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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Leadership: The Shakespearean Way - A Review by Jay Mitra

Let us return to the Forest of Arden, the home of political exiles, banished lovers, simple shepherds and possibly today, wandering managers and leaders. There they could find Jacques with all his theatrical oratory unraveling the seven ages of man and setting the scene for how we could perceive the world:
                      “All the world's a stage,
                       And all the men and women merely players;
                       They have their exits and their entrances,
                       And one man in his time plays many parts,
                       His acts being seven ages”.

                                         (As You Like It (Act 2, Scene 7, 139-143))

 To read Shakespeare is to both imagine and understand the world as it was then and the world as it is now. In all our world’s and in all the stages in which we play out our lives, we have our protagonists, our leaders, who in their interaction with men and women, negotiate, inspire, direct and sometimes fail, as they play out their many parts, entering and exiting organisations in various parts of the world. Shakespeare wrote with extraordinary insight about kings, queens, princes, rogues, villains and clowns- all leaders in their own right.  To understand Shakespeare is to grasp the meaning of leadership in all its rich variety, as unwieldy flesh or as gentleman on whom one can build an absolute trust. Leaders as Shakespeare found were unique power players with some who were born great, others who acquired greatness and still others who had greatness thrust upon them.

In his delightful book on ‘Leadership: The Shakespearean Way’ GRK Murty does a fine job in bringing to light the numerous manifestations of leadership in Shakespeare’s plays. Much of what Shakespeare wrote was about power – both good and corrupt. Power as a recurrent theme in his plays was closely examined at a time when the monarchy was under threat. Although acceptance of the ruler and his power was widely accepted as an obligation among people, claims to such power often brought cataclysmic conflicts in different countries from Denmark to England. But as the quintessential playwright the leader-protagonist in Shakespeare’s eyes could only play his or her role in context and in relation to the people he or she served and ruled. It was in the richness of the relationships, in the finely grained detail of humanity, its suffering and its glory, that Shakespeare carved out his leaders. Leadership was about the individuals who were leaders but crucially about how, why and where they led and in what circumstances they succeeded, failed or achieved cathartic resolution.

Sometimes, power and its value can be found where you least expect it. A good example is that of Beatrice, who as a woman in Shakespeare’s world has no power. Yet she takes on a leadership role using language, repetition and her ability to envisage an outcome to convince Benedict to revenge a wrong to her cousin Hero.

GRK captures Shakespeare’s infinite variety and tracks the evolution of the principle of leadership in management theory and practice through Shakespearean lenses. He tracks leadership traits and characteristics, the motivations that drive them, the service they render, their blindness and hubris, through to their wisdom and insight and the processes by which leadership finds its place in different types of organisations.

Murty’s book examines twenty of the thirty seven plays exploring leaders who play their different roles (Merchant of Venice), how they are made (Henry IV), their charisma (Henry V), and their ability to manage change (Richard III) and conflict (Coriolanus). He explores modern management concepts and topics such as emotional intelligence through his examination of King Lear, the dark side of leadership as found in Macbeth, rivalry and jealousy through the study of Othello and why we have so few women executives at the top in his explanations of different passages from King Lear and Macbeth. Beyond personalities and characters, there is also the interesting insight into organisational management processes, as in the need for different forms of training, which is explained by way of a study of As You Like It, and value creation or demonic activity as found in Richard III.   

Murty is able to capture and analyse the intensity, the emotion and the sharpness of intellectual rigour that Shakespeare helped dramatise for all eternity. To then contextualise it in terms of modern management practice is an art in itself. The author reflects on the timelessness of Shakespeare by referring to modern management practices – good and bad- and in organisations which have been either hampered by poor or criminal leadership and those that have thrived under effective leaders. But more importantly, Murty shows how Shakespeare caught the rhythms of speech of so many different kinds of leaders and people in various situations of power, conflict, exultation and misery. Understanding this depth of understanding in Shakespeare’s portrayal can help us to understand leadership in all its forms and manifestations fare better than many analytical tools that are at our disposal in the world of management theory and practice.   
I recommend Murty’s book to students of management, both leaders and managers and to all who love Shakespeare and are keen to appreciate how the beloved Bard’s works permeate our thinking and our feelings in both work and play for all times.  The author draws on the writing of several management gurus to substantiate some of his own observations of management, thus providing a good theoretical base for this book as a management text. My only reservation about the book is the absence of specific management cases which could have helped to illustrate many of the author’s thoughtful and succinct observations about the value of Shakespeare to those who are serious about understanding good and bad leadership. But this is a temporary and limited shortcoming for what is otherwise an interesting and highly readable book for our times.

Jay Mitra
Centre for Entrepreneurship Research
 Essex Business School
University of Essex, UK
March, 2012 

Dimensions - Vol. 3 No. 1, April 2012, pp 115-116. 
Thanks to the Editor, Dimensions, for permitting its reproduction here. 


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