The Bard In The Boardroom
July 1 2000 by John Whitney
If Bill Gates had read and reflected on Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy, Coriolanus, he might have played his cards differently. In the famous battle at Corioli, the valiant warrior Coriolanus entered the enemy gates alone and emerged victorious. But like Bill Gates, Coriolanus did not understand politics or politicians. While he was out winning the wars, the bureaucrats back home –the Roman Tribunes-were making the case to the plebeians that his arrogance was dangerous. Their scheming ultimately led to Coriolanus’ banishment from Rome. Microsoft might win its appeal-and I hope it does-but its legal battles have been a costly diversion. Perhaps Bill Gates should have boned up on politics to augment his considerable skills in innovation.
I hesitate to mention the names Al Dunlap and Bill Gates in the same breath, but Chain-saw Al also could have learned from Coriolanus. Reprehensible as their actions were, the Roman Tribunes were on to something. Coriolanus was arrogant. He was fit for war, but unfit for political governance. Worse, his arrogance was childlike. If he didn’t get his way, he threw a tantrum. Banished from Rome, Coriolanus turned traitor, joining the enemy with the objective of coming back to sack and burn his homeland.
I am as different from Bill Gates and Al Dunlap as one could be, but the lessons of Coriolanus’ story were equally applicable in the crisis-prone business start-ups and turnarounds that I have led. When a critical funding source dried up, an important customer or key employee threatened to defect, or the bankers were about to pull the plug, Coriolanus’ tenacity and courage spurred me on. But, after the crisis, I also remembered Coriolanus’ banishment. I reflected that having followers is an essential ingredient of leadership, and I realized that even though I might enter the enemy’s gates alone-face a hostile banker, for example——I certainly could not rebuild the company alone. Enduring success comes from a capable, committed, enthusiastic group of associates sharing a common vision and processing congruent values and goals.
These three examples underscore why William Shakespeare’s plays have lived vibrantly for nearly half a millennium. He speaks to us all-but he speaks to us in the context of our own backgrounds, our own special situations. He holds up a mirror so we can see ourselves from a fresh point of view. He makes us think carefully about our actions and their consequences.
By now you might be thinking, “What’s new about that? All good writers dramatize the tension created by the protagonists’ good and bad qualities.” Here’s how Shakespeare is different and, usually, better. First, he understood governance and leadership-both of which were preoccupations of Elizabethans. England had been wracked by civil strife for at least 130 years before Queen Elizabeth’s reign. And the country removed in turmoil. There were threats of invasion from the Spanish and French, and deep religious division existed between the Anglicans and the Roman Church. Queen Elizabeth, even with her flaws, was up to the task. Shakespeare, who lived in London most of his professional life, observed all of this firsthand. He knew many of the nobles-his acting company played in Elizabeth’s court, and became “The King’s Men” in the court of her successor, King James I. But Shakespeare’s proximity to England’s leaders, and his power of observation, were only two of the reasons his plays have lived through the ages. His instinct for the dramatic, coupled with the power of his language literally pummels us into thinking-and feeling: “What would I have done if I were there?” That’s why his plays are timeless, just as applicable today as they were in Elizabethan times-as is evidenced by two of the recurring themes in his plays: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” and “The trusted lieutenant.”
UNEASY LIES THE HEAD THAT WEARS A CROWN
Shakespeare has much to teach anyone promoted, transferred, or assuming a new job. Like it or not, he or she will be perceived as a usurper by some and as an interloper by others. Here’s how the Bard tells the story:
In the play Richard II, we meet Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford and son of one of England’s most powerful nobles. Richard feared that Bolingbroke would unmask the king’s complicity in the murder of Bolingbroke’s uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, a noble who was popular with the court. In the course of the play, Richard banishes Bolingbroke. Soon after the banishment, Bolingbroke’s father dies, and Richard confiscates the father’s property, raising fears in other nobles that the same could happen to their estates. Playing on these fears, Bolingbroke enlists the help of some of the most powerful nobles, steals back to England and leads a rebellion, deposing Richard II and assuming the throne as King Henry IV. Even though Richard had been a terrible king, lived the profligate life with questionable friends, imposed confiscatory taxes on the commoners and nobles alike, Henry Bolingbroke was not, according to England’s laws of succession, the rightful heir to the throne. While Henry turned out to be a strong king who was much better for England than Richard, he never could erase the usurper stigma.
Few CEOs are usurpers, as Henry was, but most of the ones I know report that at one time or another they’ve felt the resentment of subordinates. And some of those who haven’t have been blindsided by jealous subordinates who thought that they, or one of their friends, deserved the position.
If you think that Shakespeare and I are counseling paranoia, you’re right-at least a mild case. The executive who naively believes that everyone in the firm will give him or her unbridled support always and forever is in for a nasty surprise. But here, again, Shakespeare shows his genius. If the leader’s paranoia gets out of hand-if he treats everyone as an enemy-his ability to lead is limited. Henry IV, a good crisis manager, unfortunately created many of the crises he faced. He did not trust the men who had helped him to the throne; moreover, he failed to reward them properly. Rebellion ensued, and Henry spent much of his life in unnecessary wars.
