7 leadership lessons from Shakespeare

A flaming depiction of William Shakespeare is seen during a firework display at the Royal Shakespeare Company marking the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Image: REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett

Ceri Parker
Previously Commissioning Editor, Agenda, World Economic Forum
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Shakespeare, arguably the most celebrated writer who ever lived, died on 23 April in 1616. World Book Day is held on this date to recognize the passing of the Bard, as well as the death of Miguel de Cervantes and Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, two titans of Spanish-language literature, on exactly the same date.

The work of England’s revered wordsmith both captured the spirit of his time – presenting blood, bawdiness, passion and politics to packed-out Elizabethan playhouses – and echoed down through the centuries. His writing has been translated into more than 100 languages, while the words he coined in English – from addiction to negotiate – still shape the way we think and speak today.

So what can this most timeless of writers tell us about a distinctly modern obsession: leadership? The easiest conclusion to draw from his plays is quite simply to avoid being a leader at all costs. Shakespeare’s tragedies followed the classical Greek structure of “hamartia”, in which a great man is undone by a fatal flaw. This does not make for encouraging fare for those who seek a path to the top unimpeded by madness, misery, witches or suicide. What’s more, one of the definitions of poetry is ambiguity: you don’t go to Shakespeare for clear-cut advice on how to live, but immersion in how to feel.

All of this means that it is tricky to extract leadership guidance from Shakespeare. Tricky, but tempting: no-one described the human condition – with all its greatness and foibles – quite like Shakespeare. And so with due trepidation, here are some leadership lessons from the hallowed pages of Shakespeare’s plays.

1. Don’t be ambitious without being moral. You want to be CEO? Great. Just don’t murder the incumbent, lose your mind and start a small war in the process. Macbeth is a parable on what happens when a man’s ambition outstrips his better instincts. In this soliloquy, the nobleman Macbeth wrestles with his conscience as he ponders whether to kill the king, Duncan, and seize the throne for himself:

…...Besides, this Duncan

Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been

So clear in his great office, that his virtues

Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against

The deep damnation of his taking-off;

And pity, like a naked newborn babe,

Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubim, horsed

Upon the sightless couriers of the air,

Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,

That tears shall drown the wind. I have no spur

To prick the sides of my intent, but only

Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself

And falls on th' other.

Sadly, “vaulting ambition” – not to mention some shameless strong-arming from his wife – won the day, and it didn’t end well for Macbeth.


2. Don’t procrastinate. Oh Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Young, spirited, influential, in love, and totally incapable of making a decision. If you’re facing a high-pressure dilemma – do you quit your job to start your own company, do you listen to the ghost and kill your uncle to avenge your father’s death – the temptation to dither is understandable. But inaction can be toxic, as Hamlet found to his cost. Convinced that his mother has married his father’s murderer, here he is wondering whether it’s even worth staying alive to deal with the omnishambles:

To be, or not to be, that is the question:

Whether 'tis Nobler in the mind to suffer

The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,

Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them:

His ponderous response to the phantom’s revelation ultimately led to the suspected suicide of his sweetheart Ophelia and a comprehensive bout of untimely death at the Danish court.


3. Watch out for yes men – and women. When the elderly King Lear decides to hand his realm over to his three daughters, he unwisely offers to give the biggest chunk to the one who loves him most. Two daughters promptly lavish him with praise; the third, Cordelia, finds the whole spectacle revolting. You know you’ve seen that person: the one rolling her eyes, biting her tongue and refusing to join in with the compliment-fest. Leaders need the awkward, principled people who will say no – or in this case, nothing – even when it’s in their interests to say yes.

Lear: …...What can you say to draw

A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.

Cordelia: Nothing, my lord.

Lear: Nothing? How? Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.

Cordelia: Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave

My heart into my mouth. I love your majesty
According to my bond, no more nor less.

Naturally, as King Lear is a tragedy, he discovers the worth of his one good daughter too late. You don’t have to end your career wandering heartbroken with weeds in your hair: just don’t listen to the sycophants.


4. Know how to give a rousing speech. It’s the morning of the Battle of Agincourt. You are the King of England, and you are about to lead your terrified troops into battle against the nefarious French. Weak words are not going to cut it. You are not going to catalyse actions, you are going to crush your foe. Shakespeare immortalized Henry V with his saber-rattling “band of brothers” speech, here performed by the English actor Kenneth Branagh:

The play captures an unimaginably distant time when “leadership” wasn’t some woolly, abstract concept: it literally meant getting on your horse and riding out to battle. While few leaders outside the military face such peril today, the importance of morale-boosting eloquence lives on. Time to start prepping that TED talk?


5. Don’t listen to gossip. Life was going pretty swimmingly for Othello – great job as a general in the Venetian army, happy marriage to his beloved Desdemona – until he started listening to scurrilous gossip-monger, Iago. The scheming traitor falsely convinces him that Desdemona has been unfaithful: Othello smothers her to death, learns that she was innocent all along, then commits suicide. Before you commit career suicide, don’t be rash: check the source and more importantly the motivation behind rumours.


6. Trust your instincts. And look out for gym-obsessed insomniacs who are just waiting to stab you in the back. Roman leader Julius Caesar had a bad feeling about Cassius:

Let me have men about me that are fat,

Sleek-headed men and such as sleep a-nights.

Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look.

He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous.

However, he didn’t act on his instincts, leaving Cassius free to lead a successful plot to assassinate him. Cassius even corrupts Caesar’s most faithful ally, Brutus, into wielding the knife: as a stricken Caesar recognizes him among his assassins, he utters the play’s most famous line: “Et tu, Brute?” It’s become a poignant catchphrase for betrayal. Before you find yourself howling with anguish, pay attention to those nagging doubts.


7. Be merciful. Just because you’re in the right, it doesn’t mean you need to extract your “pound of flesh”. This is just one of the many metaphors that has entered common usage from Shakespeare’s plays; in this case, The Merchant of Venice. Here, Portia (an heiress disguized as a male lawyer) pleads for the Jewish money-lender Shylock to ignore an unusual contract: that if the merchant Antonio cannot pay back his debt, Shylock is entitled to a pound of his flesh.

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:

'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes

The throned monarch better than his crown;

His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,

The attribute to awe and majesty,

Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;

But mercy is above this sceptred sway;

It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,

It is an attribute to God himself;

And earthly power doth then show likest God's

When mercy seasons justice

Beautiful words, which Shylock – understandably stung by Antonio’s antisemitism – ignores. However, the cunning Portia wins the day, by pointing out that the contract stipulates a pound of flesh, but no blood, so her suitor Antonio is safe. It would be dispiriting to conclude that the best leadership strategy is to hire good lawyers. Instead, let’s embrace the compelling case Portia makes for compassion – and be thankful that, 400 years after Shakespeare’s death, women don’t usually have to cross dress to make their voices heard.

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