Business by the Bard

The son of a famous Hamlet has created a management seminar that actually seems to work. A story told in five acts.

By Claire Suddath

Illustration by Wesley Merritt

Act I: A skeptic attends a Paris conference

One day in September 2010, Walt McFarland sat down with 23 other people — mostly men, mostly in their late 40s — for the final class of a master’s degree program taught by the Oxford Saïd Business School and the HEC Management School in Paris. The presentation, about inspiring organizational change within a company, was led by Richard Olivier, son of the late Shakespearean actor Laurence Olivier, who was there to walk the execs through The Tempest.

McFarland wasn’t familiar with the play, but he knew a thing or two about change. Over his career he’d helped several major U.S. federal entities including the FBI and Congress reorganize their management systems: He worked with 100,000 employees during the IRS modernization in the late 1990s and helped formulate the Department of Homeland Security after Sept. 11. “I’d been to a lot of presentations like this. Things can get pretty beaten down and cynical when it comes to change,” he says. “This was not my first rodeo.” But minutes into the program, as Olivier was explaining the story of the magical duke Prospero, McFarland swears Olivier looked right at him. The moment was as “brief as the lightning in the collied night,” as Shakespeare might have said, but it changed McFarland’s life forever.

Act II: A legend’s son confronts his father’s ghost

In the mid-’90s, Olivier was a well-respected West End director who felt resentment toward his famous father, who died in 1989. “As a child it was hard to understand that he preferred playing Othello to being with me,” he told the London Times in 1999. Olivier had spent his career avoiding Shakespeare — “that was my father’s territory” — but in 1997, he was invited to direct Henry V at London’s Globe Theatre, an honor he couldn’t pass up. In rehearsal, he and his leading man, Mark Rylance, “wondered, what if, instead of an audience watching the play, we ... allowed them to live through the play and apply it to their own lives?” Olivier explains. Henry V is about an inspirational political leader — the king famously rallies his troops before a battle with France — so they conducted a three-day workshop with several local public officials. “At the end, they said they’d learned more about leadership from Henry V than any other program that they’d been on in their career,” he says.

And thus was born Olivier Mythodrama. The company adapts some of the Bard’s greatest tales into lessons of corporate leadership, presenting them to corporations such as Rolls-Royce and FedEx, organizations such as the United Nations, and even the World Economic Forum in Davos. The idea, says Olivier, is that “in most of the great Shakespeare plays, there is some wisdom about human nature that’s encoded into the story and which can help guide us.” In other words, if something was rotten in Denmark, it’s probably rotten in UBS. Or MoneyGram. Or the CIA.

Act III: An industry searches for a king

“Truth is truth”: Corporate leadership programs are boring and rarely involve lessons about invading France. Companies often delegate training responsibilities to HR departments; you may even go to an “executive education program” at a B-school, but those aren’t much better. Chief executives keep trying: The HR research firm Bersin & Associates estimates that $13.6 billion was spent on such initiatives in 2012. “They’re all the same,” says John Kotter, a professor of leadership, emeritus, at Harvard Business School. “They put together a training program for middle and senior management, they show you a bunch of PowerPoint slides, and then you return to work and everything you learned just washes away.”

Effective programs, says Kotter, force you outside your comfort zone. The Gettysburg Leadership Experience analyzes the historic Civil War battle for management insights. (Uh, deliver a great speech?) The most extreme example may be Outward Bound, “but even then, it’s just a bunch of out-of-shape 45-year-old guys doing trust falls,” Kotter says. Mythodrama doesn’t involve mountains — or men in tights. Instead, it draws on Shakespeare’s insights into the human condition and plays on the universal emotions his words often evoke: pride, fear, joy. How’s that for a day in a conference room?

Act IV: A program hones its strengths

Each Mythodrama program is based on one of five plays: Henry V deals with inspiration, Julius Caesar with politics and power, As You Like It with sustainability, The Tempest with organizational change, and Macbeth with fraud. Whether it’s a one-time session or a weeklong program (prices depend on length and size; Olivier commands almost $24,000 for a single keynote), the presentations all have the same structure. A trained presenter runs through the CliffsNotes version of the story. After a major plot point — say, when Henry executes three traitors — the audience breaks into groups to discuss how their company’s problems relate. “I’m not suggesting for a minute that [execution] is how we deal with traitors in our organization,” Mythodrama’s Phyllida Hancock said during her Henry V talk at the 2011 National Leadership Conference, “but ... how do you deal with voices of dissent? How do you deal with that same person in management meetings every week saying, ‘It’ll never work’?” At that, the audience laughed — they know what it’s like to want to execute someone.

For years, Olivier worked mostly with British and European companies (“Britons have a deep connection with Shakespeare, whereas in the U.S. it can seem quaint,” says William Ayot, who holds the quaint title of Mythodrama’s poet in residence). That’s changing. This fall it hosted an informational presentation at American University in the hopes of increasing its presence in Washington. “We usually have to tell the participants, ‘Look, this is going be different,’” says Ron Meeks, a senior partner at Pivot Leadership in Portland, Ore., which has brought Mythodrama to such corporations as McDonald’s and Wal-Mart Stores. “But once it starts, people usually get into it.”

People like Walt McFarland. After he and Olivier locked eyes in Paris, “Olivier said, ‘If you’re leading a major change, you have to be willing to change yourself. You might have to be willing to die for it.’” McFarland was stunned. He felt the weight of his job — tens of thousands of employees’ lives and careers depended on his success. He had no idea that working for the IRS could be like The Tempest.

When he talks about the play’s most climactic moment — when Prospero relinquishes his power by snapping his magical staff — McFarland sounds as if he’s about to cry. “At the peak of his power he gave it up,” he says. He vowed to conduct himself the same way when he got back to work.

Act V: A conflicted leader finds his epilogue

The true test of any corporate leadership program is whether its lessons will stick with participants when they reenter the real world. And while there isn’t a comprehensive survey of the effectiveness of such programs, a 2000 Harvard Business Review article reported that 70 percent of all corporate change initiatives fail. Add to that the fact that nearly 90 percent of New Year’s resolutions falter, and it’s clear that changing a person’s behavior is a difficult battle to win. McFarland, however, maintains that Mythodrama has turned him into a different man. He’s cagey about the details, but says that months after his session, as he was leading a roomful of people through one of his plans, he realized that he’d made a mistake. “I didn’t take responsibility,” he says. “I blamed it on something else.” McFarland told his team to take a break and walked around the block. “After one loop, I still didn’t want to do the right thing, so I walked around the block again,” he says. “Then I came back and I did it. I threw my staff on the ground.” As Prospero declared: “Now my charms are all o’erthrown. And what strength I have’s mine own.”


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