Leading Man: Bush, Sarkozy and Blair Have Much to Learn from Shakespeare's Heroes, Writes Chris Smith

By Smith, Chris | New Statesman (1996), July 3, 2006 | Go to article overview
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Leading Man: Bush, Sarkozy and Blair Have Much to Learn from Shakespeare's Heroes, Writes Chris Smith


Smith, Chris, New Statesman (1996)


It is a simple, but often overlooked, fact that organisations--whether they be companies, governments, charities, schools, hospitals, armies, or orchestras--need to be well led if they are to be effective. Developing and improving the quality of that leadership is something the business world has been seeking to do for a while; the public sector, and even the world of culture, are now following suit. Some 2,000 books are published each year on "leadership", but perhaps we don't need to look much further than the lessons we can learn from our greatest writer and dramatist: William Shakespeare.

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There is something for all styles of leader in the plays. Ulysses, in his famed speech in Troilus and Cressida, gives a great evocation of the importance of order and "degree" in the governance of human affairs: "O! when degree is shaked,/Which is the ladder to all high designs,/The enterprise is sick." It is one of the most fervent pleas ever written for everything keeping its proper place; he paints a hellish vision of what happens if all this is abandoned and anarchy is let loose:

 
    Then everything includes itself in power, 
    Power into will, will into appetite; 
    And appetite, an universal wolf, 
    So doubly seconded with will and power, 
    Must make perforce an universal prey, 
    And last eat up himself. 

This view of leadership fits well with the "charismatic" US business-school model popular in the 1970s and 1980s, which emphasised strength, power deriving from the top, clear hierarchies, and leaders who knew where they were going and expected everyone else to follow. Ulysses could have quoted from it extensively in an effort to keep the "universal wolf" at bay.

But Shakespeare gives us other leaders, too: the Duke in Measure for Measure, withdrawing from leadership in order to test those left behind; Prospero, conjuring with his island and its inhabitants; Brutus and Hamlet, both torn by inner conflict and a desperate wish to do the right thing; and Malcolm, in Macbeth--a leader who knows himself, has determination, understands others, and is prepared to act. Indeed, the role played by Malcolm at the end of Macbeth, and by Cassio at the end of Othello and Fortinbras at the close of Hamlet, is one of restoring peace, justice and rightfulness through good leadership.

There is even Lear, the very antithesis of leadership, who gives up his authority and descends rapidly into agony because of the way others use and abuse him.

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