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Taking center stage with Shakespeare

Think:Act Magazine “Art and Business”
Taking center stage with Shakespeare

Portrait of Think:Act Magazine

Think:Act Magazine

Munich Office, Central Europe
February 1, 2023

How Shakespearean characters can help business leaders find their role


by Geoff Poulton
Illustration by Thomas Cian

Read more on the topic “Art and business”

Shakespeare was the master of stagecraft and he still has something to teach leaders of all kinds. We take some lessons from seasoned actors who use the Bard – and their skillsets – to help business take center stage.

A pixelated image on a small laptop screen in front of me, Ben Walden is hundreds of miles away. Despite this, he has an undeniable presence. His voice is clear, varied and engaging. There are no "umms," "errs" or awkward hesitations. As a passive spectator on Zoom calls, it can be all too easy for the mind to wander. But Walden commands attention, drawing in the viewer with his storytelling. "Henry has a plan: to seize the port of Harfleur before marching on to Paris and being crowned on Christmas Day. But it all goes wrong," Walden says, pausing briefly and fixing the camera, and me, with a steely stare. "He soon finds that he's wildly underfunded and has been set a completely unrealistic strategic target in an unworkable timeframe. This will be the ultimate test of his leadership skills."

An illustration of the playwright William Shakespeare surrounded by an array of his characters.
CASTS OF CHARACTERS: Shakespeare’s analysis of universal truths serves as a source of inspiration for those looking to understand the nature of human interaction.

It helps that the story Walden is telling was written by one of the world's celebrated writers, William Shakespeare. But it also helps that Walden is an experienced actor. Once a regular on British television and London's West End, his decades of experience make him a powerful and captivating communicator. Now, Walden is a workshop leader at London-based Olivier Mythodrama. The company was founded in the late 1990s by Richard Olivier, son of the renowned actor Laurence Olivier, and combines a range of techniques and insights from acting, psychology and Shakespearean stories to help global business leaders to perform better.

The story which Walden is outlining – Henry V by Shakespeare – happens to be packed full of valuable lessons for modern executives, he says. In a typical Olivier Mythodrama workshop, whether in person or, increasingly, online, participants are introduced to an overview of the story and use it as a frame of reference to explore topics like purpose, vision and motivation while learning how to improve their emotional intelligence and communication skills. As Henry ponders whether to fight the much larger French army at Agincourt, for example, we discuss how to manage fear and uncertainty, changing doubt to inspiration and the importance of sharing ownership of a vision.

Find and master your part
William Shakespeare's exploration of the human mind offers universal insights that still resonate after nearly 500 years.

Henry V: "All things are ready, if our mind be so"

Against all odds, King Henry V overcomes an assassination plot, defeats the French army and returns triumphantly to London to unite the two nations. The historical play is packed with leadership lessons, from selling a vision and motivating demoralized teams, to managing fears and doubts and inspiring success against the odds.

Julius Caesar: "Your wisdom is consumed in confidence"

The ultimate tale of politics and influence: Jealous conspirators assassinate Caesar with the help of his friend Brutus – before perishing themselves at the hand of Mark Antony. Key themes include emotional intelligence, how to use power and navigating the world of organizational politics.

The Tempest: "What’s past is prologue"

The survivors of a shipwreck are tormented on a magical island by Prospero and his slaves, before being initiated into a new way of being that is more attuned to the needs of the time. The Tempest provides an ideal framework to explore the many different phases of change management.

Hamlet: "To thine own self be true"

Hamlet is instructed by his father's ghost to gain revenge for his murder and kill the new king. Hamlet feigns madness, ponders life and death and eventually decides to act, resulting in a bloody end. The lessons of this play highlight the pivotal role of decision-making and the importance of wise external counsel.

Macbeth: "What’s done cannot be undone"

Three witches tell the Scottish general Macbeth that he will be king. Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth takes action, killing the king and taking the throne. Wracked with guilt and paranoia, he kills more and more people to protect his position, resulting in civil war. A tragic portrayal of ambition, self-awareness and picking your battles.

The integration of archetypal psychology into Olivier Mythodrama's work enables managers to better understand underlying traits that may be prominent in their leadership approach – or, on the other hand, may rather be missing. You may be a rational and strategic "sovereign" type or a goal-driven "warrior," for example. "Most people tend to be more skilled in the planning and doing areas of work but far less capable in imaginative and emotive areas," Walden explains. "Being a good storyteller and making organizational ideas engaging for others is an important way of solving problems collaboratively."

