Poppy Magazine
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Poppy Magazine

Once more unto the breach, dear friends

So declares the Bard’s Henry V as he rallies his troops before besieging the French town of Harfleur. In his rousing speech, Henry unifies his army in a common cause by skilfully appealing to their patriotism and elevating their status to that of noblemen. It is only one example of Henry’s inspirational leadership in a play that Richard Olivier believes holds many relevant lessons for modern-day leaders

Words: Richard Olivier
Glen McBeth

The son of thespians Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright, and a theatre director for more than 10 years, Richard took his fascination with storytelling and turned it into Olivier Mythodrama, a leadership development consultancy that uses theatre to harness the power of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. It is a rather alternative approach to leadership education, but as Richard explains here, one that is very much needed as 21st-century leadership evolves and takes on many new facets

The notion of storytelling has always been a big part of my life. I grew up in a theatre family; my mum and dad were both actors and from a very young age, I would go to the theatre to watch their plays. Following the death of my father when I was still relatively young, I explored my own personal development and became interested in what the life of a mature man looked like in the modern world. I came across a men’s movement led by the American poet Robert Bly that utilised mythopoetics — the idea of going deeper into the narrative of a story to try and identify, what I call, its mythic backbone. All great stories have a skeleton under the surface that holds the real meaning and drives the narrative. Over the course of three years, I immersed myself in these ideas and carried out research into men’s development in an organisational context. It became clear that stories could be used as containers for learning within a professional organisation.

The indefinable nature of genius

I was then asked to direct Henry V for the opening of the Shakespeare Globe Theatre in 1997. While working alongside Mark Rylance, who also believed in the mythic structure, we studied the play as a map of human development. Broadly about a young leader grappling with a big project, it is full of lessons about inspiration and purpose, passion and motivation.

Encouraged by business guru Charles Handy and poet David Whyte, we had the idea to present a Mythodrama experience to business leaders — the ‘mytho’ being the great stories and insights into human nature that Shakespeare created and the ‘drama’ being the learning experience and the vehicle for communicating the story.

Shakespeare is a wonderful gift. He just had it, and the result of that genius is enduringly relevant and rich case studies about leaders and their followers. The treatment of Othello, or Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew, may be outdated in terms of societal changes but the human dynamics underneath the plays are eternal. Henry V is an inspirational leader; Julius Caesar concerns the themes of power, politics and influence; Macbeth explores the dangers of derailing behaviour; The Tempest seeks to understand the dynamics of change; and As You Like It enables positive change culture.

I took Henry V as a leadership intervention to Cranfield School of Management and Saïd Business School, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. Participants could easily identify with Henry and his struggles, and then reflect on their own situation and experiences through the story. From this success, Olivier Mythodrama was born, using storytelling and drama as a means to demonstrate the essence of modern leadership.

The methods we use help to prepare leaders for the events that will ultimately define their leadership. As a leader, you need to be the chief storyteller and control the narrative of your organisation. Any organisational challenge is an opportunity to tell an effective story and engage your audience. But this is not a typical strength of many CEOs. We all know how to tell stories as kids but once we become number crunchers, we forget. Storytelling is a skill that needs to be learnt once again.

Good King, Warrior, Good Mother, Medicine Woman

In the past, there has been a temptation for people, particularly leaders, to compartmentalise their lives and leave their personalities at the door; they are warriors at work and loving parents at home. But the modern workplace, and certainly the future workplace, needs to be populated by people who are self-aware and emotionally intelligent; who are collaborative rather than competitive; who don’t get stuck in silos but are aware of the complex map of stakeholders relying on them.

Once upon a time the best leader was seen to be unshakable — a strong helmsman, as it were, setting the direction of the organisation. Since I started this 20 years ago, I have noticed a distinct humanisation in leadership. Leaders are becoming more adaptable and more willing to respond to the situation around them. Indeed, they are gaining more credibility than those who refuse to show doubt or ask questions.

The demands on 21st-century leaders are becoming bigger and more varied. The number of stakeholders leaders must engage with is continuing to rise and it is more complex than even half a generation ago. A different level of consciousness is required to tackle this. A leader needs to exhibit a rounded personality; think systematically as opposed to linearly; and have the ability to hold paradox.

Since I started this 20 years ago, I have noticed a distinct humanisation in leadership. Leaders are becoming more adaptable and more willing to respond to the situation around them.

At Olivier Mythodrama, we use Archetypal Psychology, which is essentially characters of communication found in all cultures past and present — the Good King (building consent around common goals), the Great Mother (the power of listening and encouraging collaborative effort), the Medicine Woman (adapting personal energy) and the Warrior (upholding accountability).

