Learning Management: The Shakespeare Way by Prof. Arindam Banerjee

Shakespeare way

The backdrop provided a picturesque setting. The ninth-floor conference hall provided a panoramic view of the Mumbai backwaters. The fragrance of lavender wafted through the hall and ably complemented the aroma of the steaming coffee provided; the ambience was stimulating and refreshing, though nine in the morning might have been too early to discuss the hackneyed issues that were on the agenda. Mr. Rahul, Managing Director of one of the leading Indian corporate giants, was keen to take the previous evening’s unsettled debate to a logical end. “So what do you say, Mr. Bose, still confident about your proposal?”, remarked Mr. Rahul.

“Yes, I am as confident as I was yesterday; if Harvard, Wharton, Northrop Grumman Corporation and AT&T could do it successfully, we too can initiate the process. It is high time that corporate lessons be taken from the works of Shakespeare.”

Mrs. Sharma, Head of the Training and Development wing of the company, broke the momentary silence. She exclaimed, “You mean to say, there is enough relevance of the Shakespearian classics with the modern-day management lessons. Well, even if we do consider that, how is it going to benefit our employees? It’s not getting into my head; Mr. Bose, can you please elaborate on this a little further, before we proceed?”

“Sure, why not?”, continued Mr. Bose. “Examples are numerous. But before going into details, one ought to understand the need and importance of this innovative approach towards corporate training. With a positive mindset, one can do wonders. We must understand that people can learn more about management strategies by reading great literature than from dry management books and attending such programs. Writings of Shakespeare provide great insights into compassion and what makes people do what they do. Most of Shakespeare’s plays find their origin in understanding human motivation. To cite examples, leadership is the very essence of Henry V, which Macbeth is all about organisational politics that is quite analogous to the vice president’s aspiration to take over the president’s job. One can compare the strings of events, the scheming and plotting that goes on in a boardroom to ‘kill’ the president. Take any of Shakespeare’s plays and set them in a modern corporation, and you’ll realise that Shakespeare had more insight than just about anybody else. Let us look at the battle at Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC) when Al Flood was the CEO, and there were two people aspiring for his job, both of whom backstabbed him. Our own example of Y Chandrasekhar of BPL Telecommunication fame should not be left far behind. Don’t you think, these are simple re-runs of Julius Caesar? If fights at the upper level management is concerned in Julius Caesar, then why leave aside Henry V, a play written way back in 1600 which picturises the best contemporary thinking about leadership skills. Well, Shakespeare knew it all. So, gentlemen, what do you say?” This time, the silence was prolonged, as the idea was sinking into the minds of those in the hall, and they began to seriously look at what was being said.

“Go ahead, Mr. Bose”, quipped Mr. Rahul.

Shuffling through some of the papers, Mr. Bose resumed. Sipping on the coffee mug, he continued. “Thank you gentleman, let me take you to the various aspects of management lessons learnt from Shakespeare which would work wonders. During the events, we will discuss about Shakespeare on leadership, change management, developing business strategies, handling crises and managing risk in the corporate setting.” After a brief pause, he continued. One could see from the passion in his presentation, that he had done enough homework and would surely have the last laugh. Today, most business executives lack the time for Shakespeare or specifically the training to understand his archaic language. But, at the same time, the growing number of similar executives and managers realise that the time spent on the works of the literary genius is worth the investment, and at the same time is unpredictably exciting. Business leaders have found that Shakespeare’s plays provide enthralling explorations of power play that remains as relevant today as it was during the early 1600s. The lessons that they teach are usually effective in today’s tough corporate scenario. An initial look at Shakespeare’s plays might project images woven in the web of mysteries, ugly witches and beautiful prince and princesses. The very word ‘management’ is all about conjuring up the brand images that are woven in the mysterious web of pricing and promoting, ugly wars between companies and beautiful brand ambassadors.” Mr. Bose passed for surveying the impact his speech had on his captured audience.

“Well, Mr. Bose”, interrupted Mrs. Sharma, “all this seems to be exciting, but do the age-old Shakespeare and the modern-day management really gel well with each other?”

