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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Coriolanus: Lessons in conflict management

      As ice is to North Pole, so are desires to mankind. Once desires sprout, conflicts surface—and they could be between individuals, between employer and employee, between classes, between societies, between countries and within a man himself. Mary Parker Follett (1995)1—the prophet of management—said: “Conflict is a fact of life. It should, therefore, be accepted, for then only one can make it work for the good.” Her sagely advice is: Treat conflict as a genuine difference, but not as warfare. In psychological terms she describes conflict “as a moment in the interaction of desires,” for conflict is between ‘what has been’ and/or ‘what should have been’? It thus engenders a struggle between two opposing ideas. Hence, we are prone to treat it as a connotation of good or bad. And thus arise the two ways of handling conflict: first, the ‘destructive’ way and the second, the ‘constructive’ way.

Businesses, which are engaged in producing results in an unforgiving competitive market, are a virtual tinderbox of conflict. The top management teams of these organizations function in conflict-ridden internal environments due to either the inflated egos of the leaders or their pride overruling the culture of an organization. And in-fighting can make the top team of an organization its own worst enemy. It is, perhaps, in this context that Sumantra Ghoshal2 said that a leader, to be effective in leading an organization, must essentially have enough ‘intellect’ to create clarity in the organization to deal with the inherently conflicting demands and make wise decisions in the face of uncertainty that shrouds the outcome of decisions. Resolving conflict doesn’t just happen even when goals are well clarified and clearly defined, and systems are put in place, for there are payoffs for each behavior on the continuum, ranging from non-assertive to assertive, to aggressive, and each involved behavior exacting a price. For instance, in this continuum, an aggressive leader may initially succeed in getting his way through his machismo, but he is sure to pay the price for it later by way of alienating his followers. Management of conflicts in the organizations thus plays a great role in defining the successes of a leader and the organization that he is heading.

Indeed, this is what Shakespeare depicts happening to a leader in one of his historical plays—Coriolanus. It explains how the frailty of a leader in apprehending realities and handling conflicts effectively leads to his ultimate ‘banishment’ from the country. In the play, Coriolanus, the central and vivifying element is the character and life of Coriolanus himself that explains how unresolved ‘conflicts’—conflict with himself, conflict with plebeians, conflict with fellow patricians, conflict with soldiers, all flowing from his infinite pride and prejudices—lead to the fall of an otherwise competent leader having utmost devotion to his country. Like in many of Shakespearean plays, here too, the hero, Coriolanus, gladly and with pride surrenders himself to the nation, Rome, and its cause. However, there is a problem in his surrender—it is not surrender to a principle higher than oneself, but to his passionate self-esteem and prejudice of class.
This pride of Coriolanus becomes visible in the very first scene of the play when the plebeians, the common people of Rome, are in rebellion for want of grain. One of the mutinous citizens cries: Caius Marcius (original name of Coriolanus)—one of the distinguished generals of the state—is the chief enemy of the people. “Let us kill him, and we’ll have corn at our own price.” When another citizen requests the crowd to consider the services Coriolanus did for the country, the first replies: “Very well and could be content to give him good report for’t, but that he pays himself with being proud.” 

Interfering in the commotion, Menenius, a patrician known for his wit and wisdom, speaks to them on their intended rebellion. Although the mob speaks in anger and rashness, even at times behaving violently, Menenius, through his persuasive skills, could make some headway. At this juncture, Marcius (Coriolanus) enters the scene and heaps abuses on the plebeians:
                                    He that will give good words to thee will flatter
                                    Beneath abhorring. What would you have, you curs,
                                    That like nor peace nor war? The one affrights you,
                                    The other makes you proud. He that trusts to you,
                                    Where he should find you lions, finds you hares;
                                    Where foxes, geese. …
                                    He that depends
                                    Upon your favors swims with fins of lead.
                                    (I, i, 166-179)

Such rejoicing of Coriolanus in the malice and displeasure of the plebeians as against Menenius’ tone of sober reasoning, calmness, and a genuine desire to identify with the people whom he is talking to—as reflected in his address: “Why, masters, my good friends, mine honest neighbors, will you undo yourselves?”—obviously inflames the wrath of the plebeians once again.

