Can Shakespeare really be a useful management tool?

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The Independent Online

Last term an imaginative new management programme called Politics, Power and the Art of Influence was launched at the Said Business School, Oxford. Designed for experienced executives, it combines Shakespeare's history play, Julius Caesar, role play and modern management theory. Similar courses have been taught at other schools, including the Cranfield MBA course.

Shakespeare, in fact, is surprisingly popular among management teachers seeking the long view, particularly in the US. James O'Toole, a prominent critic of business school curricula, uses Shakespeare in his classes at the Aspen Institute. "It reaches these practical business people at a much deeper level than a mathematical formula does," he told Business Week. At New York's Stern School of Business, Professor Les Levi, with 20 years' experience as a Wall Street hedge fund manager, uses Henry V in his Managerial Ethics: Lessons from Literature and Film. "The idea is to let students see how literature and film connect with their experiences in real life," he says.

O'Toole's latest book Creating the Good Life: Aristotle's Guide to Getting It Right joins a large canon of management books yoking philosophers, authors, playwrights and even religious leaders to the cause of better business. Shakespeare on Management: Wise Business Counsel from the Bard (1992) by Jay M. Shafritz and Shakespeare in Charge (1999) by Norman Augustine and Kenneth Adelman are two examples.

There are those, however, who do not agree that using drama - and particularly the Bard - as a business application is always helpful. Among their number is Dr Thomas McGrath, who this term will teach a module on "Shakespeare and Management" as an MBA elective at Leicester School of Management.

Dr McGrath recently completed a PhD in the English Department at Leicester looking at the ways in which Shakespeare is used in management and leadership training. His module "examines the ways in which the work of Shakespeare has been used and may be used to "educate" and "develop" managers. It will allow students to critically assess traditional approaches and develop a greater understanding of how literary texts may enhance our understanding of management.

"Concepts such as the use of celebrity in marketing management ideas, as well as the implications involved in misappropriating and exploiting iconic figures, will be examined," the literature says.

Misappropriating? Exploiting? One might describe this as an unkind cut, but McGrath, 41, a freelance management consultant, is unrepentant. "People think that if Shakespeare knows so much about life and human nature, surely he must be able to teach us about management and leadership. But Shakespeare wasn't writing about real people, he was writing about fictitious characters," he says.

McGrath is particularly scornful about management writers who say they can transpose ideas about fictional characters into modern management techniques. "There are clear problems there," he says. "They are literary constructs. It's impoverishing management and it's impoverishing Shakespeare.

"The other thing is that Shakespeare was talking about a different type of management from what we have now - kings and queens, dukes and empires. We're simplifying Shakespeare. If two people go to see Macbeth tonight they'll come home with two different versions of the play. And how can you evaluate what someone has learnt on a course looking at Henry V, for example?

"Also, they get it wrong. Henry V is portrayed as the greatest leader. But the man tried to commit genocide in France. Shakespeare is taken out of context. These management gurus are looking at the wrong level. They want to look at the shop floor person, the whistle-blower, the fool in King Lear. They've got the answers."

McGrath's course fits well with Leicester's academic approach to the MBA. But Ron Emerson, director of the Oxford course, believes that a play such as Henry V is just the thing for top executives who need a new perspective on leadership.

"This is a session about looking at the play and its different acts, and how as time moves on the challenges that Henry faces change substantially. This is analogous to the problems all leaders face." He also makes the point that role play allows managers to face their problems more easily - "it takes them to a different place".

The Saïd programme has been developed with Olivier Mythodrama, led by Richard Olivier (son of Sir Laurence), who is involved in the teaching. He directed Henry V for the opening of the Globe Theatre in 1997.

"We find Shakespeare covers the human dilemmas of leadership better and more clearly than any other management of business course. The metaphor of kingship does work for modern leaders," Olivier says. "When we use Henry V we're not actually encouraging people to invade France but we find that managers enjoy engaging and learning from the metaphor.

"It's not about reading and analysing a text - it's about playing things out. When Henry tells his troops 'We are going to France' he's selling a vision. A modern leader also needs to sell a vision. If you use commitment and passion - which we can coach you to do - the chances are your people will listen more than if you use a Powerpoint demonstration.

According to Olivier, "Henry V has the answers because as a young man in Henry IV he spent time in the pub with some of the fools and the villains. He knows how to talk to them, which we also argue is a pretty good leadership trait."

BUSINESS AND THE BARD

Henry V on power (Act 4)

'Tis not the balm, the sceptre, and the ball, The sword, the mace, the crown imperial... Not all these, laid in bed majestical, Can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave Who with a body filled and vacant mind Gets him to rest, crammed with distressful bread.

And on battle (Act 3)

Then imitate the action of the tiger Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, Disguise fair nature with hard-favoured rage. Then lend the eye a terrible aspect.

Julius Caesar on his own importance (Act 3)

But I am constant as the Northern Star, Of whose true fixed and resting quality There is no fellow in the firmament. The skies are painted with unnumbered sparks; They are all fire, and every one doth shine; But there's but one in all doth hold his place.

And on decisions (Act 4)

There is a tide in the affairs of men Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; Omitted, all the voyage of their life Is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat, And we must take the current when it serves, Or lose our ventures.

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