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B-school lessons from the Bard
- Shakespeare’s heroes held up as corporate world models

In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man

As modest stillness and humility:

But when the blast of war blows in our ears,

Then imitate the action of the tiger…

That’s Shakespeare, the management guru.

That’s also King Henry V in Shakespeare’s play charging his countrymen up on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, in which the tiny English army licked the gigantic French one.

The battle took place in 1415 and the play, Henry V, was written in 1599 — to become an important case study in B-schools around the world circa 2003.

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Richard Olivier, son of the late Laurence Olivier — arguably, Britain’s finest stage actor — and an actor himself, says Henry V has an answer to all these.

It was the king’s rousing speech and his battle strategy in the name of God that won the English the day.

He says that overcoming obstructions, weathering the “dark night of the soul”, inspiring the troops and achieving victory in the face of overwhelming odds, Shakespeare’s hero offers a unique insight into the ways of leadership.

Olivier, a visiting fellow at the Cranfield School of Management, has made a regular profession of teaching Henry V at business schools and corporate houses in the UK. He has also created a repertory called Olivier Mythodrama Associates to enact Shakespeare — Henry V mainly and some others — in business schools.

Olivier has written a book: Inspirational Leadership: Henry V and the Muse of Fire.

Columbia University, US, also offers business courses based on Shakespeare’s works.

In India, too, at least one business school teaches Shakespeare. The Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, offers an elective course in its post-graduate programme, titled ‘Leadership, Vision, Meaning, Reality’. It features a number of Shakespeare’s plays — Othello, Richard II, Richard III and Henry V — as models of corporate behaviour.

S. Manikutty, who conducts the course, says: “I teach ‘Othello’ as a model of portraying innocence and intrigue in the organisation.”

“Literature is like a long case and when the students analyse it, they get to understand people and the various facets of interpersonal relationships,” says Leena Chatterjee, of the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta (IIMC).

Be it a lecture on leadership or managing conflict, Chatterjee draws heavily from literature in her behavioural science compulsory course in the first year of the two-year MBA programme.

“It stimulates interest and poses a creative challenge for the students. Some of them find it difficult, but they like it.”

Stimulation can take many forms, even anti-establishment. “We don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control” — this anti-authority anthem of Pink Floyd spices up behavioural science lectures.

So does Upamanyu Chatterjee’s novel English, August as a case study to drive home the point of “occupational dilemma” facing young executives.

“In the West, people use Shakespeare to drive home various issues like leadership and how a leader should actually lead from the front. Along the same lines, I use Kautilya’s Arthashastra to discuss how a leader should define vision for his organisation,” explains Panduranga Bhatta of IIMC.

If there is Henry V elsewhere, Bhatta talks about Kalidas’ Meghdoot in his optional course on management, culture and creativity offered in the second year.

Focusing on the importance of imagination in the marketplace, “where ideas seem to matter most in developing new products and services”, he uses Kalidas’ works. He even organises management development programmes for working executives by drawing examples from ancient Indian literature.

At IIMA, Manikutty admits to using Henry V the most, but he also teaches films and plays — mostly contemporary versions of classics — that are built around a powerful character, a hero, maybe eccentric, failed, or even successful, but someone with a vision, because in the corridors of power, as everywhere else, it is important to have a mind of your own.

So there is the film version of Don Quixote and of George Bernard Shaw’s play Saint Joan. There is also Shyam Benegal’s film on Gandhi, The Making of Mahatma, and Girish Karnad’s play Tughlaq.

At IIM Bangalore, two elective courses conducted by R. Narayanswami stress on the performing arts, not so much on literature. Narayanswami believes management is a performing art, and he wants to build an interface between the two disciplines.

The wicked might say there is more than an interface by citing Othello, Shakespeare’s tragedy of jealousy about the man who “loved not wisely but too well”. Surely, Iago, the man who manipulates both Othello and Desdemona, is a familiar figure in many organisations.

If not Iago-like, villains of different demeanour are not hard to find in this season of the decline and fall of the mighty CEOs.

But until they crumple, bosses will always be searching for the inspirational high. In management it’s not enough to say “come on guys”. That’s why Henry V:

Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,

Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;

Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;

Let it pry through the portage of the head

Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it

As fearfully as doth a galled rock

O’erhang and jutty his confounded base,

Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean.

All it means is pummel the competition.

With inputs from Devadeep Purohit

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