The greatest playwright in history has some choice lessons for the business leaders of today. William Shakespeare wrote plays that captivated the world; from the tragically absurd to the rip-roaringly hilarious. And though many of them contain lessons in love, politics, economics and warfare, a staggering amount also hold some hidden gems in leadership, and detail what is expected of the leaders of today.
Richard Olivier, son of world-renowned actor Laurence Olivier, spoke exclusively to Business Grapevine, and revealed how Shakespeare’s tales can be used to engage and improve leadership: “The story acts as a container, or a facilitator. It holds people’s attention, it acts as a compelling narrative. Humans are coded to remember stories rather than facts.
“They say that a picture paints a thousand words – and these stories are incredibly memorable.”
We have collected three leadership lessons from different Shakespeare plays, in order to highlight how the Bard of Avon is more relevant than ever in today’s business-orientated world.
1. Don’t sacrifice your morality for ambition
"I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself, and falls on the other." - Macbeth
The morbid tale of an overly ambitious Macbeth, and his scheming wife, holds lessons in morality, ethics and belief in faith. When Macbeth is told by the three witches that he will one day be King Macbeth, the knowledge goes to his head. He becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – Macbeth forgets that whilst the witches predicted his rise they also revealed his fall.
Macbeth’s refusal to let anything stand in the way of his rise meant that he sacrificed everything – his relationship, his friends and even his own ethical standing. In the end, he’s left with no hope of redemption, just bitter hindsight and regret.
Ambition is important, essential even, in business and in leadership. But by throwing away your own core values, you diminish your leadership attributes. No one wants to follow a husk – so remember, keep your ambitions in check if it means killing off part of your identity.
2. Learn how to perfect your public and private face
"Upon his royal face there is no note, how dread an army hath enrounded him." - Chorus, Henry V
Henry V is probably the most expressive of the plays focused on leadership and instilling a company-wide value system. The play explains the importance of navigating the private and the personal face – which is vital for leaders.
Olivier pointed out this crucial lesson, in an interview with us earlier this year: “Are the leaders self-aware enough about their sense of purpose and can they share that with their followers in an appropriate way? There’s a lovely bit of Henry V, whereby the titular character is stalking around Agincourt before he sends his troops into battle – and potentially their deaths – The Chorus tells the audience: “Upon his royal face there is no note, how dread an army hath enrounded him.”
“There is this notion that he knows how to wear the crown, how to hold a private and a personal face, which is essential to modern leadership. There will be times leaders cannot tell their followers everything they know – so finding the right balance between the two worlds; ‘private truth’ and ‘public face’ is essential.”
3. Know the power of benevolence
“When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down/And ask of thee forgiveness.” - King Lear
King Lear – the terrifyingly relatable story of a man obsessed with his own vanity, and who loses everything for it. Lear makes each of his three daughters profess how much they love him, for which he will reward them with lands and titles.
Goneril and Regan each shout loudly about how much they adore their father, but the youngest Cordelia refuses – she claims that there are not enough words to describe how much she loves him. Lear sees this as contempt, and disinherits her. However, Cordelia is the only daughter who does care for him. When he realises this, it’s already too late – and he loses his daughter, his crown and his life.
Leadership is not dictatorship. All too often business leaders can put their own options, wishes or wants ahead of what is best for the company. When a leader begins to think individualistically – forgetting the best interests of the business – they are doomed to fail. And what’s worse, they’ll probably take the company down with them.