7 Priceless Leadership Lessons From Shakespeare

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Shakespeare is no doubt one of the greatest poets and playwrights of all time. And he was probably the best writer who was extremely good at revealing both the good and the bad traits of the characters in his works. Among many lessons we can extract from his texts, leadership is probably the least obvious one, you may think. But this time, we’ll look at Shakespeare’s works to see what we can learn about leadership in a modern world. In this article originally published on Forbes, you’ll find 7 lessons from Shakespeare that will guide you through your business life!

1. Don’t be ambitious without being moral.

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Macbeth is a parable on what happens when a man’s ambition outstrips his better instincts. In this soliloquy, the nobleman Macbeth wrestles with his conscience as he ponders whether to kill the king, Duncan, and seize the throne for himself:

… Besides, this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off;
And pity, like a naked newborn babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubim, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind. I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself
And falls on th’ other.
So if you want to be CEO, just don’t murder the incumbent, lose your mind and start a small war in the process.

2. Don’t procrastinate.

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If you’re facing a high-pressure dilemma – do you quit your job to start your own company, do you listen to the ghost and kill your uncle to avenge your father’s death – the temptation to dither is understandable. But inaction can be toxic, as Hamlet found to his cost. Convinced that his mother has married his father’s murderer, here he is wondering whether it’s even worth staying alive to deal with the omnishambles:

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them

3. Watch out for yes men – and women.

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When the elderly King Lear decides to hand his realm over to his three daughters, he unwisely offers to give the biggest chunk to the one who loves him most. Two daughters promptly lavish him with praise; the third, Cordelia, finds the whole spectacle revolting. You know you’ve seen that person: the one rolling her eyes, biting her tongue and refusing to join in with the compliment-fest. Leaders need the awkward, principled people who will say no – or in this case, nothing – even when it’s in their interests to say yes.

Lear: … What can you say to draw

A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.

Cordelia: Nothing, my lord.

Lear: Nothing? How? Nothing will come of nothing. Speak again.

Cordelia: Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave

My heart into my mouth. I love your majesty

According to my bond, no more nor less.

Naturally, as King Lear is a tragedy, he discovers the worth of his one good daughter too late. You don’t have to end your career wandering heartbroken with weeds in your hair: Just don’t listen to the sycophants.

4. Know how to give a rousing speech.

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It’s the morning of the Battle of Agincourt. You are the King of England, and you are about to lead your terrified troops into battle against the nefarious French. Weak words are not going to cut it. You are not going to catalyse actions, you are going to crush your foe. Shakespeare immortalized Henry V with his saber-rattling “band of brothers” speech, here performed by the English actor Kenneth Branagh:

The play captures an unimaginably distant time when “leadership” wasn’t some woolly, abstract concept: it literally meant getting on your horse and riding out to battle. While few leaders outside the military face such peril today, the importance of morale-boosting eloquence lives on. Time to start prepping that TED talk?

5. Don’t listen to gossip.

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Life was going pretty swimmingly for Othello – great job as a general in the Venetian army, happy marriage to his beloved Desdemona – until he started listening to scurrilous gossip-monger, Iago. The scheming traitor falsely convinces him that Desdemona has been unfaithful: Othello smothers her to death, learns that she was innocent all along, then commits suicide. Before you commit career suicide, don’t be rash: check the source and more importantly the motivation behind rumors.

6. Trust your instincts.

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And look out for gym-obsessed insomniacs who are just waiting to stab you in the back. Roman leader Julius Caesar had a bad feeling about Cassius:

Let me have men about me that are fat,
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep a-nights.
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look.
He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous.

However, he didn’t act on his instincts, leaving Cassius free to lead a successful plot to assassinate him. Cassius even corrupts Caesar’s most faithful ally, Brutus, into wielding the knife: as a stricken Caesar recognizes him among his assassins, he utters the play’s most famous line: “Et tu, Brute?” It’s become a poignant catchphrase for betrayal. Before you find yourself howling with anguish, pay attention to those nagging doubts.

7. Be merciful.

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Just because you’re in the right, it doesn’t mean you need to extract your “pound of flesh.” This is just one of the many metaphors that has entered common usage from Shakespeare’s plays; in this case, The Merchant of Venice. Here, Portia (an heiress disguised as a male lawyer) pleads for the Jewish money-lender Shylock to ignore an unusual contract: that if the merchant Antonio cannot pay back his debt, Shylock is entitled to a pound of his flesh.

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.

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