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WITH VIDEO: From the Bard to the Boardroom…

In all the talk about the mechanics of producing Shakespeare, it’s easy to forget that these plays are also about real issues—the kinds of things we grapple with in our own lives. Richard III, for example, asks about leadership. What does it take to be an effective leader? Strength? Decisiveness? Morality? A willingness to listen to others? (Look at the Middle East today to see how relevant these questions are.)

These same issues surfaced in Tuesday’s workshop, “From the Bard to the Boardroom,” with the Ross Leadership Initiative at UM’s Ross School of Business. Nearly 50 B-school students attended the session in a sunny sixth-floor room, and Carol Rutter, professor of English at the University of Warwick, put them through their paces. She started by having them take off their shoes and just walk around the room, then walk as if they were the most important person there—“as if you were Obama,” she said—and then as if they were the least significant person in the room. And so on. The idea was to understand status and how it shapes physical behavior.

From there it was on to a nonmusical version of musical chairs—an exercise designed to foster teamwork—and finally to a spoken dialogue plucked from Antony and Cleopatra (although the students didn’t at first know that):

A: Welcome to Rome.
B: Thank you.
A: Sit.
B: Sit, sir.
A: Nay, then.

It was fascinating to see the variety of ways two students could interpret that simple exchange.

And of course it drove home the point that with Shakespeare (or any playwright, for that matter) acting is everything. There’s no fixed way to interpret dialogue. It’s a matter of context, status, personality, motives, etc. The B-school students got it right away. (Were they all actors in a former life, or what?!)

The last, and longest exercise in the 90-minute workshop had the students divide into groups and develop a “vision” or “theory” of leadership. Each group received a packet of materials—photos of actors playing Richard III, images of objects and people, passages of dialogue from the play—to help narrate their vision.

Rutter outlined the students’ “brief”: England Corp. has just emerged from a bloody, five-year takeover battle. The Yorks have taken power, the CEO has died, and a fight over his successor is brewing. There are three sons: the hapless, profligate, terminally ill Edward; the suave George; and the ruthless Richard. A fourth possibility lurks outside the “family firm”—Richmond, a Tudor (aka the Good Guy).

Who will run England Corp.? And what qualities did the B-School students think this new CEO should possess?

Rutter explained to me in an aside that her aim with the workshop—which she’s done previously with lawyers—is to cultivate leadership in the very process of trying to define it. Like real-life leaders, the students in the workshop have to examine, analyze, and sort materials they don’t recognize and then make decisions. “The exercise reproduces the process we want them to think about. Process is content.”

I found the outcomes relevant not only to Richard III, but to what’s happening throughout the Middle East, where the very question of succession is sending demonstrators to the barricades.

Some comments from the B-School workshop participants:

“Our ideal leader would have trusted advisors, be educated, and want people to be educated.”

“Good leadership begins with a vision of what leadership is.”

“A good leader should be able to make difficult decisions that people may not agree with.”

“A leader needs to be able to work within existing organizations—and not just be an outsider, a rebel.”

“Hitler was morally bankrupt, but he was a brilliant leader.”

“Leadership starts with integrity.”

On my way out of the workshop, I ran into a first-year MBA student, Nate Fernando, who’d taken part in the session. He told me he’d loved the experience, because fiction “helps you reflect on things in ways that real-life scenarios don’t. It makes you think about people’s motivation, for instance.”

He added, “You see these characters in your own life every day.”

That’s a chilling thought.