As managers, we’ve all faced tough times. Some are tougher than others. When I first joined a company where I previously worked, we were facing tough times that included things like bomb threats and receiving correspondence sprinkled with blood. In fact, early in my time at that company I prevented a large group of protesters who had gathered in our parking lot from invading and occupying our headquarters building (which they had done on a previous occasion). Fortunately, we were able to turn things around and put experiences like that behind us.
That's perhaps an extreme example, but even "normal" tough times like budget cuts, competitive pressure, or the loss of key personnel create special challenges for managers.
They also provide a great opportunity. Times of great adversity shape the character of an organization for better or for worse. If you allow it, they can shatter trust and divide your employees. However, if you seize the opportunity you can use them as your greatest chance to forge deep bonds of trust and loyalty.
Let’s consider an example of a manager facing a really tough situation. The manager was King Henry V. The tough situation was that his little army was starving, clothed in rags, exhausted, dying of dysentery, and desperately trying to escape from northern France. Unfortunately their path to the coast was blocked by a huge, fresh, well-fed French army that was determined to kill them all. On the morning of October 25, 1415, the English army awoke, about to fight what we now know as the battle of Agincourt, facing hopeless odds and knowing they were all going to die.
That's probably a worse situation than anything you'll ever have to face as a manager. I certainly hope so!
If you want to read about the messy, fantastic, fascinating reality of what happened next and how the ragtag English army achieved a stunning victory, I highly recommend Agincourt, Henry V and the Battle that Made England, by Juliet Barker.
However, for our purpose (learning how to be better managers) it's more useful to turn to Shakespeare’s version of the events. In his play Henry V the young king transforms the dire situation into an opportunity to build loyalty and enthusiasm. He rallies the spirits of his troops with the famous oration known as the St. Crispin’s day speech. This is a great example of inspired leadership, of the power of words to move hearts and minds, to fundamentally transform how people perceive their situation.
Take a few minutes now to watch this clip of Kenneth Branagh, as King Henry, rallying his troops with this brilliant rendition of the famous St. Crispin’s day speech in his acclaimed movie version of the play. Just before this clip begins, one of his noblemen had wished they had 10,000 more English soldiers with them, and Henry responds.
Isn’t that remarkable?
Did you see what he did? In this speech, Henry turns the wish for more soldiers on its head, convincing his men they're lucky to be in the battlefield and to be so few, while the many who are safely in their beds in England are the unlucky ones who will forever regret not having been there. By the end of the speech they see themselves, in his words, as, "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers." Rather than grumbling and fearful, they are now united and determined in the face of grim adversity.
We probably can’t achieve the oratorical magnificence of Branagh reciting Shakespeare, but that’s fine, we don’t have to. We can still use some of the same ideas that are used in this speech in our work as managers when we're facing tough times. In the next post, we’ll take a closer look at these ideas. There are a number of subtle and powerful insights to be gained. Then in the third and final post in the series, we’ll review some practical nuts and bolts techniques you can use as a manager to turn adversity into strength.