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Leadership lessons from the Battle of Agincourt 600 Years On

school leadership lessons from the past

Tomorrow is the 600th commemoration of the Battle of Agincourt, made famous by Shakespeare nearly 200 years later.   Henry V’s leadership has oft been explored not least in the 1944 film version of Shakespeare’s play directed and starring Laurence Oliver. Very much a product of its time, the 1944 film alighted on the heroic leadership of Henry V as a morale booster for the troops on the eve of Britain’s re-invasion of France. What does Henry V’s leadership at the Battle of Agincourt tell us about leading in the Twenty-First Century?

Lead by example

Made famous by Shakespeare is Henry’s decision the night before battle, with an air of resignation in the camp, to make his way around his army and give them words of encouragement. Crucially the next day, unlike the French king Charles VI who stayed in Paris, Henry V situated himself in the middle of the fighting.

Leaders who are visible to their troops and role model the behaviours they wish to see are a powerful motivator to their “band of brothers’.   In today’s offices think of it as where you sit influences where you stand.

Play to your strengths

Henry V’s army at some 6,000-9,000 was much smaller in number than the 12,000-36,000 strong French army. However, Henry preferred well paid, well-trained and disciplined soldiers compared to the largely untrained larger armies of Europe. He had expert long bowmen and used them in battle to an organisational advantage.

So often we accentuate the negative. Such a focus on our problems may be preventing leaders from reaping the benefits of playing to the strengths of their team. Top performance athletes build on their strengths to gain positional advantage. Focusing on positive attributes can pay dividends when its purpose is to assist in a plan for more effective action.

Interrogate reality

It had been raining continuously for two weeks before the battle. A muddy rain soaked piece of land recently ploughed wouldn’t on first sight make ideal conditions for warfare. However, Henry looked beyond the problem and saw how a boggy field could be used to give his soldiers a defensive advantage.   He stopped his army in a field that was flanked on either side by woodland. This forced the French to move forward through a narrow channel, thereby offsetting their superior numbers. The French knights advancing in heavy armour were reduced to a stumbling walk rather than a charge, thus giving more time for Henry’s archers to unleash their arrows.

Leaders today may be so wrapped up in their latest initiative that they fail to master the courage to interrogate reality. What is working? How can we build on that? What isn’t working; what should we stop or do less of?

Ensure strategic alignment

Much is made of the long bowmen in winning the battle of Agincourt. However, Henry V recognised that no one single aspect would lead to victory. He used the different components – trained army, heavy rain, ploughed field, innovatively laying a fence of stakes in the ground, factoring in the French use of armoured cavalry – and took a systems approach that understood the interdependence of the different variables in securing success.

As a leader you will have an agreed upon strategy that hopefully is understood by your employees. How successfully do you implement the strategy? Take a lead from Henry V’s strategy and check that the different strands are aligned and communicated.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more…

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