What Shakespeare Can Teach Us About Leadership

The following is a speech delivered by Antoni Cimolino to the Richard Ivey School of Business on Wednesday, January 26, 2011

“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.”

Even if you’ve never been to a Shakespeare play in your life, or cracked open a copy of his works, I’m sure you all recognize those often-quoted words. They occur in the riotous comedy Twelfth Night—which, as it just so happens, we’re doing this season at Stratford.

The production stars Brian Dennehy, whom many of you will recognize from his film and TV roles, but who’s also a two-time Tony Award-winning stage actor who has just been inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame.

Twelfth Night also features Stephen Ouimette, Tom Rooney, Andrea Runge and Sara Topham, and tickets are available by calling 1.800.567.1600.

Okay, so there’s the first lesson I’ve learned from my career in Shakespearean theatre: never pass up a opportunity to promote your business. But I guess you don’t need me to tell you that.

Perhaps some people are indeed born great: into that category you could put someone like Mozart, who showed such extraordinary talent at a ridiculously early age. And I dare say there are people who have greatness thrust upon them by circumstance, though it’s harder to come up with obvious examples.

Perhaps one would be Rosa Parks, the department-store seamstress who was an active but relatively unremarkable figure in the American civil-rights movement until one day in 1955, when she created a turning point in her nation’s history by refusing to give up her seat on a bus.

But I think most of the people we consider to be great leaders in their field—like Shakespeare himself—have in some way achieved that status by working at it over a considerable period of time. We’re naturally intrigued by how they did it.

And perhaps even more intriguing than the journey up to a pinnacle of achievement is the sometimes precipitous journey down: we’re fascinated by the fact that you can be the head of a corporate empire one day and a convicted felon the next. How do smart people come to make such mistakes, we wonder?

I myself have learned a lot about leadership from Shakespeare. I don’t think I could have taken on my current job if I hadn’t spent so much time on stage as an actor, speaking and listening to Shakespeare’s language, or in the rehearsal hall as a director, trying to translate the words on the page into action on the stage.

Working as an actor or a director accustoms you to the process of trying to get underneath the surface, to recognize patterns, to understand why things happen the way they do. And having that kind of insight is essential, I think, to effective leadership.

But you don’t have to work in the theatre to benefit from it. Being an engaged audience member can also help you cultivate some of that sensibility.

The best way to gain insight is from experience, and the theatre offers us a safe way of undergoing experience at its most extreme. Attending a Shakespeare play lets you get caught up in wars and revolutions and deadly dynastic disputes without getting hurt. It lets you be an eyewitness as people vie for kingdoms, commit murder and take revenge, plan stratagems that blow up in their faces. And at the end, you come out unscathed but perhaps a little more aware of the challenges, complexities and ambiguities that attend any human enterprise.

Human nature hasn’t really changed in the 400 years since Shakespeare stopped writing for the stage, nor have the basic dynamics of rise and fall, conflict and resolution, in the stories of human lives. So the more you get to know Shakespeare’s plays, the more you’ll see our own world reflected in them.

Leadership is largely about the exercise of power—and power is a central theme in Shakespeare. All of his history plays, from King John to Henry VIII, and his Roman plays—Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra—are about aspects of political power: how it is obtained, how it is used and misused, how it affects the user, how it is lost.

Shifts of power lie at the heart of the tragedies, too, from King Lear, in which the title character makes the fatal mistake of letting go of power while still expecting to enjoy the respect and privileges it commands, to Othello, in which a subordinate, Iago, brilliantly uses the power of suggestion to turn his commanding officer into his puppet.

The struggle for power is a significant theme even in the comedies, which we think of as being more about love than about war or politics. It’s certainly central to The Taming of the Shrew, but it’s there in other comedies too. The action of As You Like It, for instance, takes place in the wake of—and largely in consequence of—a palace coup: the amiable Duke Senior has been deposed by his nasty brother, Duke Frederick, and has gone off to lead a government-in-exile in the Forest of Arden.

And when Rosalind, Duke Senior’s daughter, flees to find her father in the forest, she dons male disguise. Like other cross-dressing Shakespearean heroines, she is empowered by assuming a male role: she can act with a freedom and authority that would have been denied her had she stayed in a dress.

