Bard on Board

SAN FRANCISCO (01/04/2000) - In order to receive my high-school diploma, like many others I was required to memorize various Shakespearean passages. To this day, I can spout soliloquies from Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth. Beyond helping with crossword puzzles and being fun at parties, there doesn't seem to be much practical use for this kind of specialized knowledge.

But in their lively book Shakespeare in Charge, Norman Augustine and Kenneth Adelman offer a surprising reason to dust off the old textbooks: Studying Shakespeare's characters - and the sticky situations they find themselves in - can offer busy execs advice about surviving in today's competitive marketplace, the authors argue.

Consider The Taming of the Shrew: Petruchio's goal is to train Katherine to become a model wife so he can marry her and obtain her dowry. Each time Katherine displays her shrewlike behavior in response to his wooing, Petruchio must regroup and redefine his plan of attack. The lesson, the authors say, is to adapt to a changing environment, as 3M learned when it developed Post-it notes out of a failed attempt to create superstrength glue.

In Julius Caesar, Cassius convinces Brutus to help him kill Caesar, a popular and effective leader. Although Caesar receives warnings to "beware the ides of March," he disregards them and is stabbed in the back by conspirators. But Cassius' inability to stand up for what he believes and Brutus' inability to work with others, combined with their combined failure to plan for a successor to Caesar, lead to their downfall. You get the idea.

In Shakespeare's play, King Henry V of England gained valuable information when he disguised himself and walked among his soldiers the night before a battle.

Unlike the sugar-coated advice he got from his lieutenants, the leader didn't always hear what he would have liked from the rank and file. As the authors recount, AOL learned that lesson after an outside consultant said it was on the wrong track to increase sales. So AOL gave the consultant the reins and the result is the now successful Web network iVillage.com.

The layout of Shakespeare in Charge cleverly mimics the structure of a play.

Divided into Acts I through V, each section contains a "prologue" that introduces the "scenes" (plot synopses) as well as "acting lessons," which cover the act's characters and how their actions translate to the world of modern corporate life.

The book uses examples from many of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets, but focuses its bard-business comparisons on five major works: Henry V, The Taming of the Shrew, Julius Caesar, The Merchant of Venice and Hamlet. The fundamentals of a successful business are detailed, such as basic leadership strategies, intelligent risk-taking in the corporate world, effective communication between executives and employees, and expedient crisis management.

While entertaining, Shakespeare in Charge provides more of a course in Business 101 rather than any major revelations. Ultimately, however, Augustine and Adelman have managed to make both Shakespeare and the fundamentals of business accessible and entertaining for anyone on the corporate stage.

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