“I’ve become more comfortable sharing and presenting in a large group," said Jack Longo, a junior double-majoring in English literature and economics. "Throughout the week, getting to know people improved the classroom experience and facilitated discussions. I found myself branching out and talking to new people over meals.”

Applying Shakespeare's leadership lessons to business and government

By the time the students returned to the Tempe campus, they were well-versed in the plots and themes of the two plays, had considered leadership from multiple perspectives and were ready to delve into the next layer of their experience: two days of study, activity and debate with Carol AdelmanCarol Adelman is a senior fellow and director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Prosperity, where she specializes in international development. and Ambassador Ken AdelmanKen Adelman was a U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency during the Reagan administration., of executive coaching team Movers & Shakespeares.  

Over the last 20 years, the Adelmans have used their unique experience working in high offices of the U.S. government — in both domestic and foreign affairs — paired with intensive study of Shakespeare, to coach a client roster that includes the Wharton School of Business, the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard's JFK School of Government, AT&T and Lockheed Martin.

According to Paul Carrese, the Adelmans’ program is effective because their government experience, paired with leadership expertise, contextualizes Shakespeare within real-life scenarios.  

“They shared their view that Shakespeare’s insights make sense of important leaders and situations they encountered in public service and can offer important lessons to ambitious young people today.” 

The Adelmans two-day curriculum highlighted important leadership themes by moving between film versions and text to focus on four distinct parts of "Henry V":

1. Henry's meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury, in which he seeks to legitimize his mission to reclaim France by gaining support from the church. The stakeholder consensus King Henry seeks, according to Ken Adelman, is imperative for making big decisions in contemporary business and politics. 

2. Henry's choice to punish his friend and drinking buddy, Bardolph, when he’s caught stealing a pewter chalice from a French church. By defying the King’s orders not to pillage, at the risk of punishment by hanging, Bardolph tests Henry’s resolve as disciplinarian.  

3. Henry's wooing of Katharine, in which he convinces the deposed princess to marry him and elevate herself to queen of England and France. According to the Adelmans, it’s not just Henry’s artful communication that wins Katharine over — though those skills are important for leaders to master. It is also the fact that he appeals to her own sense of ambition by offering her upward mobility, or, career advancement. 

4. The battle at Agincourt, wherein Henry leads his troops to victory — he loses hundreds of soldiers where the French army loses thousands — in spite of inadequate armor, impoverished troop numbers and unfamiliar terrain. Henry's strength as a general lies in his innovative military strategy. More important, though, is the St. Crispin's Day speech, in which he calls upon his "band of brothers" to join him in a war for glory that will make their names "household words." He ignites them, through camaraderie and a shared, noble purpose, to see the fight as an elite privelege and honor befitting only the best and bravest men in England. His rhetorical work here not only rouses his troops to battle, but convinces them they are legends in the making, a leadership strategy that unites contemporary employees and constituents just as successfully as it does medieval troops.

These points speak to human nature, which Shakespeare seems to get very right, time and time again.

Why Shakespeare now?

Even if someone has never read a Shakespeare play or sonnet, chances are they've encountered the influence of the Bard. Maybe they've seen "West Side Story" or "Strange Brew" or "Ten Things I Hate About You." Maybe they’ve uttered the phrase “kill ‘em with kindness,” or have told a knock-knock joke ("Knock knock!" "Who’s there?" is a line from "Macbeth.") 

To say that Shakespeare has had a lasting impression on contemporary Western culture would be an understatement.

But according to Paul Carrese, his insights about people are as important as his contributions to the lexicon: “Theories of leadership come and go, but if there are some constants to human nature and the institutions or associations we build, then Shakespeare's plays offer us a range of characters and scenarios, from villains to heroes, democrats to tyrants, peace to war.”

By the last day of the seminar, students were debating major leadership themes with confidence, deftly referencing poignant scenes from the plays to support their arguments about justice, motivation, honor and innovation.

Neil Ramesh, a sophomore majoring in economics, found the experience useful.

"My major is more quantitative, rather than thinking about deeper issues, so that’s been especially interesting," he said. "Reading into Shakespeare is something I wouldn’t regularly do. Even learning from the negative things that King Henry did is helpful."

The Adelmans' approach combines study of the text as written, and then as performed, noting that Shakespeare's ambiguity — whether intentional or not — complicates the narrative and allows for multiple, sometimes diametrically opposite interpretations. 

When asked whether Shakespeare intended for his plays to be molded and reimagined over time to fit present day circumstances, or if they should be approached as stable works with universal truths that stand the test of time, the class conversation shifted to other important texts left to interpretation, namely, the U.S. Constitution.

Student participant Cameron Vega proposed an originalist approach to Shakespeare, in which the work should be considered the same as it would have when it was written. He quoted Justice Antonin Scalia’s judicial philosophy in Supreme Court Cases as support for his argument.

Jack Longo, considering Vega's statement, commented, "I don't often find myself on the same side as Scalia, but in this case, I'd have to agree."

Asha Ramakumar, a sophomore majoring in business and global politics, said it is this kind of thoughtful consideration of opposing viewpoints that made the exercises from the Summer Leadership Seminar on Shakespeare valuable when thinking about governance. 

"I think it's incredibly important because too often there are jaded opinions about politics at the university level," Ramakumar said. "I would like to see more diverse people with more diverse opinions come together to bridge the partisan nature of modern politics."

Ty Fishkind

Communications specialist, School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership