Setting the stage for leadership

From Henry V to Hamlet, the intrigues of Shakespeare provide the perfect backdrop for modern-day leadership development.

There is a growing interest in learning opportunities that tap into works of literature and history, or use drama, music, acting and story telling to capture the imagination, and move beyond traditional approaches to learning.

A number of learning institutions in the U.S. have recognized the timeless lessons that can be learned from the great works of literature. Workshops and case studies have been developed based on works such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Machiavelli’s The Prince, and Homer’s Illiad. History has also been mined for leadership models. Elizabeth I has been the subject of a couple of recent books on leadership. Her story provides powerful lessons for the executive who has to manage multiple stakeholders.

Role play has long been recognized as a useful tool to help people rehearse and practice their responses to issues. During the 1980s, the City of Toronto ran a highly successful residential program called Kingswood. Focused on a mythical city, it posed human rights challenges to participants who assumed fictional characters and leadership roles within the city. Over the course of a week, they were required to stay in character and to interact with actors who played out scenarios that were likely to occur in the workplace. The program was life-changing for those who participated.

Sometimes leaders have to respond quickly and deal with the unexpected. The Second City, an improvisational comedy troupe, has worked with a number of organizations to help executives think on their feet.

Taking people outside their normal everyday context to examine issues of power, influence, vision and the creation of meaning allows them to reflect on major themes outside the distractions of their industry or business. Literature that has stood the test of time taps into universal themes that resonate today. These enduring works provide insight, depth and shades of subtle and complex meaning in the context of a compelling story.

The stories provide contemporary leaders with a way to explore the characteristics and the behaviour of effective leaders. They can consider the big picture view and see the consequences of the actions that a leader takes and the decisions he makes. Often the learning is about what doesn’t work, about the consequences of misguided or flawed leadership. The experience provides an opportunity to think more strategically, and to apply the learning back into the organizational context with a fresh viewpoint.

Above all others, the genius of Shakespeare, and his gift for storytelling, characterization and language makes his work particularly rich for study. He deals with universal themes that are still relevant in the 21st century. Hamlet struggles with dilemmas that address revenge, power, integrity and succession. “To be, or not to be” captures his decision-making quandaries. His mother, Gertrude, presents questions about her complicity in the murderous plot and her leadership role. The play provides a thought-provoking context for contemporary leaders who must also struggle with managing dilemmas and making sound decisions when everything seems to be falling apart.

Shakespeare’s Henry V faced the challenge of creating a vision, mission and strategy for England. The night before the battle with France, he goes in disguise among his troops to find out what they are thinking, and the next morning delivers a stirring speech to appeal to the hearts of his people. Contemporary leaders can discover insights into how they might listen to employees, communicate vision and purpose, and provide inspiration.

Using Shakespeare as a vehicle for examining leadership also provides an additional dimension because he is above all, a dramatist. The dramatic process creates a rich learning environment. Shakespeare’s plays provide an opportunity to act out and direct the scenes, and learn about and experience the dramatic process. There are parallels between an organizational leader who has to see the big picture, create and communicate a vision and align people behind it, and a theatrical director who must develop a vision of the play, communicate it and get a coherent and high quality performance from the actors. Playing “director” provides a safe way to experiment with different approaches.

Another challenge for contemporary leaders is how to exercise influence, especially in 21st century post-modern styles of leadership that have, at least in theory, moved away from the old command and control approach. So how can acting help leaders? Executives are often “on stage” in public settings. Learning how to create a presence when they walk into a room, or deliver a speech or presentation increases their impact. It develops a readiness in their audience to listen.

Leaders in training may need to get over that “butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling”, dry mouth, or stiff and stilted delivery when they have to speak in public. Or maybe they need to be able to deliver a charismatic and powerful speech to a large and influential audience.

Learning acting methods such as how to use one’s body, and acquiring the basics about the voice, projection, articulation, tone and conveying emotion are valuable lessons that people normally don’t have time to think about. Paying attention to the use of the body and voice can pay dividends in increasing the impact and influence of those in leadership positions.

But it needs to go beyond the physical aspects and speech-making. Actors have to be self-aware. To give an authentic performance, they need to find some part of the character they are playing within themselves. Leaders also need to be authentic if they are to be credible and influential.

Actors have to listen to other actors in thes scene — they have to play off each other. The acting experience requires participants to work closely together, to develop a shared purpose and approach and to be responsive to what others are doing. This provides another useful lesson for leaders about listening to others around them.

Effective leadership learning is about self-discovery and understanding others, and one’s impact on others. The question is whether or not self–discovery is best achieved through 360 degree feedback, an emotional intelligence quotient, a Myers Briggs profile or use of one of the many leadership self-assessment tools. Alternatively, is a thoughtful and shared consideration of the stories and characters created by authors like William Shakespeare, Joseph Conrad or Harriet Beecher Stowe more helpful? The answer probably lies somewhere in between. Both have something to contribute.

Consider the use of literature and drama to help organization’s leaders to think more strategically and understand the impact of their decisions, consider the use of literature and drama. And to deepen and sustain the learning, consider a theatrical or dramatic experience that involves the whole person. It will require participants not only to think and analyse, but to feel and move. The process is engaging and the learning can be much more intense, and long-lasting.

Felicity Somerset is a partner in Janus Global Consulting Inc., a Canadian international consulting company specializing in strategy, change and learning. Felicity can be reached at (416) 533-5353 ex.29, 1-800-767-8544, or

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