Thursday, March 20, 2008

Shakespeare and Leadership

Based on a cursory inspection, Hamlet would seem to hold great promise as a model of leadership. After all, the guy was Prince of Denmark, a job ripe with leadership potential. When you hold a title like king, queen or prince, it's usually a sign that leadership is in the cards for you.

Shakespeare gives us a flawed hero in Prince Hamlet, though. He's a fellow who can barely lead himself, let alone anybody else. Can we still derive leadership principles from him? Of course. His flaws and virtues alike provide valuable discussion points. But before we delve into them, let's review the storyline.

The play begins with some of Hamlet's friends spotting a ghost while guarding the king's castle one night. The ghost has the appearance of Hamlet's father, the recently dead king. The guards discuss what they've witnessed and decide that they should ask Hamlet to come see the apparition. Hamlet is mystified by the story and agrees to stand watch with the guards the following night. The ghost makes an appearance, and Hamlet learns that the apparition is truly that of his father. The ghost reveals that he was murdered by none other than Hamlet's uncle, Claudius, who subsequently married Hamlet's mother and became the new king. The ghost charges his son with a heavy but unambiguous task: avenge his death by killing Claudius. Despite this clear objective, Hamlet spends his time doing everything but carrying out his

What can Hamlet teach us about leadership? Following are the principles illustrated by the prince's behavior.

A leader must take action based on credible information

Hamlet learns what he must do, but he then spends the remainder of the play avoiding the inevitable. He doesn't seem to know how to go about carrying out his responsibility, and he doesn't even try to develop a plan. He just frets and does nothing. Hamlet is paralyzed, which is something a leader should avoid at all costs. In a crisis situation, a leader must always choose one of two options: take action or seek more and better information. Hamlet does neither.

Some readers might say that Hamlet's information wasn't credible. After all, it came from a ghost. However, the ghost was seen and described by multiple people, so it wasn't a hallucination. The ghost's statements have credibility because they reflect an intimate knowledge of the events surrounding the murder of Hamlet's father. The ghost provides details that would only be known by the murderer and the victim. It's insider information from the afterlife, so to speak. Hamlet has no doubt about the ghost's truthfulness. He believes the information implicitly, but he can't translate the information into action.

A leader must mobilize people

The action leaders take is typically the work of multiple people. In other words, leaders can't do it all alone. They provide the overall objectives and motivation, enabling others to rally around their cause. But Hamlet refuses to assemble a team to assist in carrying out his objectives. The castle guards, each of whom saw the ghost, would be well-prepared to assist in the effort. Each of them also holds Hamlet in high esteem. Hamlet could easily have recruited his guard friends to assist him in getting the job done. Given the fact that his cause involved killing a sitting monarch, he needed all the help he could get.

Without mobilizing people in support of his cause, a person can be a crusader, a visionary or even a genius, but he or she will never be a leader. The single most important element of leadership is motivating people to follow. Followers understand and believe in the cause and are put into action by the leader. Hamlet's cause is a deeply personal one, and it would be temp-ting to say the job is his responsibility alone. All leaders have a deep personal connection to their causes, though. Hamlet fails the test of leadership because he refuses to rally people around his cause.

A leader must stay focused

Great leaders are almost maniacal in their focus. They seize upon their causes and refuse to let go, closing out all other distractions. Hamlet is likable because he doesn't stay focused. He's just like us. We relate to his inability to overcome his many distractions and carry out the important task before him. Think of the big project you've been putting off for longer than you'd like to admit--and it doesn't even involve killing somebody! Given that perspective, who can't empathize with Hamlet? His many distractions make for fascinating reading. Here are just a few of the digressions that keep Hamlet from approaching his task as a leader should.

He flirts with insanity. Insanity generally isn't a positive attribute for a leader. Followers want to believe they're headed in the right direction, and insanity rarely leads there. Hamlet takes this course from the start. It's apparently a diversionary tactic so his true aim of avenging his father's murder won't be suspected.

The first evidence of Hamlet's supposed madness is found in his scene with his girlfriend, Ophelia. Hamlet appears in her room with disheveled clothes and bizarre behavior, expressing his love for her in a dramatic manner. Shortly thereafter, he completely reverses course and tells her, "Get thee to a nunnery." Hamlet's attitude toward Ophelia swings like a pendulum. This is consistent with his strategy of depicting himself as unstable, but it absorbs time and energy that could be better spent.

