Shakespeare on Values, Accountability and Leadership

I just read and watched William Shakespeare’s history play, Henry V. The story tells how Henry V led his Army through France in 1415, defeating a much larger force at Agincourt. Written in 1599, Shakespeare did not use the terms accountability, leadership or values; yet we can learn a lot about them from his drama. The good news is that Henry V’s accomplishments — without a public relations team, modern communications system, and huge capital outlays — can be replicated today. What is required? Courage and consistency.
Before his father, Henry IV, died, Henry V had been Hal, the young prince in waiting, known for what we’d call pub-crawling and carousing. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. When he became King, some of his bar-hopping buddies accompanied him to France. Campaigning through the French countryside, Henry ordered that there be no plunder of civilian property, a clear and unambiguous directive. However, shortly before the climactic Agincourt battle, he learned that a friend from his wilder youth, Bardolph, violated his order, stealing a religious icon from its French owners. The act was a capital offense, and everyone knew it.
In the splendid 1989 movie directed by Kenneth Branagh, who also plays Henry V, the King comes upon Bardolph, whose neck is in the noose. Henry remembers their happy times together; Bardolph looks at him imploringly for mercy. The King pauses, tears forming in his eyes, then orders the execution to proceed. Bardolph hangs in front of Henry V and his army.
This moment helps explain the battlefield triumph that later occurs. His subjects know that Henry V applies his rules fairly and consistently; when there are unambiguous violations, he acts in line with his principles. This is true even when the offender is close to him and every personal motive argues for leniency. On the eve of battle, Henry’s army can trust that he means what he says, that there are no exceptions based on friendship or position, and that his soldiers can rely on his commitment. As they literally follow him into battle, they know his imperatives.
Current leaders have similar challenges. Their rules must be consistently applied for them to be viewed credibly and see their visions realized. A few months ago, I spoke to a leader trying to instill a major cultural change throughout his organization. He said the chief executive officer, today’s business version of Henry V, was committed to implementing a set of behaviors that reflected the organization’s values. I asked him if the CEO would require those behaviors of his own team, not just those lower in the organization. He said to me, “Well, there may be a problem there.” I thought, “Now there’s an understatement if ever I’ve heard one.” If leaders won’t enforce their own principles, especially in the face of clear and repeated violations involving their closest colleagues, how can they expect others to believe they are important? Unfortunately, this is why many such initiatives fail.
In the work world, leaders sometimes say, “We need a public hanging.” In other words, they intend to get others’ attention. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating a literal “public hanging” or even the awful imagery it engenders. But I have a suggestion for leaders who ignore the blatant violations of those close to them for reasons tied to friendship, importance of position, or other rationales. Read Henry V and follow his lead. Consider the impact that enforcing your stated values will have on your own effectiveness as a leader.

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