People usually have a prejudice against their least favourite archetype. For example, people in the Good King mode are very logical and ordered. They may resent innovative shaman types and unconsciously try and clamp down on that innovation. Yet, archetypes are essentially human potentials and anyone can learn to access the ones they find difficult. It’s a question of motivation, but to work at full potential, we require access to all four characters and the ability to switch between them as appropriate, depending on the situation.

A second Renaissance

The next stage of Mythodrama’s development is to adapt non-Shakespeare stories. The Middle Age tale of Parsifal and the quest for the Holy Grail has valuable lessons in how leaders need to accept who they are, failures and all. This two and a half day course gives leaders an opportunity to reflect on the fertiliser of their lives, as they transition from the first adventure of leadership (proving your worth) to the second of leaving a legacy.

The best leaders are those who sustain their people and their culture in an ethical manner. They are committed to leaving the world a better place. Leaders must ask: how can our organisation be fit for purpose in 2050? Big organisations need to be run ethically in the short term but also sustainably in the long term. As the world changes, there are lessons about leadership that Shakespeare could never have envisioned. The stories of the past can only develop modern leaders’ skills to a certain capacity. It’s vital that we research and source new stories for the future of leadership development as well as use the great wisdom of the past.

I believe authentic leaders are ordinary people able to draw on extraordinary talents. The next two generations of leaders will have a fundamental impact on the world around us. I believe we are at a crucial point in history, similar to the Renaissance, which was a time of great change that required a shift in the level of consciousness about the world. In the same way that people grasped that the Earth was not the centre of the universe, I would argue that we now need to realise that we are not the centre of the universe. Both leaders and organisations are part of this systemic shift, and we want to help leaders see the big picture.

Henry V: The 15th Century CEO

Henry V was the first play we developed for organisational leadership. During the course of the play, many leadership issues arise: from communicating a vision to managing conflict and maintaining momentum, overcoming self-doubt and inspiring others.

At the beginning of the play, Henry must shed his playboy image and win the respect of his followers before leading them to France to reclaim England’s lands. The analogy for business is clear. He’s a new leader, brought into an organisation rife with problems. He unites his team around a common goal, seeing off his closest competitor.

Henry’s success is due in part to his ability to play more than one role. In France, he uses his leadership skills to solve the challenges before his army. The play culminates at the Battle of Agincourt, where Henry and his exhausted troops must face the enemy. Henry has a restless night as he faces his own doubts and fears but on the battlefield we see the warrior leader in action. After the battle, he then must turn his attention to healing relationships with France and yet another type of leadership is required.

Henry also embarks on his own journey of personal development as he prepares for leadership. He seeks out what we would now call his individual sense of purpose: what really gets him up in the morning with a smile on his face to be leader of England plc.


We are living in a pivotal time when women need to step fully into leadership roles and embody their full selves without having to compromise and use masculine energy to ‘get things done’. Using the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone came out of a strong commitment to working more with women to help them address the challenges they face in the corporate world. The story is fundamentally about how women operate effectively and skilfully in a patriarchal world that doesn’t always support them: how do they take on systems that are oppressive and continue to access what is best in themselves?

In mainstream culture, people understand the story as the creation of the seasons. Persephone is abducted by Hades and taken to the underworld, and her mother, Demeter, must use her skills and resources to rescue her. The outcome is the seasons: in winter everything goes underground; in spring there is growth; summer is when everything comes to fruition; and autumn is a time of harvest. These transitions, or cycles, are apparent not only in a woman’s life but also in organisational life when planting seeds and growing a new project or innovation.

Whereas Henry V is primarily focused on external realities, Demeter and Persephone is powered by a sense of self. As Persephone emerges regenerated, re-born and more fully herself at the end of her journey, we encourage women to focus on their own personal development: they have time to reflect, examine the bigger perspective of their lives and recognise the privilege and opportunity they have in their roles to influence others. By working with the triple goddess of Maiden/Mother/Crone, women can explore the inner transformations through these stages in their lives, and how to move towards reunion and integration internally and externally.

This story is taken from the third issue of Poppy. Our print run is strictly limited but, if you are based in the UK, you can request a printed copy via the ReadPoppy.com website.

Richard Olivier has worked extensively in the fields of Organisational and Personal Development and is the founding voice within Mythodrama. Olivier Mythodrama’s mission is to help leaders act with integrity, tell a compelling story and release the potential of those around them. The Guild of Mythodrama-accredited consultants have helped senior executives around the world grow their leadership skills. More information on Olivier Mythodrama’s offerings can be found at www.oliviermythodrama.com or by emailing info@oma.uk.com.

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