The Shakespeare MBA



What CEOs can learn from the Shakespeare MBA

For some, 1969 may well have been the summer of love, but for me it was the autumn of Shakespeare.

I was a fourth former at a fine old grammar school in the West Midlands that had always attracted wonderful teaching talent and lucky for me that included Geoffrey Paxton, the Head of Drama.

Geoffrey was following up a corking production of Macbeth with what proved to be a highly controversial merger of the two parts of Henry IV. In a less than promising début, I was cast as a spear carrying soldier, messenger and general dogsbody lurking in the background as the Percy clan and their allies fermented rebellion against the usurper-King of the title.

One of the disadvantages about being a spear-carrier was that I ended up on stage most of the time, and consequently had no defences against the text being permanently registered on my subconscious.

And what a text it was!

The Henry IV plays are brilliant fusions of high politics and low comedy, history, melodrama, tragedy and farce. The story features a neurotic king tortured by guilt, surrounded by perfumed courtiers and valiant war leaders manipulated by opportunistic barons, and in Prince Hal, the definitive young prince at risk of falling off the straight and narrow into the clutches of the drunkards and thieves of Eastcheap.

When valiant rebel Harry Hotspur finally meets Prince Hal on the battlefield at Shrewsbury for the confrontation that has been building throughout Part One, Hal tells Hotspur

‘Two stars keep not their motion to one sphere,

Nor can one England brook a double reign

Of Harry Percy and the Prince of Wales’

Henry 4.1, Act 5 Sc4

Nor can it, because in the dramatic hand-to-hand combat, Hotspur is killed and Prince Hal’s apprenticeship in leadership takes a step in a positive direction, at least for now.

Much later in my own career when I had long since swopped spear carrying for sharpening the propositions of famous brands, the parallels between Shakespeare’s dramas and the corporate cultures where I worked and lurked became ever more evident. Many of Shakespeare’s plays are fascinating case histories in leadership and feature characters confronted and conflicted by choices and dilemmas just like today’s CEOs. The texts of the plays are a wonderful cache of best practice, stashed with coaching tips and business counsel.

April 23, 2016 is the quincentenary of Shakespeare’s death and there will be many celebrations of his profound impact upon the world : Ever the spear carrier, I would like to offer The Shakespeare MBA as my small tribute. I hope you will find its observations to be insightful and the precepts to be inspiring.

Meanwhile, in Walsall in 1969, back in the autumn of Shakespeare, I can hear the Earl of Warwick on a loop inside my head:

There is a history in all men’s lives.

Figuring the natures of the times deceased,

The which observed, a man may prophesy,

With a near aim, of the main chance of things

As yet not come to life, who in their seeds

And weak beginnings lie intreasured’

H4.2 Act 3 Sc1

If you have a favourite play, character or quotation that should included in the Shakespeare MBA, please do share it.