Shakespeare's Henry V is of course one of greatest plays ever written but beyond literature, Shakespeare's mastery of character means there is also much to learn from it about leadership. Henry is a king and a soldier, taking his men to war at Agincourt, outnumbered 20 to one by the French and expecting with much of his company to die. On the morning of the battle, Henry takes the temperature of the situation. I found myself quite amazed how Shakespeare's devices and King Henry's words and thoughts have resonance in the wisdom of one of the modern era's greatest soldiers, former US 4 star General Colin Powell. Here I draw out a few things of significance.
It is the early hours of the morning of the battle, and Henry will later that day give his now famous speech (we few, we happy few, we band of bothers), but prior to that, the Chorus of Act IV alone tells us much:
Proud of their numbers and secure in soul,
The confident and overlusty French
Do the low-rated English play at dice
The French are overconfident given their numerical superiority and are rowdy throughout the night, playing dice and betting on how many English they will capture.
The English camp can hear the noise and in any case, fearful of the day, have difficulty sleeping. So early morning, King Henry
...forth he goes and visits all his host,
Bids them good morrow with a modest smile,
And calls them brothers, friends, and countrymen.
Upon his royal face there is no note
How dread an army hath enrounded him
The king has a 'modest smile', for any greater smile would be disproportionate, foolhardy even given the circumstances, but no smile would do nothing to lift the spirits, and spirits do badly need lifting. He strikes the right note. Henry here needs to be an emotional rock for his soldiers and his face cannot display his own concern. At this point too, he can be less formal to his troops than royal protocol would normally demand, and he addresses his soldiers 'brothers, friends and countrymen' as a reassuring gesture, levelling the hierarchy.
Colin Powell talks of an idea drilled in to him at Infantry School:
you may be starving, but you must never show hunger; you always eat last. You may be freezing or near heat exhaustion, but you must never show that you are cold or hot. You may be terrified, but you must never show fear. You are the leader and the troops will reflect your emotions. They must believe that no matter how bad things look, you can make them better.
Back to King Henry. After the Chorus, in Act IV Scene I, Henry borrows a cloak from Sir Thomas Eppingham so as to disguise himself and talk to the troops. So disguised, the troops unaware that he is the king will talk more freely about how they feel about the battle ahead. There are many nuances as to why Henry wanted to do this, but it is a common failure in leadership, even unwittingly sometimes, to find honest information does not pass up through the organisationan structure leaving those at the top clueless as to what is really happening below.
Colin Powell, while perhaps not donning a disguise, is nevertheless fully aware of this problem and says:
The more senior you become, the more you are insulated by pomp and staff, and the harder and more necessary it becomes to know what is going on six floors down. One way is to leave the top floor and its grand accoutrements and get down into the bowels for real. Don’t tell anyone you are coming.
What does Henry find among his troops? A concern from some quarters of his troops that they will all be killed in battle but that Henry, given his station, will merely be ransomed and returned to England. Henry (in disguise) argues the King's case:
I myself heard the king say he would not be ransomed.
But the idea that the people at the top gain the reward (or at worst, lose least) while those at the bottom make the real sacrifice is a longstanding one. Paul Johnson in his book Heroes, while considering Nelson, discusses the unrest of the ordinary sailor concerning the dangers they faced compared to those of their commanding officers:
An ordinary gunner once remarked in Nelson's hearing, that he hoped the likelihood of being hit in action by enemy shot was in the same proportion, as between officers and men, as the distribution of prize money. It was a sobering thought and Nelson brooded on it. It was his aim to show the men that the danger he ran was at least as great as what they faced - greater in fact.
Nelson made himself conspicuous on deck during battle, in full uniform 'wearing all his decorations, a glittering, unmistakable figure, an easy mark for a French sniper in the crosstrees.' His crew loved him for it and gave him their all.
Finally, returning to Henry V, it is worth noting that while the king cannot show or reveal his fear, when in disguise he can talk of the king's fear as someone else's.
when he sees reason of fears as we do, his fears, out of doubt, be of the same relish as ours are. Yet, in reason, no man should possess him with any appearance of fear, lest he, by showing it, should dishearten his army.
As such we the audience can be told that the King's fears 'be of the same relish' as his soldiers'. The king is afraid by his own admission, but knows too he cannot show it.
Colin Powell recalls the first time he was shot at, when in Vietnam as an advisor to a Vietnamese Infantry Battalion, where due to his height he stood out, and through being American he was a more valuable target than those around him. He expected to be ambushed again the next day:
That morning, and every morning, I had to use my training and self-discipline to control my fear and move on— just like all the Vietnamese, just like every soldier since ancient times. Moreover, as a leader, I could show no fear. I could not let fear control me.
So whether it is Shakespeare's fictional Henry V (written 1599), Nelson (died 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar) or modern soldier Colin Powell (b1937), the message seems unchanged in 400 years. An effective leader needs to understand what is happening and what the troops feel throughout the organisation, and not simply rely on reports being passed up the chain that so often get sanitised to erase the bad news. The leader closes the gap by mucking in when it is appropriate to do so, and making the same sacrifice when it is necessary, so leading by example. Finally, as the senior person, the leader projects appropriate confidence, even if fear is what is felt. As Powell says, your team must believe that no matter how bad things look, you can make them better.