Henry V, the first Undercover Boss?
Branagh, himself, was 28 when he starred in and directed this monumental tale, for which he was nominated for Academy Awards in acting and directing. The film was fashioned from his performance as the youngest actor to play the lead in Henry V for the Royal Shakespeare Society in 1984. So, the making of the film is life imitating art.
I love the film because it’s a tale of a young leader who everyone underestimates, and the elder King Charles VI of France openly ridicules, prevailing and conquering France against the odds in the name of the rightful, and historically illusive, union of England and France. The young underdog triumphs.
Henry V, known for partying with naves, rogues and commoners in Shakespeare’s Henry IV before his father dies and foists the restless prince unto the throne, is an untested leader who rises to the challenge. It’s a story of risk-taking, overcoming negative perceptions, proving leadership, then persuading foes, namely French Princess Katherine (played by Branagh’s first wife Emma Thompson) - who hates Henry for embarrassing her father, brother and their subjects, to accept him as King and also husband. In the blink of an eye, Henry V morphs from war epic to romance in a way that only the Bard could pull off.
What does this have to do with UK media executive Stephen Lambert’s popular reality show Undercover Boss?
Well, I applaud the way Shakespeare, and Branagh, tackle the tendency of leaders to become isolated from those being lead. In Act IV, Scene i, the night before the famous Battle of Agincourt, Henry dons a disguise, seeks the pulse of his frontline soldiers, weighs his moral justification for war and wrestles with his humanity against his high office in the face of the candid hopes and fears of his soldiers.
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition….(IV.iii.60–63)
With that speech, Henry rallies his troops to beat the French army that is five times the size of England’s.
Undercover Boss mirrors the scenes in Act IV. In the TV show, C-suite executives of impressive companies don disguises and take on the jobs of their frontline staff, often poorly. It’s where humbled bosses develop new insights into the backbones of their organizations and reclaim their humanity by connecting with staff via the very real and inspiring stories they live when they punch out each day. At the end of each episode, leaders speak to assembled staff about the wisdom gained from their experiences and individually reward the participants with promotions, opportunities for career development, work celebrations, dream vacations and tools to help overcome the adversity in their personal lives.
Bridging the employee/boss gap is essential for leaders to be great.
Undercover Boss is reality TV at its best. The best of the best I’ve seen has been an episode in my home country Canada, coincidentally, featuring the president and CEO of FedEx Canada, Lisa Lisson. Single mother, first female and Canadian president, Lisson worked her way up to the corner office via her own inspiring story during 20+ years with the global package delivery service, but none of her career experiences prepare her to deal with her time with four very special individuals within her ranks.
You can see for yourself in Canada on the W Network:
- June 7 at 9 p.m. (Eastern/Pacific),
- June 10 at 12:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. (Eastern/Pacific),
- June 11 at 12:30 a.m., 1 p.m. and 11 p.m. (Eastern/Pacific)
- July 2 at 10 a.m. (Eastern/Pacific)
- July 19 at 9 p.m. (Eastern/Pacific)
Even if your company is small and you could never disguise yourself, you should strive to bridge distance between the shop floor and the corner office. Leaders need to constantly seek the truth within their organizations. Manage by “walking around”, conduct confidential engagement surveys, create an environment that fosters respectful dialogue, reward ingenuity, spend “hands on” time trying different frontline jobs.
Even if you commit to some of these tactics, you’ll go a long way to becoming an honourary Undercover Boss. Just like Shakespeare’s Henry V is.