We, us, our… lessons from Agincourt and Henry V

Today is St Crispin’s Day.

The 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt, 25 October 1415.

The famous victory of 5,000 English over 20,000 French (the historical numbers vary, maybe 7,000 over 36,000).

The heroes: the English archers, firing arrows from their longbows over the heads of their own protective infantry-line to the enemy. The French, with their clunky crossbows, were a perfect fixed target, stuck in narrow ground.

Ah, the abundance of Agincourt myths today

Is it true that the French threatened to cut off the two bow-stretching fingers of any captured archers, the long-distant source of the two-fingered gesture?

Can we hear, across the centuries, thousands of archers jeeringly sticking up their two fingers, chanting like a football crowd?

“F*** off you Fre-eench!”

Is it true that Henry gave a rousing speech to his troops the night before battle and then insisted on silence so they could hear if the enemy was making a surprise attack?

Did Henry order the slaughter of French prisoners after the battle?

My favourite myth is in some of the finest writing in the English language.

If Henry V has been immortalised as a hero it is partly because he had a top-notch speech writer, nearly 200 years later.

The St Crispin’s Day speech* from Shakespeare’s Henry V, Act IV sc iii, is about belonging, camaraderie, and all being in it together – death or glory.

*text in full below this blog – go on, say it out loud…

Here’s a rousing recital from Jamie Parker at Shakespeare’s Globe, and here for Kenneth Branagh’s bravado.

At the beginning, it’s a personal challenge – in the first person singular:

“I…” “me…”
“I pray thee, wish not one man more”

As the language builds to a high-motivation crescendo, the voice is all in the collective:

“We… us… our…”
“But we in it shall be remembered- We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”

Any politicians, revolutionaries or business leaders…

Looking for how to incite willingness to take risks for a common cause?

Read this speech.

Top speech-writing lessons from the master:

  • Use ‘We, us, our’ more than ‘I, me, you’
  • Own what is personal: but share ownership of the goal, the pride in achievement and the motivation to do it
  • Invite people in, with a short clear statement of the challenge they’re involved in
  • Don’t just keep repeating the corporate mantra! For heaven’s sake… respond to what’s immediately around you and empathise with those front line
  • Don’t soft-soap: if your troops risk losing their lives they know it, they’d like to know you know it
  • Your troops’ courage to go into battle regardless of risk comes partly from your demonstration of courage
  • Respect the commitment of your people: don’t ever, ever, take this for granted
  • Straight-talk is worthy of trust

The bold unity of “We, us, our” shows up the lack of shared commitment implicit in “I, me, you”.

In early July 2012 I wrote on a similar theme, commenting on a letter sent to employees by the then CEO of Barclays, Bob Diamond, shared in the public domain in various newspapers (The IndependentTelegraphBBC news)

The letter was intended to re-motivate employees after news of the Libor rate-rigging scandal across the banking sector.

“No one is more sorry, disappointed and angry about these events than I am.I am sorry because we let down the people whose trust we rely on…I love Barclays, and I am proud of all of you…”

Hmm, rather more “I” than “We”?

And as I was writing the article, the news broke that the CEO had resigned.

Ah. On reflection…

One more rule from Shakespeare and Henry V

  • Never make leadership just about your view or your approval. As leader give equal regard for those who choose to follow.

Back to the speech, which concludes with a rousing call – inviting a shared-pride to be the envy of all.

“And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”

Choice is a critical theme of this speech.

The King is not commanding, but offering a straight choice:
Join arms with us and be our brother; do not fight with us if you do not want to die with us. (Go home, we’ll give you fair payment.)

Shakespeare is right on the money here. People will do great things – and the right things – because they want to, not because they have to.

If you’re a leader worth following, you are more than just you – you represent everybody in the organisation.

Shakespeare brilliantly picked up the Saints’ day of 25 October. No big-star saint, but Crispin and Crispian, two brothers in a most unglamorous trade: the patron saints of cobblers, tanners and saddle-makers.

Like the ordinary blokes who were Henry’s archers, they are ennobled by this telling of history.

So on this day “the feast of Crispin Crispian”, let’s remember that ordinary people will do extraordinary things because they feel part of something greater.

Belonging transcends status.

That’s the power of “We, us and Our”.

Belonging Space helps leaders create a sense of belonging in their organisations.




From Henry V by William Shakespeare, Act IV sc iii


O that we now had here

But one ten thousand of those men in England

That do no work to-day!


What’s he that wishes so?

My cousin, Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;

If we are mark’d to die, we are enow

To do our country loss; and if to live,

The fewer men, the greater share of honour.

God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.

By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,

Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;

It yearns me not if men my garments wear;

Such outward things dwell not in my desires.

But if it be a sin to covet honour,

I am the most offending soul alive.

No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.

God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour

As one man more methinks would share from me

For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!

Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,

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.

This day is call’d the feast of Crispian 

He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,

Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,

And rouse him at the name of Crispian.

He that shall live this day, and see old age,

Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,

And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”

Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,

And say “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”

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 rememb’red.

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 remembered-

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition;

And gentlemen in England now-a-bed

Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Go on, read it aloud.  

How does your corporate mission statement sound now?