“Why not madam, since both deal with people, and fundamentally, people do not change. Thus, we can say that the essence of business is remarkably constant with some cosmetic changes brought in. The outfits might have witnessed certain changes in the form of technology but the basics still rest on the human aspects. At the same time, let me say that not all businesses recapitulate Shakespeare’s tragedies; nor do all have a happy ending as the Bard’s comedies. Success comes through crossing of hurdles that managers need to encounter, understanding the intensity of the situations and then handling them as rightly quoted by Rosalind in As You Like It. “How full of briers in this working day world.” Well, a proper study of Shakespeare’s works can teach managers how to sustain the “working day world” and overcome the “briers”. His works provide fascinating insights into the human relationships as between the boss and the subordinate, the customer and his client and among colleagues, to mention a few. The various works of Shakespeare provide the different roles the human beings performs – leader, manager, communicator and customer. Nestor’s example from the play, “Troilus and Cressida” provides a perfect example of those executives who keep on repeating the same thing until their clients get irritated. At the same time, every business can also boast of its own Kent, the loyal subject to King Lear. People such as Kent might not be the powerhouses in an organisation, but will contribute their best while working with the company chiefs. Well, a Kent is worth keeping in an organisation. In contrast, the fool’s character in the same play epitomises those characters in an organisation setting, who exhibit the ability to speak to their bosses in a way that others would not even dare to think.”

By this time, things had started getting interesting and those in the conference hall were listening with keen interest and their eyes were glued to Mr. Bose. “Well, Mr. Bose, you are missing out characters like Cassius in Julius Caesar, Lepidus in Antony and Cleopatra. Don’t you think, one should keep a close watch at these characters too?” suddenly interrupted Mr. Saxena, Vice President, Marketing.

A sense of involvement started showing signs among the audience.

“Nice of you Mr. Saxena”, quipped Mr. Bose. “We really do need to watch out for characters like Cassius in offices. People who are highly competent, but at the same time destructively resentful. Executives who possess sharp minds but are suspicious about their superiors and subordinates thus limit their effectiveness in a team that clearly requires a reporting structure. There is also the case of the company chief who resorts to too many tours, stays away from the office and is so heavily engaged in extracurricular activities that they sometimes lose sight of the priorities. Well, there are lessons for such leaders too, theorised in Lepidus, in Antony and Cleopatra, “Small to greater matters must give way.”
“Well, Mr. Bose’” interrupted Mr. Saxena, “you were speaking on the different management facets such as leadership, change management, business strategies, handling crises and managing risk. How does Shakespeare’s plays influence such managerial traits?”

“Let me explain”, continued Mr. Bose. “Shakespeare’s plays are full of characters that can provide wonderful insights to management lessons. Let us begin with leadership. Nothing in leadership can be better explained than one achieved by Henry V. The young and newly crowned king had to prove his worth. He uses time tested leadership skills and succeeds in the most royal manner. Henry’s speech on the battlefront of Agincourt is a fiery motivation that marks the quality of a leader. Well, young executives can definitely take leadership lessons from this play. If Henry V provides leadership lessons, then the lessons of change management can be gathered from “Taming of The Shrew.” The primary character in the play, Petruchio provides several examples whereby managing change takes the CenterStage. Scenes from Julius Caesar weave a fine fabric of business strategy lessons. They teach us the way to setting objectives, team building, recruitment and communications to mention a few. Shakespeare has found a place in every sphere of the corporate world. In one of his most intriguing play, Hamlet, Shakespeare explains meticulously, the way to manage crises. And coming to risk management, nothing can compare the likes of “Merchant of Venice”. The art of dander and risk taking are well explained in this play and can indeed turn out to be an effective means of taking lessons on risk management. The list can be unending.”

Mr. Bose took a long and deep breath. A sense of achievement was clear on his face. The rest of the audience was looking at each other. And before anyone could speak, Mr. Rahul approached him and silently gave a positive nod. But Mrs. Sharma wanted a lot more to come. She was literally excited. By this time, it was more or less certain, that something tangible was coming out of the discussion.

“Mr. Bose, you are confident about the new initiative. But can we have a series of training programmes whereby various facets of management can be discussed more elaborately?” asked Mr. Rahul.

“Well, certainly, we can run a series of sessions.”

“Fine then”, remarked a more confident Mr. Rahul, “let us have such programs in the coming days.”

Without wasting much time, Mr. Bose hurried to his cabin, for he had a lot of work to be done. Running a series of such programs can be both a challenging and a daunting task.

About the Author: Prof. Arindam Banerjee

Professor Arindam Banerjee is the Associate Professor and Deputy Director – Global MBA & Master of Global Business with SP Jain School of Global Management. He is also the Director, Larsen & Toubro Global Management Excellence Program (GMEP). Prof Arindam has prior academic experience with various institutes including ICFAI, Dubai and ICAI. He has also consulted with various firms including Tata McGraw Hill Publication, Infosys & CSC. Prof Arindam’s research is published in numerous publications and he is the recipient of various awards and recognitions from AIMS International, Indian Institute of Bangalore, Dubai Government, and NASDAQ – Dubai, among others.

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