55% FACIAL: How much the successful communication of a message depends on body language and facial expression.

That may sound a little 'artsy' to some, but Olivier Mythodrama's blue-chip client list suggests there's plenty that today's executives can learn from the world of drama and theater. After all, in business everyone has a role to play. And the more senior you are, the more roles you'll likely have to master, from the public speaker, inspiration leader and trusted colleague to the ruthless decisionmaker and wise mentor.

But as Geoff Church says, this isn't about teaching business leaders how to act, "It's about being more authentic." Church is the co-founder and co-director of Dramatic Resources, a UK company that draws on techniques from theater to improve business communication. "In great acting, actors are channeling themselves into the task of a particular role. And I think it's the same for business leaders. You've got to step into different roles, but if you do it without bringing yourself, then nobody really buys into it. By learning acting skills, you can find parts of yourself that relate to the role you need to play."

At least 90% of social meaning is derived not from what we say, but how we say it. That's according to Deborah Gruenfeld, professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business and author of Acting with Power: Why We Are More Powerful Than We Believe. This makes things like pitch, emotion, eye contact and posture hugely important – all fundamental parts of the dramatic toolkit. Church and his colleagues work with a range of international clients, from banks and business schools to nonprofits. Common topics include public speaking, handling nerves, tackling self-consciousness and ways to go about boosting engagement with others. It's totally normal to find these things challenging, Church says. "In my entire career, the only actor I've ever met who says he doesn't experience nerves is Ian McKellen. But actors have a set of practiced skills to handle it and turn destructive tension into creative tension."

This can involve something as simple as breathing exercises or quick bursts of vigorous movement that settle the body's fight-or-flight response. "Preparation is vital," says Church. "So many business leaders run from one event to the next without giving themselves time to prepare physically and mentally." Having a pre-performance routine, whether for a keynote speech or a small internal meeting, can make all the difference.

A key part of acting is knowing how and where to direct your attention. Much like nerves, self-consciousness is common. "What actors learn to do is focus their attention on other actors or the audience, rather than themselves," Church says. "So, think about how you want to make people feel if you want them to reach a desired goal or outcome. Do you need to excite them or shock them?"

38% VOCAL: How much the successful communication of a message depends on vocal inflection and tone.

Observation is also important, says Christine Kelly, a senior lecturer in managerial communication at the MIT Sloan School of Management. "Acting exercises bring to bear the whole physicality. It's full-body listening. By being aware of what other people are doing – their posture, their level of eye contact, their gestures – you can sense the mood and create a better interaction."

Beyond raw acting skills, there are further benefits managers can gain from the world of theater. In Kelly's class called Enacting Leadership: Shakespeare and Performance, students form their own theater company and then put on a production. "Working within these creative constraints really inspires communication and collaborative decision-making," she says.

Olivier Mythodrama and Dramatic Resources were founded in the late 1990s. In recent years, both Walden and Church have noticed certain changes in how and what clients want to learn. The mass shift to remote work since Covid-19 has also added an extra element to their work. As Ben Walden has already demonstrated, acting skills can still be an effective way to improve your presence in a virtual environment. "Your visual performance should focus on building intimacy and trust with your audience," says Church. "Consider how to evoke emotion through evocative expression or even different music or camera angles."

While the benefits of many techniques from the world of acting and theater will vary according to the location, audience or general situation, there is one fundamental principle that Church, Walden and Kelly feel business leaders should always bear in mind. "So many of us are afraid of being vulnerable, exposing who we really are," says Kelly. "But to be a good actor, you have to be vulnerable and show yourself."

When people take the risk to share more of themselves, the result is that it often has a bigger impact both for the people around them and for themselves, adds Church. "The business world is typically very conservative around sharing – people worry about bringing all of themselves to work. But if you take the risk of sharing more of yourself, of being vulnerable, you will create better connections and reap the rewards."

About the author
Portrait of Geoff Poulton
Geoff Poulton
Geoff's writing on innovation and sustainability has been published by The Guardian, The Times, and Deutsche Welle. He has also worked on content creation with global brands such as BMW and Airbus. After a long spell in Germany, he worked in London before heading to write by the sea in Cornwall.
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Munich Office, Central Europe