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Bard Comes to the Boardroom

The Play's the Thing, as Seminars and Books Use Works of Shakespeare to Give Corporate Executives Lessons on Leadership and Business Strategy


Ken Adelman prepares his audience--a roomful of middle-aged managers in the motorcycle industry, many wearing riding boots and a few dressed in leather--and promptly cues the video clip of "Henry V."

The executives, squeezed in a hotel banquet room in Costa Mesa, are transported back some 500 years and listen carefully as Henry rallies his fatigued, outnumbered and desperate army into taking on the French at the Battle of Agincourt. By the time he is finished, the young king's soldiers are not only committed to fight, they are certain they will win, and members of the Motorcycle Industry Council are wondering how they can make the stemwinder work for them.

They quickly list critical elements of the fabled speech: the king's passion, his willingness to fight alongside his troops, his ability to make them see victory in the future.

"This is the perfect example of how you can boost morale and motivate workers to embrace your company's vision," said Adelman, an English professor who with his wife, Carol, a former Reagan administration official, have helped build a movement of businesses and academics using Shakespeare in management. "If we look closely at Henry's speech, we can learn from his techniques and his language of leadership."

He goes on to quote: "And gentlemen in England now a-bed shall think themselves accursed they were not here."

"He's telling them they are part of something big," Adelman said. "He even convinces them that they don't need to wait for more manpower because then they would just have to share the glory when they win."

Drawing lessons from the bard may be the latest approach in polishing management skills. Companies are increasingly using offbeat training such as the Adelmans' Movers & Shakespeares to motivate employees and introduce them to a learning environment that, unlike traditional lectures, they are likely to remember.

The Adelmans of Arlington, Va., latched on to the idea three years ago, when they held a workshop for public relations executives on "lying and truth-telling" and drew the audience into the presentation by having them "act out" the works of Shakespeare. The response was so overwhelmingly positive, the couple said, that they decided to do what King Henry V would have done: They took a chance.

"It's much safer to get Colin Powell as a speaker at your corporate training sessions than it is to put your employees on the stage in fussy costumes," said Ken Adelman, a Shakespeare buff who has served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. "We knew it was a risk, but we also knew we wanted to really go for it."

For $10,000 to $20,000 a session, companies as varied as AT&T, Ocean Spray and Northrop Grumman have hired the Adelmans to bring the bard into the boardroom.

The concept has inspired others to consider Shakespeare as a corporate consultant. A handful of books have been published about the author's monarchs and their connection to the modern workplace. And several universities, including Columbia University's master of business administration program, have launched classes solely on management strategy using Shakespeare.

Richard Olivier, son of the late actor Sir Laurence Olivier, also has focused on Shakespearean drama at the Cranfield School of Management in London, where he is a visiting fellow. Olivier is also the director of the Globe Theatre in London.

"Shakespeare has great lessons for managers who must lead amid continuous change," Olivier said in Fast Company magazine. "People have to be more imaginative and more flexible than ever before, and ways of learning need to become more creative as well. That's where arts-based learning comes in."

Such lessons are given to students in the MBA program at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School each semester, when they are visited by the Adelmans and the Movers & Shakespeares workshop. Management professor Michael Useem said the Shakespeare theme is effective because of its fresh approach to a tired lesson and the way it draws in the audience on an emotional and intellectual level.

"I get so many guests who can't relate to these tough-minded students, but [the Adelmans] have an animated, energetic style that's impossible to ignore," Useem said. "And the message has tremendous staying power. Shakespeare's work translates directly into what happens in the corporate battleground today."

To imagine how his students will benefit from the Adelmans' program, Useem looks into the future: They are working for a company that is about to acquire a smaller one. As top managers, they are responsible for integrating this new work force into the existing one. How will they motivate these employees--many of whom may not want to be there--to trust their new company and support its goals and mission? How will they get the new workers to do what they want them to do?

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