Jamie Dimon did not usurp the throne at Bank One. He was invited in by the unanimous vote of the Board. Does that mean he will have smooth sailing with his peers and subordinates always and forever? Dimon has been guest lecturer at my classes at Columbia University, and I know several people who have worked closely with him. He’s a superb leader and the right man for the job. But he might want to brush up on his Shakespeare. The former CEO of Bank One is still on the Board of Directors, and, at the insistence of the Board, the internal heir apparent is still around. If Dimon limits his attention to fixing the problems at the credit card division or the e-commerce bank, Wingspan, he might, of necessity, be compelled to repeat King Henry’s lament: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”
THE TRUSTED LIEUTENANT
Earlier we said that enduringly successful leaders need the support of a capable, committed, enthusiastic workforce. It follows that they especially need the support of their direct reports. Much has been written about creating that cadre of executives-the nobles of the court-who are not only capable, committed, and enthusiastic, but also fiercely loyal to the leader and the enterprise. Less has been written about the special relationship that exists between the leader and his or her closest advisor-the “aide-de-camp” or the COO or CFO, who should be joined at the hip with the CEO.
Shakespeare fills this void in management literature — and brilliantly. Falcon-bridge, reportedly the bastard son of Richard the Lionhearted, pulls King John’s chestnuts out of the fire time after time.
And, he is fiercely loyal—even when King John is inept and cowardly. But, then there is Iago, Othello’s nemesis. As you might recall, Iago was passed over for promotion, became third in command to Othello, not second in command, a job that he desperately wanted. The tragedy evolves around lago’s methodical, diabolical destruction of Othello. Shakespeare lets us in on Iago’s plans. In the play’s first scene, Iago tells the audience:
O, sir, content you;
I follow him [Othello] to serve my turn upon him:
In following him, I follow but myself; Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so, for my peculiar end: . . . I am not what I am.
Every CEO who promotes one man or woman over another-and everyone who has been promoted over a colleague-should read this speech. Even better, read the whole play. Not that those who have been passed over would be as malicious as Iago, but they will be disaffected. Their discontent needs to be addressed. Sometimes a frank discussion will do it-perhaps a blueprint on how they might be promoted next time. Sometimes a different assignment in a new venue will serve the purpose. In other cases, you will need to help them get a job at another company.
Thankfully, Shakespeare gives us more loyal Falconbridges than deceitful Iagos. One of these is the Earl of Kent, whose devotion to his boss transcends every CEO’s fondest dreams. Here’s the story:
King Lear, in his 80s, ducks the succession problem by dividing the kingdom into three parts, giving one-third to each of his daughters and their husbands. (Cordelia, his youngest daughter, is not yet married but her dowry has attracted two powerful suitors.)
Lear’s succession plan is bad enough in its own right, but he compounds the problem when, almost on a whim, he says,
. . . Tell me, my daughters, ——-
Since now we will divest us both of rule, Interest of territory, cares of state,- Which of you shall we say doth love us
That we our largest bounty may extend Where nature doth with merit challenge. Goneril,
Our eldest-born, speak first.
The two elder daughters lay it on thick, suggesting that they love their father almost to the point of excluding love for their spouses. Horrified, Cordelia can only say to her father:
Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty
According to my bond; nor more nor less.
Lear is stunned. Cordelia is his favorite. His disbelief turns to anger and he works himself up to finally announce to Cordelia and to those in the court who have assembled for the succession ceremony that Cordelia is disinherited. Here’s where the Earl of Kent steps in. Kent knows that the two eldest daughters and the husbands are venal and certainly undeserving of receiving half-rather than one-third-of the kingdom. His first speech of protest shows proper respect for the king:
Whom I have ever honour’d as my king, Loved as my father, as my master follow’d, As my great patron thought on in my prayers…
Lear’s response is decidedly regal. He admonishes Kent:
The bow is bent and drawn, make from the shaft.
When Lear refuses to recant his decision and tells Kent again to desist, the loyal Earl replies:
Think’st thou that duty shall have dread to speak,
When power to flattery bows? To plainness honour’s bound,
When majesty stoops to folly.
Lear can’t bear to hear the truth. As punishment for Kent’s insubordination, Lear gives him five days to “clean out his office,” and announces:
And on the sixth [day] to turn thy hated back
Upon our kingdom: if, on the tenth day following,
Thy banish’d trunk be found in our dominions,
The moment is thy death.
As the play unfolds we find that Kent, loyal to the end, has disguised himself as a servant and returns to help Lear deal with his duplicitous daughters. But the important part of the story for executives and their trusted lieutenants is the heated interchange when Kent tries to save his boss and the kingdom. Should “duty have dread to speak” when “majesty stoops to folly”? When I use this scene for CEO and senior executive seminars, most of the participants agree with Lear. Kent should be fired for his public display of insubordination. But, when I teach middle managers, the vote is reversed. Kent is right. Lear is wrong. Again, Shakespeare shows his genius. They are both right and both wrong. Better than voting, I suggest that every leader and his or her trusted lieutenant read this scene from King Lear, discuss it, and use the discussion to lay the foundation for their relationship.
As I finish writing this, I’m about to turn on CBS to watch the final day of the Masters Golf Tournament. I would not suggest that anyone forego the high drama of the Masters for Shakespeare, but rather than watch the third or fourth iteration of the day’s news, you might enjoy a videotape of one of the Bard’s English history plays or his Roman or Greek tragedies. Shakespeare’s mirror will give you a fresh view of the world, your associates, and, most importantly, yourself.
John Whitney, the former president of Pathmark, is the author of Power Plays: Shakespeare’s Lessons in Leadership and Management