Shakespeare remained preoccupied with issues of leadership and power to the very end of his career. The Tempest, which we believe to have been the last play he wrote on his own, is—among other things—an extended meditation on various kinds of power. Its central figure, Prospero, is another ex-duke who has been deposed by his brother, having allowed himself to get distracted from the practical business of ruling by his interest in the “magical arts”—which, if you feel so inclined, you can interpret as a metaphor for being too wrapped up in the life of the imagination. In the end, Prospero exercises what may be the hardest power of all to acquire: the power to forgive.

Perhaps Shakespeare’s most exhaustive study of leadership is found in the two great cycles of history plays—four in each cycle—that together tell the story of how the Tudor dynasty (the family of his own monarch, Elizabeth I) came to power. Shakespeare didn’t write these in chronological order: like George Lucas with the two Star Wars trilogies, he did it backwards, writing the second cycle first and then returning to the subject later to write the first one.

The first cycle of plays begins with Richard II. Then we get two plays about the reign of Henry IV, and we finish with Henry V. Then in the second cycle we get three parts of Henry VI, plus Richard III.

It’s all right; there won’t be a test on this. And I’m not going to talk about all eight. Let’s just look at the first one for now.

Richard II is one of the prime Shakespearean examples of an ineffective leader. He seems to have no strategy, no clear idea of what he wants to use his power to achieve. He acts as if the rights and powers that accompany his office as king were privileges of his own person. He acts without regard to law—assuming that he himself is the law.

As a result, he makes arbitrary and impulsive decisions that earn him the enmity of the very people whose support he should most be cultivating: the nobility—his senior staff, if you like. One of the people he alienates is the man who will prove his downfall, his cousin Henry Bolingbroke.

Bolingbroke, as decisive and clear-headed as Richard is vacillating and self-absorbed, launches a rebellion and deposes Richard, assuming the throne himself as King Henry IV. To Richard, who still thinks he’s God’s anointed, this change in his fortunes is incomprehensible, and he reacts to it by wallowing in self-pity.

“For God’s sake,” he says, “let us sit upon the ground / And tell sad stories of the death of kings.” He calls for a hand mirror and gazes wistfully into it, asking, “Was this the face / That like the sun, did make beholders wink?” before smashing it on the ground. He goes so far as to compare himself to Christ delivered to the cross—and, indeed, he does end up being imprisoned by the new King Henry and, inevitably, murdered.

Richard’s problem is that he’s a narcissist with a fatal sense of entitlement. He believes in what was called the Divine Right of Kings: the idea that if you were king, you held that position because it was God’s will.

I admit I’ve never actually heard anyone speak of a Divine Right of CEOs, but I’m prepared to bet there are plenty of leaders in the corporate world who subscribe to the circular logic of entitlement: I am in this position, therefore I deserve this position, and nothing I do can be wrong. But it ain’t necessarily so.

Richard II is by no means a bad human being; he’d probably be quite charming company at a cocktail party. He’s imaginative, his language is gorgeously ornate, and in his own self-absorbed way he’s a philosopher. But he’s in the wrong job, and isn’t shrewd enough to realize it.

Nor is he able to play the part effectively. There’s an old theatrical joke that the key quality in a good performance is sincerity—and if you can fake that, you’ve got it made. Leadership is to some extent a role that you have to play, a persona you have to adopt, but the performance has to be a very carefully judged.

Richard lays on the histrionics, but he doesn’t understand the essence of his role: he thinks it’s all about him personally rather than about the office he happens to hold. And like many a bad actor, he can’t judge the effect that he’s having on his audience, so he goes too far.

Bolingbroke, by contrast, shows contempt for putting on a show. He comes across as an absolute non-actor—although, of course, it may just be that he’s infinitely better at faking sincerity than Richard. For Bolingbroke, things work out well enough: he becomes Henry IV and gets two plays of his own, then dies peacefully in his bed, which is quite an achievement for a Shakespearean monarch.

But there are dangers for the non-actor too, as the Roman hero Coriolanus discovers in the play that bears his name.

Coriolanus is about as different from Richard II as it’s possible to be. He is a consummate leader of men—at least on the field of battle. But leadership qualities in one field don’t necessarily translate into another, and the tragedy of Coriolanus is that of a great military hero who makes the fatal mistake of going into politics.

To get the people’s votes, he has to hit the campaign trail. He has to press flesh. He has to actually ask people for their support. And if you think Michael Ignatieff or Stephen Harper lack the common touch. . . .