Although there is an element of truth in certain statements of Coriolanus—such as the plebeians favoring the undeserving senators like Brutus and Scinius, and making the statements as that of Menenius about there being little grain for anyone, and it is ungrateful of the people to rise against a protective state—the plebeians disown him simply because he is full of disdain, pride, and lacks patience, humility and he fails to adopt a conciliatory tone in addressing the cause of commoners. Driven by his class-prejudice against plebeians—“a common cry of curs”—Coriolanus attempts to dominate the plebeians by his non-statesman like/tactless utterances and, in the process, gets himself further alienated from them.

But, according to Follett, “the core of social process is not likeness, but the harmonizing of differences through interpenetration.” Citing Heraclites—“Nature desires eagerly opposites and, out of them, it completes the harmony, not out of similar”—she encourages leaders to “conceive conflict as a normal process by which socially valuable differences register themselves for the enrichment of all.” In order to accomplish such common good, she advises leaders to avoid ‘domination’ as means for resolving conflict, for it results in victory of one side over the other involved in the conflict. It means that it could at best resolve the conflict temporarily, but in the long run it is sure to re-emerge in a bigger way, for the losing party is more likely to revisit it in a different form. That is what indeed happens to Coriolanus—his inept handling of the conflict through domination turns out to be his undoing at a later date.

As the play advances, hearing that the Volsces are attacking Rome, the Romans march to Corioles. Here, Marcius (Coriolanus) standing at the gates of their enemy’s city, speaks in a grand and stirring tone urging his troops to “Fight with hearts more proof than shields.” Immediately and surprisingly, he follows it with a warning: “Come on, my fellows! / He that retires, I’ll take him for a Volsce, / And he shall feel mine edge.” This tendency of Coriolanus to treat himself as a class apart from the rest—be they plebeians in the civic society, or soldiers in the battlefield—is visible in scene after scene. His disdain for his soldiers again reflects in his style of rallying his troops to battle again after being driven back to their trenches with insults and abuses:

                                    You shames of Rome! You herd of—Boils and plagues
                                    Plaster you o’er, that you may be abhorred
                                    Farther than seen, ...
                                    From slaves that apes would beat!
                                    (I, iv, 32-37)

His use of poetic language in a spirited tone in the previous instance and immediately switching to sub-human images, such as ‘boils’, ‘plagues’ and ‘geese’, to encourage the troop to join him again in the battle clearly demonstrates that his judgment and blood are not well commingled. He does not have the necessary rhetorical skills needed to get his troops back in battle with right words. Or, he never submits himself fully to the means to attain his desired end. Perhaps, his pride comes in between his wish and words. This separation is so intense with him that he even fails to realize that a leader can never ever motivate his soldiers by belittling them.

This also reveals that Coriolanus perhaps loved to operate from the traditional mould of “power-over” control model. That could be one reason why he enters the city of Corioles all alone—while the soldiers dubbed it as: “Foolhardiness!”—as such reductionist and self-defeating model of exercising control which, according to Mary Follett, separates the leader from the led, as against the ability of “power-with” control model that is capable of pooling individual powers. In modern management terms, leadership is meant for encouraging employees, creating enthusiasm; in short, it is meant for “breathing life and purpose” into the led so that the team as a whole can accomplish the mission, but not diminishing them with sub-human abuses, as Coriolanus did. McGregor (1966)3 puts the same in a telling fashion: “The philosophy of management by direction and control—regardless of whether it is hard or soft—is inadequate to motivate because the human needs on which this approach relies are relatively unimportant motivators of behavior in our society today. Direction and control are of limited value in motivating people whose important needs are social and egotistic.” Shakespeare highlights the same truth very dramatically by depicting Coriolanus returning all alone from the city of Corioles masked in blood as an outcome of his “Sensibly outdar[ing] his senseless sword.”

