The New York Times | Friends, Generals and Captains of Industry, Lend Me Your Ears

By Bruce Weber

QUEENSTOWN, Md. - The Air Force generals were hard on Brutus. The consensus was that he acted with deadly force when other avenues were open to him. He made a bad decision, they said - at least as it was portrayed by Shakespeare - to sanction and lead the conspiracy to murder Julius Caesar.

"Brutus is not an honorable man," said Lt. Gen. William R. Looney III, one of 20 or so senior Air Force officers and executives - mostly two and three-star generals and their civilian equivalents - gathered at the Aspen Institute for a daylong leadership seminar here. "He was a traitor. And he murdered someone in cold blood."

And though General Looney acknowledged that Brutus had the good of the republic in mind, Caesar was nonetheless his superior. "You have to understand," the general said. "Our ethos is to obey the chain of command."

During the last few years Shakespeare has assumed a prominent place in the management guru firmament, as business executives and trade-book writers looking for a novel way to advise corporate America have begun exploiting his wisdom for profitable ends.

And lately the United States military has signed up for Shakespeare's advice as well. For the last two years, the United States Air Force has contracted with Movers & Shakespeares, a company run by Kenneth L. Adelman, a Republican political consultant who is probably best known as having been President Ronald Reagan's chief adviser on arms control. Mr. Adelman and his wife, Carol, also a Reagan administration veteran, are amateur Shakespeare scholars and Shakespeare lovers and they have marshaled their avocation and their high-level contacts into a management-training business. They have been peddling their services since 1995 , and now conduct between 30 and 40 seminars annually, focusing on half a dozen different plays, mostly for corporate clients, but also for government agencies.

When James G. Roche, the former secretary of the Air Force (who stepped down on Jan. 20), suggested that the Adelmans' program would fit in with the Air Force's larger effort to hone preparation of its leaders, it was because the couple had run seminars for him between 1999 and 2001 when he was a vice president at Northrop Grumman.

"We found it paid off," said Mr. Roche, who dropped in on the afternoon session of the Caesar seminar here. "People can talk about some things more easily when they do it in the context of the play. So when I became secretary, I suggested we try it with our officers." (The Air Force pays the Adelmans $18,000 per session, a discount from their corporate rate of $24,000.)

The seminars all take the same format, focusing on a single play as a kind of case history, and using individual scenes as specific lessons. In "Julius Caesar," for example, Cassius's sly provocation of Brutus to take up arms against Caesar was the basis for a discussion of methods of team-building and grass-roots organizing. The dueling funeral orations provided grist for a debate about the relative merits of logic and passion in persuasive speechifying.

The programs do conform to certain familiar contours of management training; the day's final exercise always involves each participant reciting "what I learned" and "what I'll do." But the sessions also include clips from film versions of the play at hand; the Caesar seminar showed Marlon Brando beseeching "friends, Romans and countrymen" to lend him their ears, and John Gielgud as Caesar being gored by Robert Vaughn and mourned by Charlton Heston. In addition, the Adelmans travel with certain props, and throughout the day, otherwise dour military types were prompted to deliver text readings wearing Roman helmets and togas.

"We once got Rumsfeld to wear a robe and a crown," Mr. Adelman recalled. He was referring to an early seminar, attended by the current defense secretary , Donald H. Rumsfeld, who was also defense secretary in the late 1970's, when Mr. Adelman was his assistant. "Then it took us two days to get it off him."

Although neither of the Adelmans is academically trained in literature, the programs are well steeped in Shakespeare lore and background. Their "Henry V" seminar, for example, includes a helpful explication of Henry's winning strategy at the Battle of Agincourt. But they do come to the text with a few biases. Their reading of "Henry V" minimizes the cynicism of the protagonist and more or less excuses his abuse of power. Instead, they emphasize the story of a profligate youth who seizes opportunity and becomes a masterful leader, a paradigm, Mr. Adelman pointed out, for the life of the current president. And at the Caesar seminar, he had little good to say about Brutus, calling "the noblest Roman of them all" a ditherer, "the epitome of a fuzzy-headed academic."

Most of the participants candidly said that they had been initially skeptical. Several confessed with a laugh that they hadn't read Shakespeare since high school and didn't understand it then. But their reviews, for both the playwright and the professors, were positive.

"For me the discussions are very fruitful," said Maj. Gen. Paul J. Fletcher. "Not to mention that as a science guy, the arts was something I never had time for. The exposure is just terrific." Obviously he's been learning his lessons. It was General Fletcher who noted the relatively subtle point that Shakespeare wrote Brutus's funeral oration in prose, but Marc Antony's in iambic pentameter, prompting a plaintive groan from across the room: "I don't even know what iambic pentameter is."

Many of the participants pointed to very specific elements in the play that they felt to be pertinent to their military lives. Caesar's arrogance, which led to his murder, and Brutus's mistakes in leading the conspirators after the assassination, they said, raise crucial questions for anyone serving in a hierarchy: When and how do you resist the boss?

And it did not escape the notice of those in the room that the conspirators' hasty act of revolt failed to consider its aftermath, the lesson being that thorough planning, for any leader, is paramount. Those who would depose Caesar had, in effect, no exit strategy.

"As we have heard," said Roger Blanchard, the Air Force's assistant deputy chief of staff for personnel, paraphrasing a famous locution of his boss, Secretary Rumsfeld, "we don't know what we don't know - there are unknown unknowns."

This was about as close as the discussion ever got to current events, though at one point, a parallel between Brutus and the conspirators and the Bush administration was raised. If the conspirators were in the wrong for taking violent action without hard evidence but only on suspicion of the tyrant Caesar might become, in effect making a pre-emptive strike, couldn't the same argument be applied to the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq and the absence of weapons of mass destruction?

"The president had more evidence than Brutus did," replied Mr. Adelman, who had been an early advocate of the Iraq invasion."

Still, the notion catalyzed a rather fervent debate about the relative merits of Brutus and Antony. On the one hand, Brutus's ambivalence about the assassination undermined his judgment; and then, after the bloody deed was done, he made gaffe after gaffe. Why in the name of heaven did he let Marc Antony speak last at the funeral? And yes, Antony was a snake, but he was a great motivator and politician. He knew how to get things done.

In the end, a more philosophical discussion evolved about leadership itself, something the men and women in the room agreed was worth considering more often than they do.

"This idea of being a good leader," said Lt. Gen. John Corley, neatly summarizing the session, "does it mean that your heart is pure?"