Twelfth Night is an amazing, funny, and mysterious play.  As with most of Shakespeare’s comedies it plays with gender roles, has older men helping nubile youngsters, and has a cynical yet somehow life-embracing theme of grabbing someone while you can and enjoying young love.  As the clown Feste says, “Youth’s a stuff will not endure”   One could reasonably add the implicit message “So grab some young and good-looking person and make love while you can.”  but for the purposes of this blog, it also has some of Shakespeare’s insightful views on how to get past no and get to yes. 

At the center of Twelfth Night is Viola, the shipwrecked young girl who dresses as a man to serve the Duke Orsino and court the Countess Olivia.  Viola is naive in many ways, but she also exhibits some amazing abilities as a saleswoman.  Despite being unaware of much of the ways of the world, she has a seemingly innate understanding of what it takes to move someone.  She stands in contrast to the Duke Orsino who does not understand that love is a game and that you need to get yourself on the field and get your hands dirty.  Orsino sends Viola (whom he believes to be a man named Cesario) to court Olivia os his behalf.  Thus Orsino complies with the traditional vision of courtly love — sending proxies to read ornate love poems on his behalf.   He fails because…well…this is a terrible way to get someone’s interest in you.  It removes the risk of personal involvement (which is why it is probably so popular a technique among 7th graders), but that degree of remove makes it impossible to get what you want.   

Viola on the other hand is there in person.  She shows up.  When she initially follows the traditions of courtly love in the form of Orsino’s script she is unsuccessful.  Why?  Scripts are terrible selling tools.  Everyone can recognize a script.  It lacks personalization and encourages a disconnect between the speaker and the message.  Great leaders minimize the necessity of scripts. 

Viola has to learn this from Olivia’s reaction and pouts about not getting to use her sales script, “Alas, I took great pains to study it, and tis poetical.”  Sounds like a lot marketing language right?  Poetic…somebody makes you memorize it…and generally useless. 

But when she goes off script, she is a natural.  Granted she has a more attractive product to sell Olivia — herself…or himself… I can’t really get into the gender bending here.  But that is also a good point for those who would sell, get a good product.  Even the best salesperson in the world couldn’t sell the Duke Orsino to Olivia. 

Olivia won’t respond to the script.  She doesn’t like the courtly garbage.  But when Viola speaks candidly “for what is yours to bestow is not yours to reserve,” it resonates with Olivia.  Viola, in the moment, responds intuitively with the argument that Olivia needs to hear.   Olivia does not need to hear flowery language, she needs to hear that life is for living and that it is time to get off the sidelines.   Viola is so good at conveying this that she convinces a Countess to fall in love with a lowly cross-dressing messenger.  Which means…I would definitely hire Viola to sell my products. 

In the end Viola is succesful because she is a natural salesperson who learns as she goes.  And we can extrapolate a few lessons:

1.  Pick a good product.  Great salespeople deserve great products

2.  Be wary of scripts.  They are generally ineffective.

3.  Adapt.  Good salespeople listen to their intuitions.

In his book “Jack Welch on Leadership” the former Chairman of GE writes:

“Of course sometimes there are good reasons to be down.  The economy is bad, competition is brutal — whatever.  Work can be hard.  But your job as leader is to fight the gravitational pull of negativism.  That doesn’t mean you sugarcoat the challenges your team faces.  It does mean you display an energizing, can-do attitude about overcoming them.” 

Welch and Hal are clearly on the same page.  In The Band of Brothers speech, Hal is faced with just this sort of negativism.  Westmoreland is complaining, lamenting the men they could have had.  Hal acknowledges the challenge and establishes the positive of victory, and does so in an energetic manner. 

As a bit of a sidebar, Welch continues:

“It means you get out of your office and into everyone’s skin, really caring about what they’re doing and how they’re faring as you take the hill together.” 

Obviously, Hal establishes the together part quite well (“band of brothers”) but the part about getting out of the office also resonates.  Remember Hal walking around the camp the night before the big battle.  Leadership by walking around (in a cloak… acting like you are not the king…)

I’ve been re-reading the Band of Brothers speech from Henry V.  In it, Hal rallies a tired and frightened force of English warriors trapped behind French lines and vastly outnumbered.  There is no choice but to fight through to the only port which will allow them to return to England.   The clarity of that desperate situation is mirrored by the powerful clarity of Hal’s persuasive leadership. 

Hal has two points — he is confident of the possibility of victory and victory in the face of such overwhelming odds will mean eternal glory.  The entire speech shows a great leader instilling confidence and promising an enormous carrot to his men.  As much as I would like to offer some brilliant analysis, sometimes the best thing you can do is move aside and let the man move through:

WESTMORELAND. O that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work to-day!

KING. What’s he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;
If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
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.
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.’
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 rememb’red.
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 remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Notice the use of so many names?  It’s like Hal had been reading his Carnegie.  He involves the lieutenants directly.  And the men too numerous to name are given a clear and enticing vision of the future where they are brothers with the king and where they are accorded honor above all else. 

Notice the evocation of both Christian and Roman gods?  Hal consecrates the action to whatever deity will hold sway with his men.  It is a saint’s day (although it is the 15th century, they were pretty much all saint’s days right) and Hal uses that to create a vision of a sacred holiday, a future where their goal has already been achieved, and he and his men are legends.  Hal’s shared vision is beyond compelling.  Like the great leader he is, he clearly articulates his vision, aligns his men to that vision, and evokes a powerful sense of shared purpose.

