Arts-based leadership courses are all the rage these days as firms realise they need to unleash employees' creativity if they are to survive in today's rapacious business environment.
And as organisations abandon hierarchies in favour of smaller, flatter, consensus-based groups, there is a growing realisation that effective leaders need to replace outdated authoritarian techniques with "performance" skills more commonly used in the theatre or the circus. Being a convincing and inspirational leader, the new thinking goes, is not dissimilar from being a comedian, an illusionist or an actor.
Courses on offer range from stand-up comedy workshops – designed to improve communication and presentation skills – to role-playing murder-mystery weekends. The theory behind these is that groups sharpen teamworking skills as they accumulate clues to solve a whodunnit.
One of the most popular arts-based programmes is operated by Cranfield University's School of Management and involves studying Shakespeare's plays for insights into leadership.
Henry V, for example, is a story of a newly crowned king who has to inspire a sceptical and mutinous army to invade and defeat the French. Theatre director Richard Olivier (son of Sir Laurence), who leads the Cranfield programme, argues that there are clear parallels between the play and modern management situations. "Someone looking at Henry V might say, 'how could the king get all his senior managers – or nobles – to buy into his vision of going to France?'," says Olivier. "They might add that they are trying to sell a big project at work and are meeting resistance. So they role-play, look at the text, and see what Henry did."
Similarly, Olivier's Julius Caesar course teaches managers how to avoid being stabbed in the back, while Hamlet explores "what it means to be, or not to be, at the edge of chaos".
Spending a couple of days treading the boards at the Globe might be a lot of fun, but does it work, or are arts-based courses a load of New Age nonsense? Building spoke to Siân Jones, until recently head of communications at the Housing Corporation, about her experience of the Henry V course.
Her latest roleSiân Jones was impressed by Richard Olivier’s Shakespeare training course – so impressed that she changed her job entirely
Q Why were you looking for a leadership course?
I’d just started to manage a larger team of five people at the Housing Corporation and I felt I needed to sharpen my skills. Q How did you learn about the Shakespeare programme?
I was going through brochures looking for management training courses; when I saw this, my first reaction was to giggle. But curiosity got the better of me and it sounded more interesting than your average management course. Q What were your expectations?
I was hoping it was going to help. As always with training courses, it depends so much on the quality of the people who train you. Q Describe what happened.
It was a two-day course at the Globe Theatre. There were 25 of us in the group and three tutors. First, there was an explanation from Richard Olivier, drawing parallels between Henry V and modern management, answering the question we all had: what on earth has this old play got to do with our work situation? Richard talked us through the key moments and the tutors read us bits of the play. Then we did lots of role-playing. Q Did you need to know the play?
No. I did Henry V at O level but most people on the course didn’t know it. Cranfield sent us a video of the play in advance – starring Richard’s father, Laurence Olivier – and a synopsis to read as homework. Q Was everyone wearing tights and codpieces?
No, they were all dressed in Chinos. Q In what ways is Henry V like a modern manager?
There are several parallels. At the start of the play, people think Henry’s going to be a disaster and won’t be as effective as his predecessor – his father. It’s like when you start in a new job. But Henry grows in stature through the play. Q Anything else?
When Henry gives his “long dark night of the soul” speech, he’s asking if he’s good enough to lead his troops into battle, he’s doubting his abilities. So it’s about the barriers within yourself that stop you being a good leader. Henry had a challenging task: he was stuck in France, his troops had dysentery, he had to keep them motivated so they didn’t mutiny, and come up with a strategy to defeat the enemy. So it also teaches you how to deal with being challenged as a leader – being undermined, dealing with traitors. Q So leadership is like going to war?
War is just a metaphor for tough situations. It’s about planning for battle and motivating people. Then at the end of the play there’s a bit about “sun-lit uplands” when the battle is over. This has a parallel: when you’ve achieved what you set out to do, do you stay contentedly in your job, or do you move on? Q What were the role-plays like?
We did one that was about wanting to be the king. You had to get past all these people to get to the throne, using the power of your argument alone. That was the one people found most difficult. Some people got quite hurt and upset when their arguments weren’t convincing. A lot of shouting went on. Q How did it affect you?
It was emotionally challenging. It made you look hard at whether you were assertive enough, were too assertive, or were poor at dealing with people who aren’t performing. After the course I was far more focused at work, and also far more focused on what I wanted from my career. Q What did you learn?
Firstly, to be a bit more assertive with people. Secondly, not to take criticism too much to heart – to be a good leader you have to rise above that and accept that some people won’t support you all of the time. I also learned to be more confident of my abilities and to be more creative in my approach. But the course also made me realise that I needed to refresh myself after nine years in the corporation. I needed a new challenge. I realised I wanted to get wider experience beyond housing. Q What are you going to do?
I’ve just left the corporation and started at the DTLR as senior external communications adviser for the Neighbourhood Renewal Unit. Q So you’ve changed jobs because of the course?
Oh yes, it gave me a bit of a kick. Q Overall, how do you rate the course?
I thought it was great. It makes you realise what a brilliant writer Shakespeare is. All his work is timeless. The situation is different but the message is the same.