One of my former professors, the chair of the English department at India’s Gauhati University, once said: “Creating Shakespeare, God has doubled the creation.”
The words have stayed with me because their message signifies how profound an impact Shakespeare has had on the world. In his writing, he touched every aspect of the human being, and by studying his works, business leaders can reap valuable insights.
We turn to poetry to ennoble us and reveal universal qualities about ourselves that extend our frame of reference, giving us a kind of spiritual fuel to better engage our daily efforts. Some of this art, even quite good examples, fails to escape its own time, limited in scope by the events and perspective that feed it.
Not so with William Shakespeare’s poetry, which sings through the ages.
Prolific and possessed of a ranging intellect coupled with a sublime appreciation for the nuances of human nature, Shakespeare in his art created a microcosm of the universe. Such was his power that his works became a tapestry upon which a host of important themes played out in a way that entertained and educated both rich and poor, dull and wise.
Shakespeare’s genius, in part, was the ability to connect with – and show the connections among – all levels of society while never pandering or diluting the vitality of his art.
Not only did Shakespeare display a profound appreciation for, and understanding of, human nature as manifested in an array of characters, from rogues and clowns to merchants and royalty (sometimes scrambling those categories to produce a royal rogue such as Richard III), but he articulated themes whose universal quality ensures they remain viable 400 years later.
Themes such as the destructive power of jealousy, the foundations of justice and the dynamics of betrayal stand alongside more optimistic investigations into the nature of love balanced against self-interest, the merits of forgiveness and the great value of community.
Shakespeare teaches us about leadership and loyalty, about honour and duty, and about their opposites. In his pages we encounter reminders suitable for entrepreneurs:
“Our doubts are traitors/And make us lose the good we oft might win/By fearing to attempt.” (Measure for Measure.)
The same play offers wisdom worth recalling in the aftermath of corporate scandals as legislation such as Sarbanes-Oxley in the US seeks to curb “creative accounting”:
“We must not make a scarecrow of the law/Setting it up to fear the birds of prey/And let it keep one shape, till custom make it/Their perch and not their terror.”
Other themes, such as the duties of leaders to act responsibly (and the social costs when they do not) emerge repeatedly. These are governance and social responsibility issues that remain vital. Good rulers in Shakespeare govern with wisdom and care for their citizens; these citizens in turn understand their roles and responsibilities in the social order.
Conversely, bad rulers infect the entire nation with their poor judgments, or worse, with their evil intent. Richard lays plots for everyone who dares impede his ambitions. His strategy is so relentlessly ruthless it is pathological. In Hamlet we see how the murderous Claudius usurps the king’s throne, sowing discord as a result. Because Claudius acts rashly, not only does he ultimately suffer, but so do those around him in a Denmark that has, famously, become “rotten”. By the play’s conclusion, Shakespeare indicates that the kingdom will heal itself and return to the order of the Great Chain, but much blood has been shed.
The character of Hamlet also illustrates another insight helpful for modern managers: by refraining from taking proper action against Claudius and instead debating with himself, Hamlet reveals how doubt can paralyse. Today, we might state that the character displayed an inability to act in an environment where informational uncertainty was a critical component. In other words, Hamlet would probably lose a lot of money in the more esoteric realms of the investment markets.
Leaders can fail in Shakespeare by putting themselves before others, by inaction or rash action, or by an inability to distinguish false counsel from true. This last instance occurs in Othello, with Othello failing to see the manipulations of his adviser, Iago, a man consumed by vengeance who plots the destruction of those around him, including Othello. The lesson offered by this play for today’s leaders is to seek wise and diverse advice.
Othello, and Iago, are ruined by being alienated from others and unable to see reality uncluttered by the pernicious mediation of others.
Elsewhere, the plays Henry IV and Henry V chronicle the journey of a leader amid a scenario of political instability (a context that we would describe as involving “crisis leadership”). Prince Harry begins his path to the throne rather inauspiciously by living what might be termed a dissolute life and engaging with the likes of Falstaff, an agreeable enough buffoon, but a person whose idea of honour is impoverished if it exists at all.
Harry must travel a long path to self-awareness that tests him and that will, in the end, take him to his destiny as ruler. Along the way he must make difficult decisions – including putting to death some old friends for breaking the law, and severing ties with Falstaff.
But he is among the keenest leaders in all of Shakespeare, able to spur his followers to success despite overwhelming five-to-one odds, as evidenced in his victory at the Battle of Agincourt, when he appeals to his men’s sense of honour:
”If we are marked to die, we are enough/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/But if it be a sin to covet honour/I am the most offending soul alive.”
It is important to note Harry (now Henry) stands with his troops and leads them into battle. He does not ask them to do anything he himself would not attempt.
Let us not forget that it was the Bard of Avon who first offered these lines of courage – cheer that our Kellogg School MBA students take to heart: “The world’s mine oyster, which I with sword shall open.”
To be sure, we among the Kellogg administration encourage less swordplay and a more rigorous leveraging of business fundamentals to secure prosperity for our graduates, but the point is well taken, even four centuries later.
Previous deans’ columns
May 16 2005: What a Chief Executive can learn from Mother Teresa
March 21 2005: A philosopher for all seasons