To Be or Not to Be ... a Leader

MBA students learn leadership through Shakespeare

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
For he today that sheds his blood with me,
Shall be my brother ...”

What do these ancient words, spoken by King Henry V of England to rally his troops for the Battle of Agincourt in France in 1415, have to say to MIT Sloan MBA students nearly 600 years later? Plenty, according to 15 students who spent the recent Sloan Innovation Period (SIP) performing Shakespeare's “Henry V” in a program called “Leadership as Acting: Performing Henry V.”

Student in Henry V Photo: MIT Sloan student Yulia Poltorak on stage in Shakespeare's “Henry V,” learning leadership by acting.

One of the more innovative of the many courses planned for SIP by the new MIT Leadership Center, “Leadership as Acting” leveraged the Center's focus on learning by doing.

With just five days from the initial read-through of the script, which was a shortened version of the play, to the live performance, course participants were challenged to develop a stage presence, grasp the play's story with its many passionate scenes and characters, and handle publicity, wardrobe and makeup, lighting, and all the other aspects of a theater production. Each course participant played multiple characters, with seven people sharing the role of Henry V.

History as Inspiration

The play's climactic scenes tell how English troops, outnumbered four to one, responded to their leader's battle cry by crushing the French in one of the most famous battles of English history. According to course participant Kerry Bowie, the play's story line shows how a small group of people with a common goal clearly and inspiringly articulated by a strong leader can achieve great things.

“The speech I gave — when Henry rallies the troops and is very persuasive about how they don't need anyone else to come from England and fight with them — that's a good speech in terms of motivation,” said Bowie. “As a leader, sometimes you have to do that. I think that CEOs of starts-ups are saying the same thing. ‘We can do this. We can go and meet the giants.’”

In addition, Bowie said, the teamwork required for the play provided a lesson in distributed leadership, an approach the Leadership Center hopes to foster.

“This was a really good exercise in team building. We all rallied around to make it happen,” said Bowie. “There were some divide and conquer aspects to the teamwork as people took up individual leadership roles, but we put it all together to come together as a tight-knit group.”

Nathalie Butcher's two years of drama classes and three years of acting camp made her the most experienced thespian in the group.

“Some of the people in the course had never been on stage before and probably never will be again,” said Butcher. “It was interesting to watch them stretch their wings.”

Course participant Michael Fox acknowledges that the play itself has many leadership lessons, but for him the chief lesson came from course leader Christine Kelly, a senior lecturer who teaches managerial communication.

“Chris made us realize that you can only get people to pull at the center by listening to them and seeing how they are receiving what you are saying,” said Fox.

This is exactly what Kelly hoped the team would learn.

“The students support each other on stage by being present for each other and listening to each other.” Kelly said. “If they listen well, they reveal some facet of themselves within the character, the scene works, and the audience feels it.”

The authenticity that Kelly sought to have the budding actors portray clearly came across to the audience of 50 or so who attended the Friday afternoon production. At the play's end, the budding thespians' week of hard work was richly rewarded by a rousing standing ovation.

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