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Executive coaching from Shakespeare

Nigel Roberts
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Analysing the plays of the bard provides important clues to modern management.

Increasing numbers of companies are using the plays of Shakespeare as templates for change. The dilemmas of ancient kings and princes provide a fresh perspective on the challenges facing CEOs in the 21st century. ''Henry V’' is a case study in leadership and how to create loyalty. ''The Tempest’' offers a template on how to manage change without destroying the very thing you are trying to create. ''Julius Caesar’' provides an object lesson in how not to build a team.

All the challenges faced by today’s executive were anticipated by Shakespeare centuries ago, in short. When Henry V delivers his famous ''St. Crispin’s Day’' speech on the eve of the battle of Agincourt, for example, he is faced with a dilemma familiar to many managers: how to persuade a recalcitrant work force and untrustworthy middle managers to go into battle against world-class competition and put their lives – or, in today’s world, merely their jobs – on the line.

Exploring the characters created by Shakespeare can help 21st-century corporate managers perform better in part because it gives them a fresh perspective on their challenges which helps them to reframe their response to events. The other reason is that it provides a narrative that helps to communicate more effectively with their stakeholders. Don’t simply transmit information and hope it is received and understood. Weave that information into a story, and it is more likely to persuade people to behave the way you want them to.

Most companies fail to communicate effectively because they don’t tell their story effectively. As was observed by another playwright, George Bernard Shaw, ''The problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.'' Most companies generate a huge volume of internal and external communication with no way of knowing whether it has been received or understood. One client told me, ''We’re very good at cascading information down through the company, but, as a management team, we’ve never acquired the habit of listening. Listening and watching the lessons of Shakespeare has made me a better story teller and manager.''

Storytelling is the heart of communication. From the cave painters through Greek myth to the fiction factory of Hollywood, people have sought to make sense of their world by developing a compelling narrative. This serves not only to record where they have been but also to help work out where they want to go. No executive or organisation can afford to ignore the power of storytelling. No other narrative structure can move hearts and minds in the way that a well-crafted story can. Whether you are making a corporate presentation, holding a press conference, communicating strategy or leading your company in a competitive environment, stories help you engage your audience.

Stories are part of our collective unconscious. Psychologist Carl Jung argues that, in addition to our personal unconscious, a unique personalized psychic dumping ground for all our experiences, anxieties, neuroses and repressed thoughts, we all also share the same template in the form of archetypes, conceptual frameworks which help us understand and explain the world in which we live. The collective unconscious is rather like the operating system on our computer, and it is by exploring those archetypes in the plays of Shakespeare that corporate leaders can enhance their rational and analytical core competencies.

It’s not only individual executives who can benefit from lessons by the Bard, however. Companies have souls and personalities too, which are made up of rational, conscious processes and subconscious, archetypal cultural energy. Therefore Shakespeare can be used to improve the performance of teams.

It is a sad truth of corporate life that most mergers fail to deliver shareholder value. There is much talk of cost synergies, but these often fail to materialize because of cultural differences between the merging organizations, different personalities that clash and subvert the process.

''The Tempest’' is a good model to help reframe an organization’s approach to mergers and cultural change, and also to build more efficient teams. As a business case study, it operates on many different levels. Shakespeare provides Jungian insights into political and organizational dynamics. Prospero uses his ''rough magic,'' aka soft-leadership skills, to challenge and subvert his estranged brother and his court who wash up on the shores of his ''island of mystery,'' or a newly merged organization. You can chose your friends, but you are stuck with your family in the same way that many executives are stuck with an uncooperative management team after a merger.

The sheer volume of unfocused external communication in the corporate world calls to mind another Shakespearean quote: ''It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.''

Explore the characters and stories of Shakespeare, and I guarantee that your communication will mean something and give you '' ... a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.''

Now that’s something you won’t find in an email or a Power Point presentation.

Nigel Roberts is the London correspondent for Insead Knowledge.

Distributed by

NYT News Service

''The Tempest’' is a good model to help reframe an organization’s approach to mergers and cultural change, and also to build more efficient teams.

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