What Shakespeare’s ‘Henry V’ Tells Us about Leadership, Motivation, Wooing and Hanging

Shakespeare

It has been described as one of the greatest battles of all time — the fight between Henry V of England and the French army on October 25, 1415, at Agincourt in northern France. Henry, whose goal was to reclaim English territory seized by France in earlier centuries, had approximately 6,000 men. The French army, depending on which historical report you read, had anywhere from 30,000 to 60,000 soldiers, many of them knights in armor prepared to fight on foot and on horseback. The English army had neither armor nor horses, and they were exhausted by their two-month trek across France trying to reach what was then the English port of Calais.

But they did have what turned out to be a decisive advantage — Henry V’s leadership skills and his ability to innovate in ways that would turn significant disadvantages into game-winning advantages. In addition, before the battle started, he delivered one of the most famous motivational speeches in history — at least as it is written in Shakespeare’s Henry V. The speech has been played on Allied ships crossing the English Channel to Normandy during World War II; in locker rooms by football coaches losing at half time, and on the Internet for U.S. soldiers about to leave for duty in Iraq.

Here is how Henry won: He stopped his army on a field that was flanked on either side by woodlands, thus forcing the French army to move forward through a narrow funnel and neutralizing their superior numbers. He took full advantage of a rainfall that had muddied the battlefield and that would prove disastrous for the armored French soldiers — when they slipped backwards wearing their 60-pound armor, they couldn’t hoist themselves back up; when they fell forward, they drowned in the mud.

In addition, rather than rely on the more traditional, easy-to-use crossbow, Henry chose the long bow, which could fire arrows more quickly and at greater range. The resulting hail of arrows killed French soldiers behind the front line, taking away urgently needed reinforcements. Henry armed his men with pikes a foot longer than those used by the French, allowing English soldiers in hand-to-hand combat to deliver the first, and usually lethal, blow. And, in what has been described as a last minute innovation, Henry planted sharp stakes in the ground just at the point of the battle’s engagement. The French army’s horses, rushing forward, were impaled on the stakes and fell to the ground, crushing soldiers around them and blocking the path forward for others.

When the fighting stopped after several hours, the French had lost about 6,000 men, and the English about 450.

Some version of this battle has been told in history books, in Shakespeare’s play and, two weeks ago, by Carol and Ken Adelman, founders of Movers & Shakespeares, which uses the world’s greatest playwright to teach modern management skills to executives. The Adelmans were at Wharton as part of a Wharton executive education program called “The Leadership Journey.” 

Carol Adelman is director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Prosperity where, among other things, she developed the annual Index of Global Philanthropy and Remittances. Ken Adelman is a former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and director of the U.S. Arms Control & Disarmament Agency during the Reagan administration.

The two started Movers & Shakespeares eight years ago because, as Carol noted during the course, William Shakespeare offers his audience exceptionally astute insights into human nature and has a genius for telling stories, which, she suggested, “is the best way to learn.” The downside to the bard, she added, is that the language can be tedious and hard to understand — something that comes as no surprise to high school students everywhere.

The Adelmans’ approach is to delve into the language and extract leadership lessons from Shakespeare’s plays. In this particular session, the focus was on Henry V, brought to life by a series of scenes from the 1989 movie starring Kenneth Branagh as Henry and Emma Thompson as the French princess Katharine. The class discussion centered on the battle scene, the motivation speech, Henry’s wooing of Katharine, the punishment meted out to a soldier caught stealing, and the conference between Henry V and the Archbishop of Canterbury before Henry sets sail for France.

This ‘Band of Brothers’

From the description of the battle at Agincourt, it’s clear that Henry V displayed remarkable leadership capabilities, said Ken Adelman. He led by example, situating himself in the middle of the fighting whereas the French king, Charles VI, stayed in Paris, leaving the army under the leadership of a group of nobles. “Henry was willing to innovate, recognizing, for example, the superiority of the long bow and making sure his men were well-trained in how to use it,” Adelman noted. Before Agincourt, the English army was 80% foot soldiers and 20% archers. After Agincourt, it was 20% foot soldiers and 80% archers.

Yet perhaps the English army’s biggest asset was the speech Henry made to his men just before going into battle, including the famous sentence, “All things are ready if our minds be so.” (The words are Shakespeare’s; the actual text of the speech does not exist.) Even before speaking, Henry walks among his troops listening to what they are saying and feeling, and then positions himself in their midst to deliver his address. By contrast, the French leaders (in the Branagh movie) are shown at the head of their army, uttering confident phrases unable to be heard by any of their soldiers.

Here are excerpts from Henry’s speech in the play:

“That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us…

Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.
This story shall the good man teach his son
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that shed his blood with me
Shall be my brother.”

