This year, the world of English literature has paid some great tributes to Shakespeare, one of its most famous writers ever—conferences, plays, street performances and talks have been organized on every continent.
It is now time for businesses to pay homage to Shakespeare, the timeless bard, as well. Typically, corporate tributes are focused on people such as chairpersons, chief executive officers (CEOs) and professors of management. This piece has, therefore, taken upon itself the task of saluting Shakespeare, and pointing out that he is not just another great writer, but also one of the greatest management gurus who has ever lived.
Shakespeare’s writings hold profound lessons and while there is enough material in his writings for several leadership workshops, here is a primer of some powerful lessons we can learn from him.
No one is indispensable
Many Indian companies build a myth of indispensability around some of their key managers. Indeed, so many of us feel we are so indispensable that we even hesitate to go on a long vacation. Shakespeare shatters this myth totally with these evocative words from As You Like It: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances." We need to recognize that in the larger scheme of things, companies are also stages, and we are merely actors on these stages for a period of time. Each of us will have our entrances and exits, and the next edition of the play will then go on. We will, of course, strut our stuff on our corporate stages each day, and we should do so to the best of our abilities—but we should never mistake the applause when the curtain comes down as a testament to our indispensability. Because so many actors can play any specific role superbly—even if these are challenging parts such as Othello or Macbeth. Shakespeare’s own plays have demonstrated this truth for 450 years now.
Comic relief is useful too
Indian companies are often ultra-serious places, our conferences and meeting rooms are mostly full of grim and staid conversations. As we rise up the corporate ranks, we increasingly lose the ability to laugh at ourselves, or to use occasional humour as a useful method for taking discussions forward. Yet some of the best managers I have known use humour as a very powerful tool, to illustrate an important point, to cool tempers, or to bring people together. Shakespeare teaches us that comic relief is very useful, even in the midst of the most terrible tragedies. A good example of this is in Macbeth, where a drunk porter indulges in comic revelry between such terrifying events as the murder of King Duncan and the discovery of his body. This inebriated porter talks at great length about the three things that drink provokes. “Nose-painting, sleep and urine", he says, and then goes on to add, “Lechery, sir, it provokes and unprovokes: it provokes the desire but takes away the performance." Whether or not we agree with his conclusions, he certainly makes us smile at a tense point in the play. Similarly, in Hamlet, a couple of clowns fool around in a gravedigging scene, immediately after the tragic suicide of Ophelia. These comic sequences lift the play, and ensure even sharper audience attention on the serious parts that follow. Our managers would do well to learn to laugh and smile.
Listen before you speak
In general, Indians tend to be poor listeners. Indian managers generally love speaking—primarily about themselves, their achievements and vision. These days, they also hold forth generously about their views on new-age topics such as e-commerce, gender diversity, cultural sensitivity, and helping the spouse by changing nappies at home. Therefore, Shakespeare’s advice to us on listening, and not speaking too much, is invaluable. “Give thy thoughts no tongue," he tells us in Hamlet. He is cautioning us here to think before we speak, to keep our thoughts to ourselves and only talk when necessary. Shakespeare goes on to say, also in Hamlet, “Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice," thus emphasizing the importance of listening to people within organizations. Unless we listen carefully to others, and to those around us, how will we ever learn?
Be true to your own style
There is an increasing tendency among executives to emulate their corporate idols and their methods of leadership. This has led to a rash of books about the styles of Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Mark Zuckerberg and other highly successful businessmen. In addition, many managers also try to ape the leaders of their own companies, either because they are awestruck, or because they see this as a politically correct choice. Shakespeare warns us against such blind pursuit of the leadership styles of others, however iconic they may be. He advises us, again in Hamlet, “This above all: to thine own self be true...". This is a wonderful line with deep meaning. We blossom as leaders when we are true to ourselves, in harmony with our own selves. We should consider integrating key lessons from other great leaders into our methods of management only where these are not in conflict with our own natural styles. For instance, a manager who has deep belief in consumer research, or in consulting his senior team before arriving at critical decisions, will be committing a great error in trying to follow the rather dramatic methods associated with Jobs, just because he was so successful.
Inspiration can move mountains
Shakespeare’s plays are replete with powerful examples of how inspiring leaders can lead their teams towards achieving the impossible. The most memorable example of this is the brilliant speech delivered by King Henry V (in the play with the same name), in the battlefield scene at Agincourt, where he rallies his tired and demoralized English troops against the might of a much larger, highly armoured and skilled French army. Every corporate leader should read and imbibe this stirring address, because it remains to this day the finest dramatic interpretation of what inspiring leadership means, even under the most adverse circumstances. Here are just a few lines from Henry V to whet your appetite: “From this day to the ending of the world, but we in it shall be remembered, we few, we happy few, we band of brothers, for he today that sheds his blood with me, shall be my brother; and gentlemen in England now abed, shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks, that fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s Day."
The English soldiers, roused by their magnificent leader, went on to win the battle, against impossible odds.
The simple message from Shakespeare: Leaders have to inspire their teams, particularly when the chips are down.
Harish Bhat works with the Tata group and is the author of the best-seller business book Tatalog: Eight Modern Stories From A Timeless Institution. He thinks that the best lesson corporate managers can learn from Shakespeare is contained in this quote from Richard II: “The purest treasure mortal times afford is spotless reputation. That away, men are but gilded loam or painted clay."