We band of brothers

11th July 2003 at 01:00
Shakespeare's 'Henry V' is being used as a model to inspire principals around the world with practical lessons in leadership

Once more unto the breach? School leaders may think they are too busy struggling with test pressures, shrinking war chests and the clamour to raise standards to read Shakespeare. But according to a consultancy in London, Henry V could be one of the sharpest weapons in their armoury.

"The play is probably the best literary study of a great inspirational leader," says former actor and theatre director Nicholas Janni after delivering a seminar for managers in Zurich.

The war against France in Henry V, he says, is a metaphor for the mission of any leader facing seemingly insurmountable difficulties; it is a lesson in how to achieve peak performance in adversity. It has been used to inspire troops in the Second World War and most recently in the war against Saddam Hussein. Now Mr Janni's company, Olivier Mythodrama Associates, is using it to inspire Britain's headteachers as well as senior officials at the Department for Education and Skills. Next week he will address 1,200 schools leaders from around the world at the International Confederation of Principals convention in Edinburgh.

The co-founder of Mythodrama with Mr Janni is Richard Olivier, son of the late Sir Laurence Olivier, who played the lead and directed the 1944 film Henry V. For the past two years, the pair have been running leadership courses for educationists running from 90 minutes to three days, including instruction, role play, coaching and presentation skills.

Participants need not read the text in advance or understand the Elizabethan language and poetry. The seminar is divided into five parts, corresponding to the acts of the play: Act I: Let thy vision raise poor flattened souls.

Henry's dying father tells him to find a mission to unite the kingdom after civil war. The young king decides to go to war with France. The prologue opens with a call to the imagination to fire up "flat unraised spirits" and to be braced for the task ahead:

O! For a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention.

Advice: No matter how well they fulfil targets, principals need to fire the imagination with a vision to inspire staff.

"In education, where the circumstances are so hard with cutbacks and class sizes, it can be easy to lose sight of the bigger picture," says Mr Janni.

"You need to remember what originally inspired you to become a teacher. Are you still in touch with that?"

Act II: Be thou watchful for treachery from within. Just before Henry and his troops set sail for France, he discovers "three corrupted men" who betrayed him to France. The seminar defines four "traitors" and gives advice on dealing with them. School leaders are also advised to be aware of the "internal traitor" within themselves that can also sabotage their mission.

Traitor type 1: Open critics who want change. Advice: listen to them and if you continue to disagree, draw a line under this. Even if you both disagree at the end, they will follow you as long as you listen to them.

Traitor type 2. Open critics who do not want change and do not propose an alternative. Advice: draw a line under the criticism. "These are the whiners who are constantly complaining and they drain the team's energy.

You have to shut them up often by confronting them directly and telling them to stop," says Mr Janni.

Traitor type 3. Critics who complain behind your back. Advice: Don't betray your source and say how you found out. Confront them, discuss their criticism and tell them to stop.

Type 4. Critics who want change but undermine you behind your back. Advice: It is not possible to work with traitors. You must get rid of them or leave. In the play, Henry's best friend betrays him, but despite the bond of friendship, he orders the man's execution while less serious critics are pardoned.

Act III: Thy self-belief shall ward off dull despair. Henry's army is in France three months into the campaign, but still hasn't taken the first town; 2,000 of his 10,000 men are dead and a further 2,000 sick.

Advice: Do as Henry does. He encourages his men; he never mentions that they are 90 days behind schedule and have lost one-fifth of the army. He is positive and shows confidence that his troops can win.

"There are several techniques that principals can employ to help demotivated staff re-commit and re-enthuse," says Mr Janni. "The main one is to use the imagination, to give them an image of how things could be when they succeed."

Act IV: Steer each soldier with thy steadfast hand. On the eve of the decisive Battle of Agincourt, the English are surrounded by many more French troops and are convinced they are all going to die. "When your back is against the wall, your mission in crisis - this is the way to survive the dark night without losing your faith and without quitting," says Mr Janni.

Advice: Again, do as Henry does. First, he visits each soldier individually, shaking hands and encouraging them. The chorus remarks that "upon his royal face there is no note of how dread an army hath enrounded him". Privately, Henry acknowledges to a senior aide: " 'Tis true we are in great danger" and calls a meeting of his senior team. Before that, Mr Janni points out, he has "the wisdom and strength to spend some time alone to reflect".

Henry disguises himself as a soldier and listens to what the troops really think. They blame the king for their imminent deaths. Feeling that is unfair, Henry unloads the burdens of leadership - "Getting these emotions out is very important in making a rational decision," says Mr Janni.

Henry joins his senior team, acknowledges the uphill task they face and finally appears before the troops to deliver his rousing Saint Crispin's Day speech, conjuring up a glorious image of the future. Against the odds, the troops are motivated and win the battle the next day.

Act V: May the intervals of war be struck with peace. Olivier Mythodrama calls this "tending the garden". Once you have won some territory, this shows you how to maintain the status quo and pause before further conquests.

Olivier Mythodrama Associates: Yvette Forbes: +44 20 7386 7972; email: yvette@oma.uk.com; www.oliviermythodrama.com'Inspirational Leadership: Henry V and the Muse of Fire' by Richard Olivier (Spiro Press, pound;10.99)

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