Coriolanus refuses even to attempt to manipulate his audience. He sees playing the game of politics as beneath him. He doesn’t realize that the only leaders who survive, regardless of their sincerity, are those who master the art of political performance.

He utterly despises the common people, and can’t bring himself to pander to them. He knows he’s a better soldier than anyone else in Rome, and so the whole idea of casting himself in the role of supplicant for votes is anathema to him. He makes a stiff, half-hearted attempt, but it’s not long before his true feelings reveal themselves. “You common cry of curs,” he snarls at the populace, before going into exile.

Coriolanus is arrogant—and has indeed has every reason to be—but he cannot grasp that arrogance is not a quality that’s going to endear you to the electorate. His campaign is a public-relations disaster.

It’s not that he’s an ineffective communicator, far from it; it’s just that the message he delivers is unpalatable: “You know I’m the greatest warrior you’ve ever seen; why should I have to bow down to you in order to get your blessing as a civilian leader?”

Coriolanus learns the hard way that leadership is a contract that both sides have to buy into. It’s not enough to be way better than anyone else at what you do; if you want to lead people, you have to gain their trust and allow them some room for their own feelings of self-worth.

Rejected by his own people, Coriolanus ends up going over to his old enemies, and joins with them in an attack on his own city—and that proves to be an even bigger mistake, because he has put himself in an impossible position where his loyalties are inevitably going to be divided. He has declared that he’s going to sack Rome—but then his mother, Volumnia, comes out and begs him to reconsider.

There’s a lesson here for participants in political coalitions: before throwing your lot in with your opponents, try very hard to envisage in advance what the sticking points for your conscience are going to be.

Mention of conscience brings us to another military hero who seeks a larger role for himself. Macbeth is the prime Shakespearean example of the leader who sacrifices all principle in the pursuit of power and thereby plants the seeds of his own destruction.

Like Coriolanus, Macbeth starts out as a war hero, universally praised and heaped with high honour by King Duncan for his key role in putting down a rebellion. But he becomes obsessed by the idea—planted in his mind by that very dubious trio of career counsellors, the Weird Sisters—that he’s destined for even greater things: the kingship itself. That thought, coupled with the taunts and urgings of his wife, overcomes his better judgement and leads him to murder Duncan in his bed.

Well, you don’t need me to point out the inadvisability of murder as a means of career advancement. But even leaving the killing out of it, this play offers a vivid illustration of the corrosive effect of seeking power for its own sake.

When Bolingbroke deposes Richard and causes his death, he is at least seeking power in order to achieve an end: to turn around the state of the country, which has gotten into a sorry mess under Richard. But there’s nothing in Macbeth to suggest that Duncan is a bad or weak king; quite the contrary. In committing an act of assassination, Macbeth does not believe, as Brutus does in Julius Caesar, that he is acting in the best interests of the country; he is quite clearly acting in what he imagines to be the best interests of himself.

Once he has achieved the throne, Macbeth’s thoughts are not “whither Scotland?” but solely about consolidating his own power. “To be thus is nothing,” he says, “But to be safely thus . . .” Thus ensues the wholesale termination of anyone he suspects could be a threat. And that’s “termination” in the Schwarzenegger sense, not the slightly gentler Human Resources Department sense.

Power, the old saying goes, tends to corrupt. But power is essential when it’s a means to an end; it’s when power is pursued as an end in itself that it becomes corrosive, sterile and self-defeating.

Any discussion of Shakespeare’s treatment of the theme of leadership sooner or later gets round to the most obviously brilliant leader in the canon: Henry V.

Unlike Richard II and Coriolanus, Henry V knows exactly how to get people on his side. He’s a brilliant performer, a brilliant communicator. His speech rallying the troops before the Battle of Agincourt is one of the most famous set pieces in all of Shakespeare, and rightly so. Henry scoffs at self-interest: I don’t care about wealth or status, he says—but I do care about honour. If we’re going to die here today, he says, so be it. But if we pull it off and survive, we will live forever in the annals of history:

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother.”

It’s an extraordinary statement for a monarch to make to his subjects: you will be my brother. But it’s exactly what the fearful, dispirited and hopelessly outnumbered army needs to hear: that they are united with their leader in an enterprise that has the potential to be glorious. Henry goes so far as to tell them that if they don’t want to be part of this battle, they can leave with a golden handshake and no recriminations; he makes it their choice to stay.

