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?