It is interesting here to note that it is not that only Coriolanus feels that he is separate from the rest. Even his followers are aware of his superiority complex. This is evident from a soldier’s statement made while the Roman forces were entering the city of Corioles: “He is himself alone / To answer all the city.” But it is an irony that such a capable leader who dedicated himself to protect the citizens of Rome, alienated the very Romans from him by unwittingly creating conflicts between himself and them, more out of his own pride and prejudices. He never attempts to instill a sense of confidence in them and encourage them to use ‘responsible power.’ Instead, he asks them to turn him into a weapon: “O me alone! Make you a sword of me?” Despite his heroic deeds, this singular failure of Coriolanus mars his reputation.

This pride of Coriolanus cannot, however, diminish his stature as a warlord. He is known to lead his troops standing upfront in battlefield. His devotion to his country is unparalleled. Driven by a passion for his country, he sets an example of himself to his soldiers in the battlefield. His valor in the Corioles battle reflects well in the description of Cominius:
                                    He stopped the fliers,
                                    And by his rare example made the coward
                                    Turn terror into sport. As weeds before
                                    A vessel under sail, so men obeyed
                                    And fell below his stem. His sword, death’s stamp,
                                    Where it did mark, it took; from face to foot
                                    He was a thing of blood, whose every motion
                                    Was timed with dying cries. Alone he entered
                                    The mortal gate o’th’ city, which he painted
                                    With shunless destiny; aidless came off,
                                    And with a sudden reinforcement struck
                                    Corioles like a planet.
                                    (II, ii, 103-114)
Such is his valor that turned a retreat into a victory. In the modern jargon, he ‘walked his talk.’ And he is aware of his fighting qualities and the status of his achievements in the battlefield. Ironically, that could be one reason why he always exhibits a sense of pride, which has become the source of friction between himself  and the plebeians and also between himself and the  tribunes. Intriguingly, the same Coriolanus, when Cominius praises his deeds at the battlefield, does not like to be extolled to his face. He even refuses the offer made by Cominius of a tenth of the treasure taken that day, saying: “I …cannot make my heart consent to take / A bribe to pay my sword. I do refuse it, / And stand upon my common part with those / That have beheld the doing.” That is his devotion to his country and his nobility. He, of course, accepts the title of “Coriolanus” bestowed upon him as a mark of his victory over the city of Corioles that he all alone brought, though he still appears to be wary of public praise.

This makes one feel that Coriolanus is, perhaps, in conflict with himself. Further events in the drama indeed strengthen this feeling. On his return from Corioles with laurels, his mother professes her hopes that he become consul. He replies that he would “rather be their servant in my way than sway with them in theirs.” But subsequently, he stands for consulship. The senate decides that Coriolanus is worthy of the position but directs him to go through the traditional ritual of seeking people’s approval. Coriolanus, however, asks for an exemption from this  tradition. Interpreting this as his scorn for the people, the tribunes work for stirring up the plebeians against him, when he finally approaches the people for their approval.
In carrying out this ritual of seeking public approval, Coriolanus is never at ease with himself—either in showing his scars and wounds to the public as testimony of his service to the country or in being humble to them. Indeed, when a citizen says that as a price for seeking their approval for his consulship, he must “ask it kindly,” Coriolanus replies: “Kindly, sir, I pray, let me ha ’t. I have wounds to show you, which shall be yours in private.—…” Similarly, when Brutus and Sicinius turned the people against him and when Menenius advises him to go to the tribunes and repent of what he has spoken to them, he says: “For them? I cannot do it to the gods. / Must I then do’t to them?” Even when his mother pleads with him to go to them, he says: “Must I go show them my unbarbed sconce? Must I / With my base tongue give to my noble heart / A lie that it must bear? …” Yet, he goes to them but, of course, fails in the mission. 