The famous “once more unto the breach” speech is such an ingrained part of our cultural heritage that it is hard to see it without being distracted by the detritus of a thousand appropriations.  I have seen it used to begin Superbowl introductions and in Googling it in preparation for this post I saw it applied to everything from the healthcare debate to Star Trek.  It is bravado in the face of death.  It is heroism defined.  It is macho brotherhood with a strange mix of egalitarianism and English classism.  It is the high point of Prince Hall/King Henry’s leadership — the greatest moment in a great leader’s life.  It is when the wayward boy is fully subsumed inside the captain of men.  It is a blueprint for all leaders. 

But it is more than that.  As with much of Shakespeare’s characterizations we can see in Prince Hal a conscious theatricality.  Let’s consider the opening lines from the speech:

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O’erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height.

Hal (we’re old drinking buddies, I get to call him that) makes a very interesting argument to the men who fight alongside him.  He does not ask them to be brave.  He does not ask them to be full of rage and intimidation.  He asks them to act as if they are brave and intimidating and furious.   He instructs them to work from the outside in.  In this desperate hour when all will be lost or gained, Hal knows he is talking to tired and uncertain men.  They’ve accomplished more than any reasonable person would have thought possible, but still have huge tasks in front of them.  Telling them to be that which they are not is not useful.  Not everyone can be the brave and furious warrior Hal needs.  But… they can all act like it.  In this, Hal recognizes both the performative nature of courage and the importance of that performance. 

As a leader, what Hal asks of his men is to do what can be done.  He sets the task in terms of the achievable “set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide.”   In other words, look tough.  Hal the leader here recognizes that which is achievable (although difficult) and challenges his men to do just that.  This requires Hal to have a superhuman awareness of psychology (but this awareness is embodied in a legendary military figure as drawn by the greatest writer of all time, so should we expect any less?).   He sets lofty, but not impossible goals and effectively breaks the tasks down into a step by step guide to how to accomplish his instructions. 

As a leader, Hal achieves what we in the business world seek.  He asks his men to stretch themselves, but he doesn’t do so in a manner which will encourage them to abandon the task.  Instead, he helps them to impersonate the fearless warriors he needs, as the first step to becoming the band of brothers who will defy the odds.   He knows it is easier to act like you are doing something and, of equal import, he recognizes that acting in a certain manner can lead one to behave in that manner. 

As Hal continues he moves on to incentives for achieving his goals:

On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call’d fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.

Having instructed them on what they need to do, Hal moves on to the equally important why.  He tells his men they should for England, for their mothers, for their fathers, for honor, and finally to imitate himself (after all who has more noble lustre in his eyes than King Henry).  And to employ an over-used contemporary phrase he “assumes the close.”  He is sure that they are worth their breeding and their mettle.  He raises the stakes and, at the same time, provides his men reassurance that they can achieve the goal. 

I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’

And now he lets them know they have completed their transformation —  they are greyhounds.  He offers the affirmation that they have become that which he needs.  And everybody loves a good battle cry.   He tells them they are able to do it.  In contemporary terms, and to draw on another dramatic genius, Hal is using the Pygmalion effect.  He is setting expectations high so that his men will hold themselves to a high standard and also he is letting them know that it is a reasonable expectation that they will achieve their goals. 

To summarize, Hal asks them to act brave; he tells them there are good things that will happen when they are brave; and, in the end, he tells them that they are brave and they are ready to achieve their goals.  He recognizes his audience:  tired, hopeful, scared, ashamed, courageous, etc and pulls together that which he can use and brings it to the forefront.  Isn’t that the job of every great leader?   At the end of this rallying cry wouldn’t you not only follow him, but more importantly, think yourself up to the task?

What you should know about me:   I am a passionate fan of the works of William Shakespeare.  I graduated Magna Cum Laude from Middlebury College in 1997 with a joint degree in English and Theater.  At Middlebury I was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.  A 2000 Masters of Fine Arts graduate of the Yale School of Drama, I have performed as Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing and as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet.  I served as the Production Dramaturg for the Yale Repertory Theater’s productions of Measure for Measure and Richard III.  

I am also the Vice President, Corporate Development for Freedom Disability (www.freedomdisability.com) and Alpha (www.alphadisability.com).  After completing my MFA at Yale I moved out to San Francisco to participate in the death throes of the dotcom boom.  For the past ten years I have worked in sales, marketing, and new product development. 

In reading Shakespeare I have always been fascinated by how his characters inspire, cajole, manipulate, and motivate each other.   Whether the hero or the villain, a minor character or the titular lead, one useful lens to look at Shakespeare’s characters is to consider how, and how well, they lead others.  As leaders ourselves there is much we can learn from Shakespeare.  This blog is going to be my exploration of his works.  I intend to read his collected plays (all but a few for at least the second time) considering them, at least partially, as illustrations of effective and ineffective leadership models.  Wherever possible, I will draw comparisons to modern leaders, and I will have some friends and colleagues weigh in as well.  

I welcome feedback and thoughts — and thanks for reading!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.