Drawing Parallel Between Shakespeare And Management

Posted in Human Resources Articles, Total Reads: 2833 , Published on 02 March 2012
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The connection between Shakespeare and management would be a little difficult to understand or accept for a lot of people. But honestly speaking, a lot of bridges can be drawn between his time and ours.

Shakespeare and Management

We consider management to be an invention of the modern society, the experience and concept of running organizations is an old one. Shakespeare was actually a part of an organization that produced plays. It was during his lifetime that Queen Elizabeth laid the foundation of the first British Secret Service. And then, it was her grandfather Henry VII who created the modern civil services. Her father Henry VIII created a new religion and that brought forth the need for a new organization and a new rulebook. And any organization once created requires management.

In Shakespeare’s time, a senior manager was called a leader, whose job was to lead – a country, a clan or a county. These leaders were names as per their status – king, queen, dukes, lords, etc. Just as we do now, the leaders either succeed or they fail at the task at hand, and they too had the job of managing with limited resources, managing their staff, etc.

In the 16th century, there was practically no management literature, though Machiavelli’s “The Prince” was a bestseller then. However, there was a particular fascination with stories on leadership and Shakespeare wrote successful plays for that audience. His play after play had a central character who rose and fell to and from the monarchy and this formed the crux of his stories. His plays clearly illustrated how the leaders organized their rise and how their failures brought about their fall. If you think Shakespeare is all about Romeo and Juliet, you are gravely mistaken. Most of his plays are about politics, authority, power and leadership than of romantic love.

In the Elizabethan age, when Shakespeare used to write, power was personified – few people had it and their personalities greatly mattered. And if we look carefully, this is a modern preoccupation as well. More inches of newsprint have gone for President Clinton and Obama as a person and their characters than have gone for the leadership qualities or the political policies or management of US they did.

For Shakespeare’s Richard II simply being a King is not enough. Having the title provides him with the expectation that everyone will obey him automatically. For his King Lear the enormous authority he had developed as a king is assumed to continue even after he stupidly gives away the land from which he derives his power. Antony believed that his power did not derive from Rome, as the State that gave it to him, but was enshrined in him as a person and could be used however he wanted. And it is these ideas that lead to not only the death of these leaders but also terrible humiliation. On the other hand, Richard III, Macbeth and Coriolanus firmly believe that authority resides in the ability to manipulate and gain power. And then, all three use fear to maintain this authority.

Richard III is ambitious to become the king right from the beginning. He murders his way to the crown. All his deeds thus create a world where nobody trusts him and he becomes isolated from any allies. The play Macbeth begins portraying him as a blood thirsty warrior and his ambition drives him to murder the king to who he had been loyal previously. His life then degenerates into murder after murder and total ruin. Coriolanus was a magnificent warrior-leader. He led by example and in this way, he separates himself from his troops until he is all alone. He gets cut off from his own feelings and becomes very vulnerable. His end is brought about by his own emotions for his mother.

Shakespeare does well to demonstrate that how use of fear as a tool to authority is a flawed strategy and these three leaders also end up dead and humiliated. Shakespeare’s lessons mainly focus on failure and not minor simple failures for that matter. They concern humiliating, gigantic failures. His plays have this failure coming in just when it would appear that the leader’s strategies are working. Then, it becomes essential that you check the ending of the play before you learn the lesson.

Drawing parallels to the modern business, there are so many chief executives who toppled because they became complacent about the power of their title, or who botched the succession in a family business, or who metaphorically murdered their way to the top.

Lee Iacocca, who went on to become the highly successful head of Chrysler, thought he was doing pretty well with his previous management role at Ford – until Henry Ford II summoned him and fired him out of the blue, with the famous unforgettable, immortal words – “sometimes you just don’t like a guy.”’

Sibling rivalry in the Moores family that owns the famous Liverpool based Littlewoods stores and mail-order business ensured that eventually neither Peter nor John Moores became the Chairman.

“Chainsaw Al” Dunlap revelled in his fearsome reputation as a corporate axeman, laying off by the thousands and then using the improvement in the balance sheet as a justification for his actions. But in this success of his, lay the seeds of his downfall. The poor results yielded at Sunbeam Household Appliances Corporation and it became clear that the only thing this man did was to deliver on the bottom line, and how much everyone hated him. He was humiliatingly sacked to the joy of the whole corporate America.

Look at Shakespeare’s Prince Hal, who goes on to become Henry V. He succeeds not because he is not a one-dimensional hero. He recognizes that to be a great king he has to learn how to do it. And this is something he will have to learn not from other kings, but from his future subjects.

Jack Welch of General Electric, one of the most admired leaders of the world, learnt the lesson Henry V learnt, the hard way. Initially he had also begun the restructuring of GE the Dunlap way – shutting businesses and laying off thousands. He became known as ‘Neutron Jack’, which he felt was unfair. It was then that he began listening to his subordinates who knew the businesses at the grassroots better than he himself did. And today, GE is famous for its ways of harvesting good ideas from the workforce, the high productivity, and Welch has became the icon of good management.

Thus, Shakespeare wrote plays that were full of contradictions and ambiguity. There was no simple linearity or morality in his plays. The ambiguity in his plays was meant to reflect the reality of the world. He uses strong characters, fools and rogues to convey to the leaders alternative messages. Similarly, the world of management also has its own ambiguities, and when these are failed to recognize, it fails.

This article has been authored by Bhavi Patel from IRMA


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