He passes up an opportunity to kill Claudius. Hamlet encounters Claudius praying in the castle. Hamlet is armed, and they're alone. This would seem a perfect opportunity to avenge his father. Hamlet rejects the opportunity, though, because Claudius is praying. He believes Claudius' soul will be purged clean if he dies praying, and he'll have a clear path to heaven.

He hides a corpse. Another interesting diversion is the hiding of Polonius' corpse. Hamlet makes a game of this, making puns and refusing to disclose the hiding place. Although this presents many opportunities for displaying his wit, it doesn't forward his cause.

He arranges the deaths of two meddlers. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern accompany Hamlet on his trip to England. They carry a note demanding Hamlet's immediate execution. Hamlet discovers the note and rewrites it with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as the objects of the death sentence. This reveals Hamlet's resourcefulness and cunning, but it also shows that he's prone to inaction unless faced with an immediate threat. Nearly anyone can rise to action when faced with imminent destruction. Leaders strive for great acts before their enemies rally against them.

He passes time in a graveyard. Hamlet and his friend Horatio stroll in a graveyard and muse about the ultimate end of all humankind. Hamlet reveals a profound understanding of the nature of life and death. Ultimately, it's just one more in a long line of distractions.

He participates in a fatal fencing match. Claudius arranges a sword match between Hamlet and Polonius' son. The match is supposed to be good clean fun, but as with all situations organized by Claudius, the true intent is much darker. Why does Hamlet even agree to participate? He's confident about the outcome and reveals that he's the more skilled swordsman. So why does he bother? His objective is to avenge his father's death, not entertain the king's court with a show of strength.

It's worth noting that Hamlet is directly responsible for the deaths of three people other than Claudius. Yes, he finally does get around to killing Claudius during the play's final act, but his triumph comes only minutes before he himself is killed. In fact, Hamlet's tardiness in carrying out his objective results in the deaths of seven people besides the one who clearly deserves to die. The play ends with a stage littered with corpses. Hamlet's procrastination literally proves deadly.

All people who aspire to leadership must practice their powers of focus. This is easier for some than for others. For those who are easily distracted, organizational skills go hand-in-hand with focusing skills. Being organized often helps to remove distractions by dividing the day into smaller, more manageable intervals. Plan and carry out each piece of the day, and politely shun the diversions that prevent you from carrying out your objectives. Don't become a robot, but avoid Hamlet's tendency to let every event become an excuse for not doing what you set out to do.

A leader must be wary of competitors

Hamlet has every reason to suspect the worst from Claudius. Before the ghost ever speaks to him, the prince develops a deep disdain for the upstart king because of his hasty marriage to Hamlet's mother. Hamlet considers Claudius a despicable character very early in the play. Once Hamlet learns that Claudius actually murdered his father, he should have been prepared to expect anything from the man. Despite clear evidence of Claudius' treachery, Hamlet allows the king to manipulate him in two significant ways.

First, he allows Claudius to send him on a sea voyage to England. Any reasonable person would suspect this to be a one-way trip leading to a grave in a foreign country. Hamlet takes the trip anyway and only barely escapes death. He should have known that his adversary would do anything at this point to rid himself of the threat that Hamlet posed. Some readers might say that Hamlet is truly insane at this point and in no condition to judge Claudius' motivations. But Hamlet's biting wit makes it clear he has a grip on reality, even if he's ignorant of Claudius' rather obvious intent.

Next, Hamlet agrees to participate in a fencing match with the son of someone he accidentally killed. Guess who arranged the fencing match? Claudius, of course. Again, Hamlet should have been suspicious of this event, given the treachery of its organizer. He has already learned of Claudius's involvement in his near-death experience on the way to England. The message is clear: Claudius wants Hamlet killed as soon as possible. Nonetheless, Hamlet agrees to participate in the fencing match, which features poison-tipped foils and poisoned wine goblets. Claudius, revealing his awareness of how unassuming Hamlet is, says, "He, being remiss, most generous, and free from all contriving, will not peruse the foils..." [Act IV: Scene 7, line 134]. Hamlet is too trusting to check the swords for signs of foul play. It's admirable to be trusting, but leaders can't afford to trust their adversaries when all evidence points to treachery. The poisoned sword results in Hamlet's death.

Alas! Poor Hamlet. Poor leader. Shakespeare may not have had leadership in mind when he wrote the play, but we can mine it for lessons nonetheless and prevent our own leadership efforts from turning into a tragedy.