Shakespeare on Management

24th March 2000 at 00:00
SHAKESPEARE ON MANAGEMENT. By Paul Corrigan. Kogan Page pound;16.99

You think it must be a joke at first. Then you realise how many of Shakespeare's plays (all of them that I can think of) are about leadership in some way. More particularly, they are about the faults, failures, inadequacies, vanities - and successes - of kings.

Paul Corrigan, a management consultant with a passion for Shakespeare, clearly believes, and successfully persuades the reader, that this is no accident. Shakespeare, he says, was deeply interested in the arts of leadership and used his kings to explore their subtleties in ways that are as relevant to us now as they were to his contemporaries.

Take, for example, the question of where a leader's authority originates. Is it in the title? Corrigan writes: "We have all worked with and for managers who depend upon their title to gain authority ... the title, the size of the desk, the way in which their own managers treat them with respect are all very important."

Shakespeare, he goes on, gives us extreme examples of this in Richard II and Lear. "Their power as annointed kings was ascribed to them from birth." But, of course, they eventually learn that God-given (or board-of-directors-given) power is not enough. If you rely too heavily upon it, you will fail totally and humiliatingly, as did Richard and Lear, and, according to Corrigan, as did Martin Taylor, ex-chief executive at Barclays Bank: "the board quite suddenly lost confidence in him - undoubtedly an unexpected and shattering blow to someone used to being adulated for his brainpower."

The parallels Corrigan draws are many and fascinating. Richard III is ambitious, but his ambition is so ruthless as to contain the seeds of its own destruction. Mcbeth "demonstrates what happens if a leader has no integrity". The more you read, the more you see not only the headteachers and other leaders that you have known, but, more uncomfortably, the less desirable aspects of your own time as a leader.

With some relief, we come to Henry V, Corrigan's hero, who did it right. He spent two plays learning about leadership before he became king. He consorted with the lower orders, for example, not just for fun, but to find out how they spoke and thought. As Warwick says in Henry IV Part II: "The prince but studies his companions Like a strange tongue, wherein to gain the language." He is, says Corrigan, doing what management guru Tom Peters talks about when he urges managers to "be where and when the action is at 3am on the loading dock".

And, of course, in Henry V itself, all Prince Hal's training comes to fruition. Corrigan analyses it all for us: the King's ability - founded in the diligence with which he studied ordinary people in his youth - to speak easily, incognito, with his soldiers before Agincourt. The stirring speeches hitting exactly the right note. The willingness to hang an old friend for the greater good. Anyone who has done any management task will recognise all of it.

What really makes the book such a good read, however, is Corrigan's enthusiasm for, and deep understanding of the plays and the characters within them. And you never have to read for very long before coming across a good chunk of Shakespeare that you can study and enjoy.

If you think you cannot read management books, this is the one to try. And for teachers of English literature, Corrigan's unusual and valid perspectives on the plays will interest students and go down well with examiners.

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