“Henry painted a vision of what success looked like,” said Adelman. “He spoke of God, and never mentioned the word ‘defeat.’ He talked about children being proud of their fathers who fought in this battle. He said ‘we are a band of brothers’ and he is one of them. He connected to the mission and to the people.”

In addition, Adelman noted, Henry said he did not want one more man on his side because it would dilute the glory, and he told the troops that if any man didn’t want to fight, then he should feel free to go. Finally, Henry called out some of his key people “and said they would be household words.” In our workplaces today, Adelman told the class, “we can’t bring religion in but we can remind employees that we have a higher purpose, and we can communicate to them that vision.”

Legitimizing the Mission

Contrast Henry’s moving speech with a scene earlier in Henry V during which the young (age 28) newly crowned king asks the Archbishop of Canterbury a simple question: Does he, Henry, have the right to reclaim France? The response from the Archbishop is long-winded, meandering and almost impenetrable. An excerpt:

“Nor did the French possess the Salique land
Until four hundred one and twenty years
After defunction of King Pharamond,
Idly supposed the founder of this law;
Who died within the year of our redemption
Four hundred twenty-six; and Charles the Great
Subdued the Saxons, and did seat the French
Beyond the river Sala, in the year
Eight hundred five. Besides, their writers say,
King Pepin, which deposed Childeric,
Did, as heir general, being descended
Of Blithild, which was daughter to King Clothair….”

The speech continues in this vein until Henry finally is forced to repeat the question: “May I with right and conscience make this claim?” (The answer, eventually, is “yes.”) The Archbishop’s performance is not that different, Carol Adelman noted, from executive presentations that ramble; use obscure language, irrelevant facts, and charts and graphs that no one understands; and allude to unspoken subplots that hint at, rather than reveal, the meaning of the presenter’s words.

Indeed, the outcome of the discussion between Henry and the Archbishop had already been decided before the meeting took place. Based on earlier speeches in the play, it is known that the Archbishop will grant Henry the right to attack France because Henry had earlier agreed to stop a bill in Parliament that would have taxed the church and taken away half its land. We also know that Henry entered the discussion with the full support of the English nobles who had visions of plundering the land and riches of a defeated France. As for the king himself, he favored war in order to gain the respect of the English people and the nobles of the English court. But none of this is mentioned during the talk between Henry and the Archbishop, nor is there discussion of substantive questions, such as: Could England actually win? How many troops would be needed to secure that victory?

So why have the meeting at all? “For unity and affirmation from the church,” said Ken Adelman. “God gives Henry the right to invade France. The battle is legitimized.” Equally important, he added, is that “Henry has the last word, which provides further clarity and legitimization for the mission ahead.” As the king says: “Now are we well resolved; and, by God’s help, and yours, the noble sinews of our power, France being ours, we’ll bend it to our awe, or break it all to pieces….”

The question for the leadership course: Is this a good way to reach a major decision? Adelman’s response: “In my experience, this is the only way to go if you want to make a big change in your organization. You have to meet with all the interested parties before hand and get them behind you. You have to meet the specific interests of different groups before you can align the group behind the big goal.”

It’s true in business and also in politics, he noted. Adelman remembered attending a meeting called by the national security advisor (NSA) during the Reagan administration. The object was to debate SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative), an idea which Reagan had long championed. Indeed, the President had already spoken about SDI with all the relevant groups before the meeting even took place, and Adelman as well had been asked by the NSA to show his support. “So when it came time to agree on implementing the initiative, everybody present, including [Secretary of Defense] Caspar Weinberger and [Secretary of State] George Shultz, was on board,” said Adelman. And at the end of the very agreeable discussion, “Reagan looked around the room and said, ‘This has been a great meeting.’”

To Hang or Not to Hang

Henry V is full of other teachable moments, including a scene where Henry’s childhood friend and drinking companion, Bardolph, has been caught stealing a pewter chalice from a French church. Henry had ordered his men to refrain from pillaging French property or harming French civilians; anyone who disobeyed this order, he had stated, would be hung.

When Bardolph is captured by one of the English soldiers shortly before the battle and brought to Henry on horseback, tied up and badly beaten, the other soldiers look to their king to see whether he will order the death of his friend. The question for the executive education class becomes: What should Henry have done?

The “anti-hanging” advocates argue that the prisoner had already suffered a brutal beating, that the crime is relatively minor, that Bardolph had no chance to defend himself, and that the outmanned English army needs every soldier it can get for the upcoming battle. The “pro-hanging” advocates respond that the policy was clear, that the king wanted to convey a message to the French people that he would not tolerate the looting of their countryside, that the king should not compromise on core values (one of them being “don’t steal”), and that the king should not undermine his own aides, who were in favor of enforcing the policy.

