It has been described as one of the greatest battles of all time -- the fight between Henry V of England and the French army on October 25, 1415, at Agincourt in northern France. Henry, whose goal was to reclaim English territory seized by France in earlier centuries, had approximately 6,000 men. The French army, depending on which historical report you read, had anywhere from 30,000 to 60,000 soldiers, many of them knights in armor prepared to fight on foot and on horseback. The English army had neither armor nor horses, and they were exhausted by their two-month trek across France trying to reach what was then the English port of Calais.
But they did have what turned out to be a decisive advantage -- Henry V's leadership skills and his ability to innovate in ways that would turn significant disadvantages into game-winning advantages. In addition, before the battle started, he delivered one of the most famous motivational speeches in history -- at least as it is written in Shakespeare's Henry V. The speech has been played on Allied ships crossing the English Channel to Normandy during World War II; in locker rooms by football coaches losing at half time, and on the Internet for U.S. soldiers about to leave for duty in Iraq.
Here is how Henry won: He stopped his army on a field that was flanked on either side by woodlands, thus forcing the French army to move forward through a narrow funnel and neutralizing their superior numbers. He took full advantage of a rainfall that had muddied the battlefield and that would prove disastrous for the armored French soldiers -- when they slipped backwards wearing their 60-pound armor, they couldn't hoist themselves back up; when they fell forward, they drowned in the mud.
In addition, rather than rely on the more traditional, easy-to-use crossbow, Henry chose the long bow, which could fire arrows more quickly and at greater range. The resulting hail of arrows killed French soldiers behind the front line, taking away urgently needed reinforcements. Henry armed his men with pikes a foot longer than those used by the French, allowing English soldiers in hand-to-hand combat to deliver the first, and usually lethal, blow. And, in what has been described as a last minute innovation, Henry planted sharp stakes in the ground just at the point of the battle's engagement. The French army's horses, rushing forward, were impaled on the stakes and fell to the ground, crushing soldiers around them and blocking the path forward for others.
When the fighting stopped after several hours, the French had lost about 6,000 men, and the English about 450.
Some version of this battle has been told in history books, in Shakespeare's play and, two weeks ago, by Carol and Ken Adelman, founders of Movers & Shakespeares, which uses the world's greatest playwright to teach modern management skills to executives. The Adelmans were at Wharton as part of a Wharton executive education program called "The Leadership Journey."
Carol Adelman is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Prosperity where, among other things, she developed the annual Index of Global Philanthropy and Remittances. Ken Adelman is a former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and director of the U.S. Arms Control & Disarmament Agency during the Reagan administration.
The two started Movers & Shakespeares eight years ago because, as Carol noted during the course, William Shakespeare offers his audience exceptionally astute insights into human nature and has a genius for telling stories, which, she suggested, "is the best way to learn." The downside to the bard, she added, is that the language can be tedious and hard to understand -- something that comes as no surprise to high school students everywhere.
The Adelmans' approach is to delve into the language and extract leadership lessons from Shakespeare's plays. In this particular session, the focus was on Henry V, brought to life by a series of scenes from the 1989 movie starring Kenneth Branagh as Henry and Emma Thompson as the French princess Katharine. The class discussion centered on the battle scene, the motivation speech, Henry's wooing of Katharine, the punishment meted out to a soldier caught stealing, and the conference between Henry V and the Archbishop of Canterbury before Henry sets sail for France.
From the description of the battle at Agincourt, it's clear that Henry V displayed remarkable leadership capabilities, said Ken Adelman. He led by example, situating himself in the middle of the fighting whereas the French king, Charles VI, stayed in Paris, leaving the army under the leadership of a group of nobles. "Henry was willing to innovate, recognizing, for example, the superiority of the long bow and making sure his men were well-trained in how to use it," Adelman noted. Before Agincourt, the English army was 80% foot soldiers and 20% archers. After Agincourt, it was 20% foot soldiers and 80% archers.
Yet perhaps the English army's biggest asset was the speech Henry made to his men just before going into battle, including the famous sentence, "All things are ready if our minds be so." (The words are Shakespeare's; the actual text of the speech does not exist.) Even before speaking, Henry walks among his troops listening to what they are saying and feeling, and then positions himself in their midst to deliver his address. By contrast, the French leaders (in the Branagh movie) are shown at the head of their army, uttering confident phrases unable to be heard by any of their soldiers.
Here are excerpts from Henry's speech in the play:
"That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us...
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember'd.
This story shall the good man teach his son
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that shed his blood with me
Shall be my brother."