Unlike Richard, Henry knows his audience; knows exactly the effect his words will have. He knows in part because he has done his research: he has spent time with ordinary people.

Indeed, in the two parts of Henry IV, when his father was on the throne and he was just Prince Henry—Prince Hal to his friends—the future Henry V spends his time hanging out in taverns with the lowest of the low. This makes him the despair of his father—but, as he confides to us in a soliloquy, it’s all part of a strategic plan.

“Herein,” he says, “will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at.”

Hal knows he’s going to be king some day. And he knows that if the bar of expectation is set too high, nobody, however brilliant, can measure up to it. Maybe you could call that the Barack Obama syndrome.

So what Hal does is deliberately create low expectations of himself, so that when he reveals his true magnificence as king, he’ll seem all the greater in contrast with his former playboy prince image.

And even when he is king, he continues to keep his finger on the pulse of his people. On the eve of Agincourt, he goes round the camp incognito, drawing the men out on their true feelings about the campaign they’re engaged in and his own role as their leader.

Henry, in other words, is the kind of CEO who never loses touch with the shop floor. He takes every opportunity to shoot the breeze with the employees, get to know their names, find out what makes them tick.

Henry is a man of incredible ability, beyond all question. In 1989, when I was an actor, I played the role of the French Dauphin in a production of Henry V. I spent a six-month season watching the title character at work. At every performance, I’d watch Henry analyze, assess and act. I’d see him deal with dissention and disloyalty; I’d hear him use language brilliantly to rally support; I’d observe him going out into the rank and file to learn what they really think.

I was reminded over and over of the difference, in terms of seriousness of purpose, between Henry and my character: the difference between a mere braggart and someone who is in touch with something far greater. It was an instructive lesson.

If you’re looking for a role model in Shakespeare for effective leadership, look no further than Henry V: he has it all, and his reign is a triumphant success. In terms of how to succeed in rallying others to your cause, nobody does it better.

But what about the cause itself? Is it beyond question? And if there are questions about the cause, what does that say about its proponent? And here we run into the mystery you always encounter with Shakespeare: what does he really want us to make of all this? Henry V seems to be the hero of his play. But are we actually meant to admire him? Is he a force for good in the world?

There’s an early scene in Henry V that has tremendous resonance for us in view of our own recent history. Henry is conferring with the leaders of the church about his proposed invasion of France. He wants to know if it can be justified on legal grounds. In a long and complicated explanation of something called the Salic law, they assure him that it is.

No audience today can hope to follow the details of that explanation, and I rather suspect nobody could in Shakespeare’s day either. In any case, after about 60 lines of tortuous genealogy from the clerics, Henry cuts to the chase with the direct question, “Can I with right and conscience make this claim?”—which can get a laugh, depending on how impatiently the actor delivers it.

But after the laugh has to come the thought: weapons of mass destruction, anyone?

In this scene, Henry is seeking the stamp of legitimacy for what he is about to do: invade France in order to give the people at home a common cause to rally behind and thus defuse the potential for further insurrection in England. But is he truly concerned that his cause be legitimate—or only that it appear so? It’s a question Shakespeare leaves open, and it’s up to the director and the actor playing Henry to answer it as best they can.

There are some uncomfortable things about Henry. At one point in his campaign, he’s besieging the town of Harfleur, which refuses to yield. Henry issues an ultimatum: surrender now, and you’ll be treated humanely; resist, and I will give my soldiers licence to rape, burn and pillage. You will see, he says,

“Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dash’s to the walls;
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes. . .”

He could be bluffing, of course. But you get the impression Henry isn’t the sort of man not to follow through on what he says he’ll do.

Perhaps Henry’s ends justify his means. If the worst thing that can happen to a country is civil war—complete with sons killing fathers and fathers killing sons—and if Henry’s foreign adventures have managed to prevent that, then perhaps he could succumb to infant-spitting and still be seen as a hero. But what are his motives?

You think back to that strategic role-playing of his in Henry IV, when he hangs out with the likes of Sir John Falstaff in the taverns of Eastcheap. And then you think back to his brutal repudiation of Falstaff, his old crony, once he becomes king. He does exactly what he said he’d do, so no quarrel there. But what does it say about him as a human being? What Henry does is certainly expedient. But is he being guided by any kind of moral compass? Practically speaking, he’s good at ruling. But does he in fact have the moral right to do it?

