Richard Smith on learning leadership from Henry V

Richard SmithLast week I was privileged to hear a brilliant talk—by Nicholas Janni—on what Henry V or rather Shakespeare has to teach us about leadership.

Prince Harry was, as most people know, a dissolute youth, hanging out with drunks, pimps, whores, and undesirables with the great Falstaff chief among them. But when his father, Henry IV, dies he turns away from those scoundrels. “I know thee not, old man,” he tells Falstaff: “Presume not that I’m the thing that I was.”

Once he is king Henry needs a mission, a great cause—and that mission is to conquer France not for wealth or for aggrandisement (although we may be skeptical) but for “honour,” something very important in the 15th century and not well understood in the 21st (except perhaps by the Mafia).

Janni, a coach to chief executives around the world, is keen to promote what the Greeks called “mythos” as opposed to “logos.” We live in a world where logos—business plans, strategies, and accountants—are dominant, and we must rediscover mythos, the world of myth and imagination. “Imagination,” said Einstein, “is more important than knowledge”: it shows us what can not simply what is.” Studying Henry V allows us to enter the world of imagination and inspiration—“Oh for a Muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.”

To be an effective leader you must look into your soul to understand your values and what is most important for you. You need “space to be with yourself,” perhaps through reading, walking, or listening to music. “Unto thine own self be true,” says Shakespeare in Hamlet, and very crucially leaders must examine the overlap between their values and their work. The more overlap the better, and it’s almost impossible for leaders to be effective if there is little overlap. You will be seen to be a fake. (I’ve experienced doing jobs where there was little overlap, and I couldn’t keep going.)

The test of Henry V’s leadership came at Agincourt—in Act IV. His invasion of France had been a failure. Having got bogged down at Harfleur, lost 2000 of 6000 men, and run into winter, Henry and his army are retreating to Calais when they meet the French army, which has 10 times as many men. The French offer Henry a choice: a substantial fine and a safe passage to England or a battle and certain death.

Henry choses a battle, and at 3 in the morning he walks among his troops as they can hear the French already celebrating the next day’s slaughter. He is fearful, but he cannot show it. He must show a brave, fearless face to his troops, whom he calls not colleagues but “brothers, friend, and countrymen.” This, says Janni, shows the importance of “visible leadership,” being there when times are tough and giving your troops what they need.

Next Henry meets privately with Gloucester. To him he can express his fears. Every leader needs a Gloucester, somebody to whom everything can be said—not to advise them but to be there, to listen, and to provide support.

Then Henry is called to a meeting, but first he must prepare himself. He must be alone. “I and my bosom must debate a while.” He must listen to his head and his heart in this “dark night of the soul.”

Another lesson in leadership is the importance of listening to the troops. Henry goes in disguise and joins four ordinary soldiers sat around a fire. They think that they are going to die, that it’s Henry’s fault, and that he will get away while they die. In other words, he can’t be trusted. These are hard things for a leader to hear, but leaders need to know the truth of what their troops are thinking. But they also need to be resilient, recognising that they cannot always be liked.

 (At this stage I thought of Gordon Brown, somebody of whom many had such hopes but who has disappointed most. The coming election looks like his Agincourt in that he is facing near certain defeat and a massacre of his troops. Does he know what his troops are thinking? Is his “resilience” to be admired or deplored? Will he manage a St Crispin’s Day speech?)

Next Henry lets it all hang out. In one of the longest soliloquies Shakespeare wrote he expresses all the miseries of being a leader: “We must bear all. O hard condition.” This release is important for leadership.

Finally, Henry launches into his great St Crispian’s Day speech, connecting himself and his troops to his and their core values. He has overheard Westmoreland wishing they had more troops, and this gives him the theme of his speech. He connects troops with their core values not by listing them but by appealing to their imagination, asking them to imagine themselves years from now in a pub reveling in the glory of having been at Agincourt, showing their scars to those who are jealous that they were not there.

“If we are marked to die, we are enow To do our country loss; and if to live The fewer the men, the greater share of honour….He that outlives this day, and comes safe home, Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named, And rouse him at the name of Crispian…From this day to the ending of the world, But we in it shall be remembered; We few, we very happy few, we band of brothers.”

What leader would not love a Shakespeare to write his speech and an Olivier to deliver it for him.