Shakespeare’s Henry V provides a profound lesson in leadership. The story takes place at a terrible time in medieval England. It is 1415, near the close of the Hundred Year War with France—a war which was fought over complex, territorial claims. The centerpiece of the play is the Battle of Agincourt.
England has invaded France, yet they are hopelessly outnumbered. The English soldiers are hungry, exhausted—having marched 260 miles in two and a half weeks—and ill with dysentery.
Just before the battle begins, in his famous St. Crispin’s Day speech, King Henry responds to those who are understandably lamenting the situation and wishing for more men:
What’s he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;
If we are mark’d to die, we are enough
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.
When faced with tough circumstances, many believe the solution is found in obtaining more assets. While assets are important, there are intangibles such as the belief in common purpose that is even more important. Dee Hock, the founding CEO of Visa Corporation, explains:
To the direct degree that clarity of shared purpose and principles and strength of belief in them exist, constructive harmonious behavior may be induced. To the direct degree they do not exist, behavior is inevitably compelled…The alternative to shared belief in propose and principles is tyranny.
Henry V understands the power of shared purpose. One of the ways that Henry establishes common purpose is that he is himself an integral part of, and not separate from, the fighting force he leads. He cares about his men, seeks their counsel, and has real bonds with them. In his St. Crispin’s speech, Henry promises that however humble a soldier’s birth, participating in this exalted purpose will grant them nobility.
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
With his army united by common purpose, there is no need for Henry to compel behavior. Indeed in his St. Crispin’s Day speech, Henry offers to release any soldier who does not want to participate in the coming battle; he even promises to fund their trip back to England. Henry recognizes that fighting with fewer men who are united in purpose is better than fighting with more men who have no shared purpose:
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
One of the main reasons that Henry’s army was able to overcome overwhelming odds is that Henry was open to innovation. The English used trained longbowmen while the French relied on the slower and less accurate crossbow.
One of the reasons that the French disastrously resisted new battle tactics was that they looked down on longbowmen as upstarts. Henry’s English army, united by purpose, had no such prejudice.
Henry’s St. Crispin’s day speech may be the most powerful in all of literature on the power of shared purpose. The purpose is so exalted that Henry promises that when the soldiers are older and have forgotten everything else, they will remember this battle:
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day.
It is difficult not to reflect on contemporary problems. Organizations where employees share no common purpose frequently flounder. Their leadership cries for more assets and neglects the real issue.
In Iraq, much of the population is not united in the common purpose of creating a society guided by the rule of law; instead many feel a stronger allegiance to ancient tribal identities. Until they change their collective societal view, there is no possibility of peace.
This summer my children’s Shakespeare camp performed Henry V. To get ready for the play we viewed Kenneth Branagh’s extraordinary 1989 film of the play. Branagh is the director, and he also gives a remarkable performance as Henry. His St. Crispin’s day speech, available at You Tube, is embedded below. Incidentally, the soundtrack by Patrick Doyle is as extraordinary as the film.