CEO and chairman of the Bard

Portrait of William Shakespeare

TEXT OF STORY

TESS VIGELAND: What can major-league sports teach you about being better managers and business people? What can the Beatles teach you about team-building? Seems like everyone and their basketball coach has a business-world lesson for us. Including Shakespeare. That's right. William Shakespeare was the theme of an annual CEO retreat outside Boston earlier this year. A day-and-a-half-long seminar, run by something called CEO Roundtable. Marketplace's Sean Cole tagged along to learn how to turn the boardroom into a Bard-room.


SEAN COLE: CEO Roundtable is sort of like a support group for CEO's. They get together monthly and talk about CEO stuff: Personnel problems, start-up successes and failures. And then once a year they have a kind of CEO lollapalooza, usually with a theme. Which, this year was Hamlet.

Actor: To be or not to be. That is the question. Whether 'tis . . .

Hopefully, they weren't planning to use the play to teach effective decision making. The whole thing was led by Tina Packer, artistic director of a theater out in the Berkshires called Shakespeare and Company. She started by explaining the title of the seminar.

TINA PACKER: . . . which is "Will."

Shakespeare's first name of course. But in Elizabeathian times, will meant a couple of other things, like . . .

PACKER: Sexual desire. You didn't know that, did you? It can also mean the sexual parts but we won't go down there or explain anything to do with that.

Thank goodness. And then there's the reason everyone was there.

PACKER: The will to power. And how is it that you can be empowered with your will and how much will are you willing to exert?

The real question is, How are CEO's going to learn to wield power expertly and benevolently from a sullen vengeful little Dane like Hamlet? Particularly when most of them aren't familiar with the source material.

CEO 1: My relationship to Shakespeare, in a word, is rusty.

CEO 2: Distant.

CEO 3: Non-existent.

CEO 4: Abandoned after my convent high school.

CEO 5: Well, Shakespeare is the company that makes my fishing equipment.

Luckily, Packer brought two of her actors along to perform the play for them. In 10 minutes. Wigs and swords flying everywhere.

Kevin Coleman: Uh, Hamlet, uh, here are your letters back, uh, because to the noble mind rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind. There.

Jason Aspery: You bitch! Get thee to a nunnery!

Coleman: What?

From there it was break-out group time. No management retreat is complete without its break-out groups. Discussion questions ranged from "Is Claudius a good crisis manager? Why?" to "What is your obligation to ghosts and their unfinished business?" For people who haven't read "Hamlet" in, like, 30 years, if at all, the CEO's really dove into the material, some of them mulling over the "to be or not to be" speech.

Mary: Yeah, but it strikes me that he had a very narrow set of options that he was considering. He could have formed consortiums, he could've . . .

Could have rallied together his allies and taken on the president of the company, Claudius, who, according to one of the more Shakespeare-knowledgeable CEO's, Mark Laughtenberger, should never have graduated from management school.

Mark Laughtenberger: So, Claudius as a crisis leader. Yes or no? We say thumbs down. He hadn't built any coalitions, asked for any help, communicated to anybody.

He just let his guilt and shame eat him up inside, occasionally exploding in emotional outbursts. Which is also what happened to Hamlet because he let the ghost of his father linger around too long unavenged. Another CEO, Barbara Dove, says everybody has ghosts like that.

Barbara Dove: With ghosts, what do you do with them? Well, some people say deal with them. Do somethin' about it. You can make the choice of whether to kill . . .

Packer: Claudius!

Dove: Claudius! Thank you, begins with C.

One of the members said the play reminds him of problems he was having with his board. Loren Carlson, the CEO of CEO Roundtable, had already thought of that analogy.

Loren Carlson: What I have experienced, where a member didn't see the assassin coming. Didn't know that something was rotten on the board of Denmark.

And, you know, fun retreat. Until after lunch when the whole seminar turned a lot darker and more serious. Essentially, Packer asked the group to remember a time when they were truly afraid. And not just to remember it but to really return to the scary thing in their minds and feel it as fully as when it happened. And by way of example, Packer's two actors performed the scene where Hamlet's dead father appears before him. Kevin Coleman played the father, real tears gathering around his eyes.

Coleman: If thou didst ever thy dear father love.

Aspery: Oh, god!

Coleman: Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder!

Aspery: Murder!?

Coleman: Murder, most foul!

Suddenly, I was crying. Which is crazy because these were the words of a fictional ghost that Shakespeare dreamed up 400 years ago. Whatever the actor was thinking about, the emotion was real. And I thought to myself, I can't even get through 10 minutes of Hamlet without falling apart. I would make the worst CEO in the world. But Tina Packer says swallowing that despair, or whatever, is just going to desensitize you. And the world doesn't need another inhuman boss.

Packer: And in this idea of will and willpower, which we spoke about at the beginning, there is, if you have the power to be vulnerable. You actually can use your vulnerability for great strength. Not only for yourself but for other people.

So, in that sense, maybe I'd make the best CEO in the world. Except that I really don't know whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.

In Boston, I'm Sean Cole for Marketplace.

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