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Executive Education

Business meets Shakespearean tragedy

By Peter Walker for CNN
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(CNN) -- He is a powerful but flawed leader who ignores repeated warnings about his vulnerability and is eventually murdered by plotters including his closest friend.

Why, then, is Julius Caesar being used as a model for business executives?

That is precisely what Sad Business School, part of Britain's Oxford University, is doing in an innovative executive education program next month.

Titled "Politics, Power and the Art of Influence," the three-day course takes as its basis the history of Julius Caesar as told in William Shakespeare's famous 1599 tragedy, which culminates in the assassination of the Roman leader by a group including his friend, Brutus.

Naturally, executives are encouraged to learn from Caesar's mistakes, rather than copying his actions.

The course stresses how the plot, characters and issues of the play have parallels for modern executives, even though their sanction for failure is unlikely to be a bloody death through stabbing.

The outline describes the play as "a masterly study in the mechanics of building support and political understanding."

"It explores how coalitions are built, how influence is exercised and how the momentum for change is built. It also provides a powerful portrait of the perils that lie in store for leaders who absent themselves from the political process once they are in charge," it explains.

The program uses role-plays based on the play with alongside more traditional tenets of management theory.

Theatrical pedigree

As well as academics and experts from the business school, the course is led by Olivier Mythodrama, which uses theatrical and psychological techniques to teach management skills.

This organization is headed by Richard Olivier, who has what could be described as an impeccable theatrical pedigree: apart from being a successful director himself, he happens to be the son of late thespian legend Sir Laurence Olivier and his third and final wife, actress Joan Plowright.

'We were keen to develop this program because this is an area which we feel has not been addressed adequately in most executive development work," said Ron Emerson, director of the course.

"In part this may be because power and politics may be seen as an unsavory aspect of organizational life whereas, in fact, it is an inevitable consequence of any group of people working in complex environments where interpretations differ on what are appropriate courses of action.

"Understanding your own organization as a social, political system sheds new light on how things really work and, therefore, how one might operate more effectively in getting things done."

As well as a description of the intrigues of political life in the Roman era, the play Julius Caesar is also viewed by scholars as Shakespeare's mirroring of the contemporary realities of era of England's Queen Elizabeth I, giving it extra resonance.

Thus, much as competing players in a late 16th century court, executives taking the course learn to "align conflicting perspectives and agendas by diagnosing key dependencies and the politics of coalitions," also to "build and leverage momentum through social networks and social capital."

All this, hopefully, without being betrayed and murdered by their best friends.


story.caesar.jpg

Et tu, Brute? Arthur Dignam plays Julius Caesar in a 2005 production in Australia.

FACT BOX

FT's Executive MBA Rankings
1. Wharton, U.S.
2. Hong Kong UST, China
3. London Business School, UK
4. Instituto de Empresa, Spain
5. Fuqua, Duke, U.S.
6. Chicago GSB, U.S.
7. Columbia, U.S.
8. Kellogg, U.S.
9. Stern, NY, U.S.
10. Cass, City University, UK
Source: Financial Times 2006

FACT BOX

EMBA SNAPSHOT

Executives taking the top EMBA courses in the U.S., Europe and Asia have average salaries of around $130,000 to $200,000.

A typical EMBA student is likely to be aged in the early 30s, with 6-10 years of working experience.

A top EMBA course can cost $100,000. Customized courses start at a few thousand dollars.

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