What Shakespeare can teach us about transformational leadership

To transform or not to transform. That is the question, says Christian Jerusalem.

by Christian Jerusalem
Last Updated: 20 Aug 2020

As the world commemorates the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, it’s still grappling with the same issues that dominated his day - rapid economic change, religious strife and large movements of populations. Several of Shakespeare’s greatest works examine how leaders responded to these conditions. Despite the passage of time, they reveal similar patterns to those seen in today's volatile business environment.

Richard III believed he had a divine right to rule, even if he had little sense of direction and was prone to losing touch with reality. The sin of such leaders is hubris. IBM was almost destroyed by it in the 1980s, while Richard Fuld’s overconfidence caused the downfall of Lehman Brothers in 2008. Richard’s successor, Henry IV, was autocratic, paranoid and insisted on driving strategy through the sheer force of his personality. Such leaders often suffer from the blindness that comes from being right often enough and cannot be swayed from disastrous courses of action such as HP’s takeover of Autonomy.

Only one, Henry V, embraced risk and succeeded against overwhelming odds. How did he do it? Henry inspired his exhausted and outnumbered troops and led them in one of the most astonishing turnarounds in military history at Agincourt. In Shakespeare’s portrayal of him, he emerges as the hero king.

Henry flung an army of 8,000 tired and hungry foot soldiers against a fresh, heavily-armoured force of 30,000 French horsemen. That might have appeared to be a hopeless gamble, but he had mapped out a clear strategy well ahead of time and chose his ground carefully to maximize the advantage of the technology he had at his disposal – the longbow – which could cause havoc among the French cavalry in the waterlogged battlefield.

But it wasn’t just in numbers or equipment that the two armies differed. These were two organisations with totally different talent profiles. Warfare in France was dominated by a feudal cavalry elite, supported by (often foreign) mercenaries. Vanquished nobles wouldn’t be killed, but rather ransomed back to their families for huge sums of money. This had long been a profitable ‘business model’, preserving the social order. But it left France with a dangerously shallow talent pool, and at Agincourt it proved fatal.

The disruption came in the form of the English ‘middle class’ yeomanry, whose prowess with the longbow was such that the 5,000 archers Henry took to the field could fire 40,000 arrows per minute. Crucially, he allowed them to attack the French nobility rather than saving them for ransom. This shattered the convention that ‘ordinary’ soldiers would ever attack knights and caused a loss of life from which the French nobility would take years to recover.

The longbow on its own wasn’t enough – it was an enabling technology, but it required a catalyst in the form of enough skilled archers to translate that potential into something sufficiently potent to build an entire strategy around. Then, as now, it was the combination of the right idea around the right technology at the right time that was decisive in forming his truly disruptive business model.

How to transform your business, Henry V style

Today we see only a few high-performing companies taking the necessary risks to transform as Henry did. GE's Jeff Immelt is a rare example of a leader willing to take bold steps, as he pivots the company from an old industrial warhorse into a nimble data-based digital business.

To achieve transformational change, leaders – whether they’re a CEO or an absolute monarch - need to tap into their teams’ deepest motivations. The night before the battle, Shakespeare portrays Henry following a time-honored management process: 1) assess the situation, 2) align the team, and 3) accelerate their performance with the promise of rewards, while warning of the consequences of failure.

He assessed the situation by walking in disguise from tent to tent to gather information about the mood of his army. He aligned the team and accelerated performance by promising glory – ‘but he'll remember, with advantages, what feats he did that day’ – and rebuking those who didn't want to fight – ‘he which hath no stomach to this fight, let him depart; his passport shall be made ... we would not die in that man's company that fears his fellowship to die with us.’

Like Henry before Agincourt, those that manage change today need to mobilise their teams with a compelling purpose and simple strategic priorities, but they also need to execute their strategy by harnessing all the resources at their disposal and transform their business by experimenting and innovating to keep ahead of the market.

None of these will be enough without agility. Above all, this means spotting opportunities and threats, and pivoting faster than your competitors (or indeed, 30,000 French horsemen) to create a real competitive advantage.

Christian Jerusalem is the managing partner Europe for Heidrick & Struggles’ Leadership Consulting Practice. 


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