Business Lessons From The Bard

Olin Dean Mark Taylor onstage with the Dean’s Players. Courtesy photo

Washington University in St. Louis’ Olin Business School hosted a rather unusual event this past April, when they celebrated Shakespeare’s 453rd birthday.

Unusual, at least, for a business school. But Dean Mark Taylor, a native of the United Kingdom, happens to be a Shakespeare enthusiast. He also happens to have a master’s degree in English Renaissance and romantic literature. So he was eager to bring the poet’s work to Olin.

Though connections between the Bard and the business world may not be immediately obvious, Taylor says Shakespeare’s plays have strong messages for business leaders and managers.

Henry V’s Agincourt speech is truly inspirational,” Taylor says, “and two compelling maxims of which I often remind myself — from Shakespeare’s King John and Hamlet, respectively — are, ‘Strong reasons make strong actions’ and ‘We know what we are but not what we may be.'”

‘AN UNEXPECTED AND ENRICHING ADVENTURE’

As dean, Taylor created a dramatic society at Olin called the Dean’s Players, and recruited students to join. Chris Detloff, a second-year business major at Olin, says Taylor reached out to him after noticing that he had taken an acting class the previous semester.

“It immediately interested me because of the opportunity to meet the new dean of the business school and start a tradition at Olin,” Detloff says.

Detloff ultimately opened the Shakespeare celebration on April 23 by reciting the prologue to Henry V. He says he really enjoyed interacting with the other Olin students and faculty in such a unique setting.

“Only at Olin could I experience such an unexpected and enriching adventure,” he says.

The Dean’s Players. Courtesy photo

LISTENING SKILLS AND ‘BEING PRESENT’

The event was free to the public, and over 700 people attended. Joining the Dean’s Players were Washington University’s Performing Arts Department, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, The Black Rep, Opera Theatre St. Louis, and the Ghost Lights. The groups performed scenes from Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, As You Like It, Henry V, and Twelfth Night.

“Shakespeare at Olin has provided a wonderful opportunity to connect with great people and programs across Washington University and in the St. Louis community,” Taylor says.

Ashley Hanqiu Zhou, a senior at Olin, played Ursula in Much Ado About Nothing. She says though some people may not see the connection between performing arts and business, Shakespeare’s work is actually very relevant.

“The craft of acting, including acting in Shakespeare, sheds light on how one should perform in life,” Zhou says. “For instance, the best actors are not only excellent at delivering their own speeches but able to master the response to other people’s speeches as well. This requires attentive listening and being present for the other partner, which is crucial to being successful in business as well.

‘NO REASON NOT TO PARTICIPATE’

Tiffany Powell, a first-year Olin student, is also a member of the Dean’s Players, playing Olivia in Twelfth Night. She agreed that Shakespeare’s plays offer lessons in communication for both the audience and the actors.

“It’s an actor’s job to deliver their lines in a way that will help the audience understand the text and how the characters are feeling,” Powell says. “In business, firms spend a lot of time and money finding ways to interact with their customers effectively and finding out how to better serve their needs, much like Shakespearean actors.”

Taylor, who joined the Dean’s Players in a scene from Henry V, says he hopes the celebration will become an annual event.

“It’s quite amazing that the Olin Business School is investing so much to show appreciation for Shakespeare and the performing arts,” Zhou says. “There’s no reason not to participate.”

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