Now the question is: Why? Why does a brave leader like him ridicule himself in this fashion? The answer is simple: at every stage, for one reason or the other—may be to honor his mother’s pleadings, or owing to friends’ words of advice, or simply the circumstances have forced him to do so—he forced upon himself a compromise, a compromise between his value-system and his immediate desires; and in the same vein he also attempted to resolve the conflict between himself and the plebeians and the patricians. But Coriolanus being what he is—rigid and obstinate—could never submit himself fully to the means to attain the desired end. He has no self-control to pursue the chances thrown open to him to their logical conclusion. Critics often cite his pride, for it is “rendered all together inflammable and uncontrollable by passion” as the culprit for his not being able to pursue his attempts, other than in battlefield, to his betterment. But that is not the whole truth behind his failure, for ‘compromise’, if used as a tool to resolve a conflict, is sure to prove counterproductive, since it always compels the interlocked parties to give off a little of their demand or expectation. To give up his pride, his valor, his belief in himself and instead plead with the plebeians for his consulship by showing wounds to seek their favor, etc., are highly unacceptable to Coriolanus. Yet, he attempts it and obviously fails in it, proving Mary Parker Follett right when she said that ‘compromise’ with conflicts leads to destruction while ‘integration’ of desires of the conflicting parties in the solution, leads to construction—creation of ‘new.’ To further elaborate, “Integration involves invention, and the clever thing is to recognize this, and not to let one’s thinking stay within the boundaries of two alternatives which are mutually exclusive” [Henry C Metcalf and L Urwick (Eds.) 1941]4, which is the undoing of Coriolanus. Shakespeare thus proves through Coriolanus that handling of conflicts through ‘integration’ amounts to making ‘friction’ work for the good of the involved parties, while letting a conflict go unintegrated is pathological. To put it otherwise, conflict per se is not pathological, rather resolving it using compromise as a tool and thereby allowing the conflict to reappear again and again in some other form is what is pathological.

The other most important management lesson that Shakespeare teaches us through Coriolanus is that for a leader the ultimate is display of ‘humanity’ in his dealings with the external world. As the drama progresses, Coriolanus, having been deserted by “the dastard nobles” to whom he had been so warm, generous, and so loyal, and given over as a prey to the mob, decides to take revenge against them—all in solitude. In his anger, he banishes Rome and calmly strides forward towards Corioles, telling his mother: “I go alone / Like to a lonely dragon that his fen / Makes feared and talked of more than seen.” 

Later, he joins his arch-rival Aufidius—the leader of Volsces—who, of course, honors him and treats him as almost sacred, and Coriolanus, “As if a man were author of himself / And knew no other kin,” attacks Rome along with the army of Volscians. As Coriolanus and Aufidius are planning to lay siege to Rome the next day, Coriolanus’ mother, wife and child come to him pleading that an attack on Rome is an attack on his wife and child, and at this his ‘humanity’ caves in, or perhaps the man’s highness and parricidal hardness gradually limber and soften with the maternal intervention:
                                    What is that curtsy worth? Or those doves’ eyes,
                                    Which can make gods forsworn? I melt, and am not
                                    Of stronger earth than others. My mother bows,
                                    As if Olympus to a molehill should
                                    In supplication nod, and my young boy
                                    Hath an aspect of intercession which
                                    Great Nature cries ‘Deny not.’
                                    (V, iii, 27-33)

