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Henry V, the 15th-century CEO

by Richard Olivier
Originally published for The Sunday Times
Read original article here

I had recently finished directing Mark Rylance as Henry V for the opening season of Shakespeare’s Globe in London in 1997. The production had been a success, and Mark had played Hal brilliantly. Still, weeks after the final curtain had fallen, I found myself continuing to be preoccupied by thoughts around leadership: what it takes to lead; what it really takes to be a leader. 

I wanted to work with modern-day business leaders, drawing on my experience in theatre. I kept coming back to the play, Henry V. But how could a 16th-century story about a 15th-century leader tell us anything about 21st-century leadership? Well, as it turned out, it could. In lots of ways. 

Stories are how we understand the world around us. When we think back across our lives, we do so in narrative terms: a beginning, middle and end, with various themes and significant acts cropping up along the way. 

When we plan for the future we do so in much the same fashion, by plotting our narrative arc. So, in theory, any story well-told can teach us a lot. The best stories can do more than just teach, they can inspire. And who better to tell those stories than Shakespeare? A man who is so good at narrative that he has managed to inspire every generation that’s encountered him with the profound and enduring human wisdom coded into his plays. 

Finally, there’s this particular play. And Hal. As I turned it over in my mind, it became clear to me that Henry V was no mere play. It was also a case study, a stunning, “mythic” case study of inspirational leadership, with each act revealing different, and significant, facets of the overarching theme. 

We all know the basic plot: a young king ascends the throne. His kingdom is divided by complex internal rifts and threatened externally by its closest neighbours, the French. Somehow he overcomes all obstacles, unites his nation and vanquishes the enemy. 

The analogy for business is clear. He’s a new leader, brought in to an organisation rife with problems, a failing company. Somehow he unites his team around a common goal, seeing off his closest competitor. And if we consider the play in more detail, we can find out how he does it . 

In the prologue, Shakespeare reminds us of the need for imagination — “O for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention . . . ” — an enduring requirement for leaders. 

Beyond this call for creativity, the first act looks to assessing the past, and then creating an ambitious goal for the future, combining the mission (what we are going to do) with an inspired vision (why we are going to do it) — a mixture of the deeply creative and the deeply practical. 

Having built consensus around a goal, Henry sets out to reclaim the lost territory of France. In the second act Henry manages old friends, including his wayward drinking buddy, Falstaff, and new enemies. He allocates resources and deals with traitors, rooting out the bad apples among his top-line managers. 

Act 3 moves us from preparation to action. War. And, as many of us may remember from our own early skirmishes, it does not go well. Henry’s men get stuck at their first foothold, the fortified town of Harfleur. 

Here Henry has to exhibit clear influencing skills; first to motivate his own troops (“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more”) and then to paint a compellingly negative picture of what might happen to the besieged governor of Harfleur. 

He is victorious. The town surrenders. But with winter coming apace, Henry decides on a strategic retreat to Calais, with the French gathering a huge force of mercenaries to chase after him. In the fourth act, Henry’s 8,000 exhausted troops are surrounded by 40,000 French, and the young king is faced with a stark choice: give up, or fight a seemingly unwinnable battle. 

This dilemma sends Henry into emotional turmoil. Here, as is the case with every responsible leader, he enters a dark night of the soul. He manages both the need for a “royal face” (to be seen not to be afraid “out there”) and to find time for private truth, before steadying himself for the biggest decision of his life. Somehow, he musters enough courage, or meaning, to continue. 

He believes in the fight himself, and can now authentically reinspire his troops to fight, even against the odds (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”). As we all know, he and his army win a near miraculous victory in the battle of Agincourt. 

But the fight is far from over when the killing is done: we are reminded of the need to “turn the battlefield into a garden”. Short-term goals are by their nature fleeting, so Henry builds a platform for sustainable success, negotiating a peace treaty and a marriage to the French princess, Katherine, ensuring he is legal heir to the throne of France. 

These questions of legacy prove fascinating to the modern leaders of the multinationals and Fortune 500 companies that my colleagues and I have worked with “mythodramatically” over the years. How is the world going to be a better place after your time is over? In a world of ever- increasing performance-pressure (a constant battlefield) how can you create space to build your garden, effecting a lasting and positive change? 

The whole play is a guide to big project management, but it is also about personal development. Henry goes through his own change as he prepares for leadership — from playboy prince to inspirational king — and to achieve this change he seeks out what we would now call his individual sense of purpose: what really gets him up in the morning with a smile on his face to be leader of UK plc. 

Far too many leaders, in my experience, are treated (and often treat themselves) as functional automatons rather than purposeful human beings. This story wakes up leaders to the need to bring their souls to work — the only way to ensure that you are “the right person, in the right place, doing the right thing”. 

In the 21st century we are in a transitional time. Many of the old assumptions and stories we have lived with no longer serve us. So what new relationships, what new visions, what stories do we need to take us into a more inspired and sustainable future? 

You need look no further.


Richard Olivier 

Awarded Thought Leader 2013 by the Best Practice Institute, Richard Olivier is Artistic Director and founder of Olivier Mythodrama. He works internationally as a leadership development consultant and was a guest speaker at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2003 & 2009. He was a leading theatre director for over 10 years and directed Henry V for the opening of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in 1997. Richard is the creator of Mythodrama, an Associate Fellow of Said Business School, University of Oxford, a Fellow of the Findhorn Foundation and author of “Inspirational Leadership - Henry V and the Muse of Fire”. Richard will be joining Jonathan Dawson and Phyllida Hanckock for the short course, New Economics, New World - a Mythodrama Journey.

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