Henry orders his friend to be hung. While CEOs these days are fortunately not able to hang employees who break a company’s code of conduct, Henry’s decision with regard to Bardolph raises questions about executive authority and the appropriate “punishment” for offenders. “The king may be more concerned with his own reputation” than with whether his decision was morally right or wrong, suggested Adelman, but he is a young king “who needs to show his toughness.”

Artful Wooing

The famous wooing scene in Henry V takes place in a royal palace in Paris during a meeting that is attended by Henry, the French king and queen, and princess Katharine, among others. Henry is negotiating what he insists on calling the “peace treaty” (to avoid humiliating the French with words like “surrender”) and has decided to woo Katharine to be his queen rather than merely order up the marriage, as he is allowed to do under the terms of the proposed treaty. Wooing was probably a good idea, said Adelman: “After all, Henry had just put her father out of business and killed 6,000 French soldiers.” Good communication and persuasion skills could help get this royal couple off on the right foot.

Excerpts from Henry’s wooing of Katharine (whom he is soon calling “Kate”) show just how astute a wooer he is:

“Fair Katharine, and most fair,
Will you vouchsafe to teach a soldier terms
Such as will enter at a lady’s ear
And plead his love-suit to her gentle heart?…

And while thou livest, dear Kate, take a fellow of plain and
uncoined constancy; for he perforce must do thee
right, because he hath not the gift to woo in other
places: for these fellows of infinite tongue, that
can rhyme themselves into ladies’ favours, they do
always reason themselves out again. What! a
speaker is but a prater; a rhyme is but a ballad. A
good leg will fall; a straight back will stoop; a
black beard will turn white; a curled pate will grow
bald; a fair face will wither; a full eye will wax
hollow: but a good heart, Kate, is the sun and the
moon; or, rather, the sun, and not the moon; for it
shines bright and never changes, but keeps his
course truly. If thou would have such a one, take
me; and take me, take a soldier; take a soldier,
take a king. And what sayest thou then to my love?
speak, my fair, and fairly, I pray thee….”

At one point, Katharine asks if it is possible that she could love an enemy of France. Henry replies:

“No; it is not possible you should love the enemy of
France, Kate: but, in loving me, you should love
the friend of France; for I love France so well that
I will not part with a village of it; I will have it
all mine: and, Kate, when France is mine and I am
yours, then yours is France and you are mine.”

At another point, Henry attempts to speak to Katharine — in French, despite his lack of fluency:

“I will tell thee in French; which I am
sure will hang upon my tongue like a new-married
wife about her husband’s neck, hardly to be shook….

When I come to woo ladies, I fright them. But, in faith,
Kate, the elder I wax, the better I shall appear:
my comfort is, that old age, that ill layer up of
beauty, can do no more, spoil upon my face: thou
hast me, if thou hast me, at the worst; and thou
shalt wear me, if thou wear me, better and better:
and therefore tell me, most fair Katharine, will you
have me?…

You have witchcraft in your lips, Kate: there is
more eloquence in a sugar touch of them than in the
tongues of the French council; and they should
sooner persuade Harry of England than a general
petition of monarchs. Here comes your father.”

The wooing scene, as Adelman and “The Leadership Journey” participants pointed out, was notable — and successful — for several reasons. Henry asked everyone to leave the room except for Katharine and her lady-in-waiting; he was a good listener and changed his speech based on what he heard from Katharine; he made himself vulnerable by stating that he was a great king and soldier but not very successful with women, and he said he would wear well in old age (alas, he died at age 34).

In addition, he converted himself from an enemy of France into a friend of France by saying he loved the country so much that he took it; he had a sense of humor; he was respectful and at several points, he even tried to speak Katharine’s native language despite an almost comical inability to do so. As Adelman pointed out: “He incentivized her. She was the princess of a deposed king, and she left the room as a queen of England and France. It was a career-enhancing move for her.”

Channeling Shakespeare on Your Own Stage

“By watching how historical figures behave in settings far before our time — in this case, looking at the characters Shakespeare brought to life in Henry V — we often get very good insights into what is vital in our own leadership or managerial moments,” says Michael Useem, co-director of “The Leadership Journey” and director of the Wharton Center for Leadership and Change Management. “We include Shakespeare in our range of learning experiences because it is one of the more indelible ways we have found of bringing points to life — in part because of the power of his insights and also because of the intrinsic elements of the stories he tells.”

If you are about to walk onto a stage at an offsite event, Useem adds, “looking at the language in Henry V will remind you to offer up the big purpose of why you are there and also to make it personal and motivational. For doing that, Henry V is about as good as it gets.”

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