Peter Ducker famously once said that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, but while he might have been the first to say it, he probably wasn’t the first to realise it, since Henry V managed to build an awesome organisational culture more than 500 years before the phrase was first coined.
On 25th October 1415 (Saint Crispin’s Day) Henry’s army took on the might of the French at Agincourt.
You probably know who won from high school history. What you may not know is that, while exact numbers vary, the English army were outnumbered by as much as 6 to 1. 6000 English and Welsh soldiers, mainly longbow men faced up to 36,000 well drilled French infantrymen.
The English army had also been campaigning in France for several months and could really have done without a fresh battle.
Henry had landed in France on 19th August, when negotiations during the Hundred Years War had broken down and he set about besieging the town of Harfleur. The siege took much longer than expected and this took it’s toll on the English. In a display of strength towards the French king, Charles VI, he the chose to march his army through Northern France to Calais – an English Stronghold – to demonstrate his power at the head of his army.
By the time the army reached Agincourt they were tired and hungry and outnumbered 6 to 1. The odds were not in their favour by a long shot.
But Henry and his army had one thing that the French did not have? Henry had built a culture of camaraderie and brotherhood and self belief within his army. He genuinely cared for his soldiers and he was fighting in the midst of the battle with them, while Charles VI was safe in Paris, having sent his lieutenants to do battle in his place.
On the night before the battle Henry went in disguise amongst his men to find out how they were and tend to the most needy. Then on the morning of the battle he gave his famous St Crispin’s Day speech. I’m sure there is some poetic license in Shakespeare’s play but it gives some insight into the culture he’d built.
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.
The battle left only a hundred or so English dead and about 7000 to 10000 French. Against all odds Henry’s army prevailed, because he’d built a common cause and a culture of team built on a clear purpose.
You see the same thing in business today, David and Goliath type battles that the little guy manages to win. “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”.
What’s your culture like? Does it inspire your team to fight the hard battles?
Bonus: Allegedly, Agincourt is where the English ‘V’ sign originates from. The story goes that when the French captured English longbowmen they cut off the arrow-shooting fingers to ensure they couldn’t shoot again. The V sign was used as a show of defiance at Agincourt on the part of the bowmen, showing the French that they still had their fingers and could fire their bows.