that some participants were a little wary at first about what they were supposed to learn from ancient events.
When Northrop was vying earlier this year with the No. 3 military contractor, Raytheon, for a $1 billion contract to build a new radar system for the Navy's top fighter jet, the company informally nicknamed its effort Project Agincourt. For the Shakespeare-challenged, it also provided a Star Trek variation, referring to itself as the Federation and Raytheon as the Romulans.
Shortly after the Shakespeare seminar, however, Raytheon won the contract. Even so, some Northrop executives, like C. Lloyd Carpenter, the vice president for international operations in Mr. Roche's division, have since found themselves pondering what King Henry would do.
"Flying back from Europe, Harry came to mind," Mr. Carpenter said. "I found myself running through a mental checklist which turns out to be a combination of things derived from Henry V and the many battlefield staff rides we have taken."
What was the lesson? "Harry's placement of the sharpened stakes," Mr. Carpenter said, noting that the tactic "forced his competitor into a funnel-shaped area which caused their strength - mounted troops - to become gridlock and easy prey."