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Above: Mr Bell (left) and Mr Evans (right) reading selected lines from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, and then explaining how they reflected the different leaders in the play.
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The dinner event at Chijmes Hall was attended by some 60 top executives in Singapore.

Distilling lessons in corporate leadership from Shakespeare

Theatre company Bell Shakespeare works with Heidrick & Struggles for this effort.
Dec 2, 2016 5:50 AM

IN Shakespeare's plays, King Richard II believed in the "divine right to rule"; King Henry IV was the autocratic leader while his successor, King Henry V, was the "people's hero" who learns from his mistakes and becomes a collaborative, inspiring and innovative leader.

There are lessons which can be used to discuss corporate leadership, highlights James Evans, the associate director of Australia's Bell Shakespeare. A couple of years ago when David Pumphrey, life member of Bell Shakespeare and partner emeritus of senior executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles, pointed out leadership lessons in Shakespeare, Mr Evans decided to study it from that angle.

He went through the plays and found different kinds of leaders. "We pulled out the lines about the leaders, performed a couple of scenes and used them for discussion. What's interesting about Shakespeare is that it's a catalyst to think about our own lives," he says.

The company had previously used Shakespeare for other kinds of corporate leadership training, including a stint where they got corporates to act out scenes and used it to teach presentation, voice, confidence and how to use words to influence people. "That was a tremendously successful programme, and we did it for about three years," notes Mr Evans.

For this Shakespeare and leadership version in Singapore, held earlier this week, "Where Caesar Went Wrong: Anatomy of a Boardroom Coup" uses five leadership examples in Julius Caesar the play. The dinner event at Chijmes Hall was attended by some 60 top executives in Singapore.

The company had brought it to Hong Kong and Shanghai before coming here. "The session really sparked robust conversations, especially as our audience, top C-suite people invited by Heidrick & Struggles, are usually confident and outspoken," he says.

Leadership development and consulting is one of the areas which the executive search firms hopes to develop more, notes Lily Siu, Heidrick & Struggles' marketing & communications director for Asia.

In Singapore, Mr Evans and John Bell, the founder of the Bell Shakespeare company, both went on stage to read the selected lines, and then explained how they reflected the different leaders in the play.

Here too, the audience responded thoughtfully after the readings by Mr Evans and Mr Bell.

One member of the audience brought up how important it was to discuss ideas with a whole group rather than bilaterally, with just one person at a time. Another highlighted how leadership styles have to change according to time and the situations.

One of the issues brought up was the issue of integrity as that's the test of any leader and the role of the board was perhaps to hold up this standard.

Another member from the audience had a different opinion. He pointed out that integrity is cultural and contextual; and that situations aren't as black and white as we think. So getting results is more important.

In addition, Mr Bell pointed out that when Shakespeare wrote his plays, the world was also in turmoil. The "leadership plays" were written between 1595 and 1599, as Queen Elizabeth I was in the latter part of her reign with no clear successor in sight; and there were paradigm shifts in business, social inequality and terrorism - similar themes to the 21st century.

So corporate leaders might find it useful to catch a Shakespeare play or two, or read up on one - to learn from theatre and history.


Frailties take centre stage

SHAKESPEARE'S Julius Caesar embraces characters with differing leadership styles, and in the midst of political turmoil, they demonstrate more frailties than strengths.

Julius Caesar, as the chairman or executive chairman

Success went into his head and he becomes vain and disconnected from the people and his team. When his "executive team" begins to plot against him, he doesn't see it coming.
Act 3, Scene 1

Marcus Brutus, chief executive officer and conspirator

Brutus is devoted to Caesar as a leader but he lacks the latter's charisma. Worse, he has a wavering quality and is prone to misjudgement. When asked by the conspirators to join them, Brutus hesitates, but later comes up with the principle of the pre-emptive strike.
Act 2, Scene 1

Caius Cassius, chief operating officer and conspirator

A passionate, intense and highly energised individual, he's also a pragmatic organiser and a shrewd negotiator, a compulsive plotter and malcontent. Envious of Caesar, Cassius is the lead conspirator. He uses humour, storytelling and flattery to appeal to Brutus's honour, and his line is one of the significant ones in the play: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/ But in ourselves, that we are underlings."

The leadership lesson here is that top team executives sometimes fail to speak up.
Act 1, Scene 2

Mark Antony, director and political heir to Caesar

A larger-than-life character who parties a lot and enjoys the arts, Antony positions himself as the obvious heir. Through brilliant oratory, he turns the tables on the hostile crowd by making them question their assumptions of Caesar. The lesson here is that leaders need to be aware of what motivates individual members of their team. Are team members running their own agendas at the expense of corporate goals? Antony is highly capable but has no scruples.
Act 3 , Scene 1

Octavius Caesar, director and Caesar's grandnephew and political heir

Octavius plays a secondary role to Antony in this play but he delivers the final lines. Like the best chief executives, Octavius has sized up the situation and taken his team into his confidence. They are engaged and aligned behind a purpose.
Act 5, Scene 5

By Cheah Ui-Hoon