The question of who had the right to rule was a crucial one in Shakespeare’s time—hardly surprisingly, given the historical convolutions by which his own monarch had come to the throne. The desire for a legitimate heir had driven Henry VIII’s endless series of marriages and executions. And Elizabeth’s own lack of an heir threatened to open up the can of worms all over again.

Questions of legitimacy are central to the last Shakespeare play I’m going to mention. King John, which I directed in 2004, is a drama of survival in a cutthroat world that could just as easily take place in the corporate corridors or political lobbies of today.

In many ways, it’s a play about temptation. There’s a core group of characters, each of whom is offered something he or she really wants. To get the things they want, all that each of those characters has to do is something truly immoral.

By the end of the play, most of the tempted characters do the immoral thing and are destroyed—but there are a couple of exceptions. And one of those exceptions, ironically, is a character called Philip the Bastard, whose name reflects his parentage, not his personality.

Philip professes himself to be guided solely by the profit motive. “Gain, be my lord,” he says, “for I will worship thee.” But early in the play he also says this: “I am I, howe’er I was begot.” In other words, “Who cares if I was born on the wrong side of the blanket? I’m still me, and that’s all that matters.”

In that simple phrase, “I am I,” Philip the Bastard reveals a clear sense of self that can’t be claimed even by Bolingbroke, who is haunted throughout his reign as Henry IV by his angst about his legitimacy as a ruler who has taken the crown by force.

Philip, though, is secure enough in his self-knowledge that nothing else really matters. Ultimately, he doesn’t want anything so badly that he’s prepared to do anything, however self-destructive, to get it. He has found a firm place to stand in the muck of the world. In other words, he has integrity.

He doesn’t get to become king or anything like that, though he does pick up a knighthood early in the play. But even in his own eyes, that’s not the measure of his success. Where he really triumphs over almost everybody else in his play, and indeed over most of the rulers in Shakespeare, is in maintaining his integrity, his moral leadership.

Let me go back to the words I started with: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.” To which we can perhaps add a fourth category: “And some redefine greatness in their own terms”—not as wealth or public acclaim, or worldly power, but as inspiring examples of how to be the best of which human beings are capable.

Shakespeare’s plays are full of characters who are, or aspire to be, leaders of one kind or another. Few, if any, of them are wholly admirable, and perhaps that’s the single most important lesson to be learned about leadership from those plays: treat it with a healthy dose of skepticism. Serious questions hang over even the most accomplished of Shakespeare’s leader figures.

There is ultimately only one kind of leadership that I think emerges from Shakespeare’s plays without taint, and it is not the kind that necessarily leads to glory, wealth or worldly power. It is the moral leadership of Philip the Bastard in King John; of Cordelia, in King Lear, who loses everything by daring to tell truth to power; of Prospero in The Tempest, who makes the momentous decision not to take the revenge for which he has so long and painstakingly prepared; of Hermione in The Winter’s Tale, who bears herself with grace and dignity through the most arduous and unjust of tribulations and is still able to love and forgive the insanely jealous husband who so needlessly inflicted them on her.

Such characters are our beacons in the darkness of the universe, and if there is a single lesson about leadership to be drawn from be drawn from the works of William Shakespeare, it is that through acquaintance with those characters and their kin and their kin that we that we will find our firmest way through the mazes and thickets of the world.

I realize I have rambled on at too great length and have barely even scratched the surface of my topic. Nor have I grappled, as I believe was advertised in the invitation to this talk, with the question of what Shakespeare might have thought about the most recent financial crisis.

I haven’t, because it’s an unanswerable question: we can’t actually be sure what Shakespeare thought about anything. Although his plays teem with ideas, those ideas are all articulated by dramatic characters, none of whom can safely be identified with the playwright himself.

“Neither a borrower nor a lender be”: that’s from Shakespeare all right—but it’s Polonius talking, in Hamlet, and does Polonius know what he’s talking about? Depends on how you play him.

So if you came hoping to hear my top 10 Shakespearean tips on how to succeed in business or politics, then I fear I will have disappointed you. But if I have at least planted in your minds the idea that experiencing the plays of Shakespeare will offer you some insight into the ways in which the world worked in his time, still works today, and will continue to work till the end of humanity as we know it, then perhaps our time has not been spent entirely in vain.

Thank you.

 

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2 thoughts on “What Shakespeare Can Teach Us About Leadership

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