Thus caves in Coriolanus, and this act of his teaches us another lesson that merits the attention of every practicing manager or aspiring leader: It took so much time for Coriolanus to know what he is. He did not know till last (Act 5, Scene 3) that he is full of “rages and revenges” and his mother and wife are possessed of “colder reasons.” Interestingly, it is only when he contrasts his emotions with his mother’s collected rationality that he crying, “O mother! Mother! What have you done?” caves in. This affirms the observation of Marc Robert (1982)5: conflict is best managed by those who have a clear image of themselves. It is, of course, a different matter that the act of examining oneself is quite often very uncomfortable. Secondly, we cannot trust ourselves in conflict situations since the stresses we undergo usually derail our rational responses. Nevertheless, the more we learn how to react to a given controversy from a platform of clear understanding of oneself, the greater the chances are to act appropriately. And for this to happen, one must listen to oneself—listen to the conversation that goes on inside when one is in a conflict. That is what we indeed see happening with Coriolanus when his mother, wife and child call on him: “Shall I be tempted to infringe my vow in the same time ’tis made?” He struggles to deny his emotions on seeing his family in Aufidius camp, while his wife’s “dove’s eyes” melt him. He feels that his mother bowing to him is like “Olympus (bowing) to a molehill.” All these feelings clearly foretell that he is all set to offer what satisfies his mother and wife, without of course sacrificing his own needs. And remember, it is the same Coriolanus who, when Menenius called on him at Aufidius camp, said: “Wife, mother, child, I know not.” The same Coriolanus becomes dumbfounded when his mother along with his wife and child kneeling before him asks:
                                    Nay, go not from us thus...
                                    The end of war’s uncertain, but this certain,
                                    That, if thou conquer Rome, the benefit
                                    Which thou shalt thereby reap is such a name
                                    Whose repetition will be dogged with curses,
                                    Whose chronicle thus writ: “The man was noble,
                                    But with his last attempt he wiped it out,
                                    Destroyed his country, and his name remains
                                    To th’ ensuing age abhorred.” Speak to me, son...
                                    Think’st thou it honorable for a nobleman
                                    Still to remember wrongs?
                                    (V, iii, 131-155)

Looking at this “unnatural” scene—his mother kneeling together with his wife and child lifting their hands up—Coriolanus melts down. He steps towards his mother and holding her by the hand lifts her. For a moment he remains silent and then, in a sort of cry, he utters:
                                    Oh, mother, mother!
                                    What have you done? …
                                    You have won a happy victory to Rome;
                                    But for your son—…
                                    Most dangerously you have with him prevailed,
                                    If not most mortal to him.
                                    (V, iii, 182-189)
This crying, once again tells us that the resolution Coriolanus has arrived at is not out of any logical deduction but more out of submission to his mother’s supplication. It is out of his unwavering reverence for his mother that he could not but grant peace to Rome, as is evident from his cry: “Oh, mother, you have won peace for your country, but mortal and unhappy for your son.” Which means, he is still viewing the conflict as a battle that is to be either won or lost—a classic example of not integrating oneself with the evolved resolution. Such a style of resolution seldom lasts longer, for it tends to reappear in a different form or resurface in a different context. 

Amidst his dialogue with his mother and wife, Shakespeare makes Coriolanus exhibit another interesting behavior: he asks Aufidius to tell him if he was right in acceding to his mother’s request or if he was weak. Aufidius, of course, backs him but with an ulterior motive which is an aside here. What matters most here is inviting feedback on one’s behavior from those who are constructive in their analysis to enable one to avoid the pitfalls involved in judging oneself against one’s own intentions. The success of this exercise again depends on to what extent one practices self-disclosure at least to those with whom he/she enjoys intimate relations. 

To conclude, as John Dewey (2000)6 said: “Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It instigates invention. It shocks us out of sheep-like passivity, and sets us at noting and contriving ….[C]onflict is a ‘sine qua non’ of reflection and ingenuity.” What therefore individuals as well as organizations need to do is not to avoid conflicts but to manage them effectively for positive results. And management, as Peter Drucker7 said, “is so much more than exercising rank and privilege, that is so much more than making deals. It affects people and their lives.”

 Keywords: Leaders, Leadership, Shakespearean Leaders


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