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May 7, 2021

What does Shakespeare have to say about Leadership and Analytics?

By Tony Boobier

What has Shakespeare got to do with our normal focus on data, analytics & leadership of such teams?

During a month of more creative freedom for our panel of guest bloggers, I’m glad to share Tony Boobier’s creative thoughts. Loyal readers will already know that Tony is an author, commentator and mentor. With lots of experience from the world’s of Insurance and technology firms. He has shared with us previously on understanding Magic Quadrants, rules for Reemployment and Marketing Analytics.

In this post, Tony complements the book recommendations and podcasts that I have suggested for leadership development. Instead he turns his attention to the stage. Perhaps expressing a desire to get back to theatres soon. Forsooth, tis Tony’s lessons for analytics leaders from Shakespeare’s plays…

Leadership lessons exist beyond books

We’re often invited by Paul to recommend books on leadership and other managerial topics which might form part of our essential reading. In doing so, we sometimes forget that there are other types of media. Options which can also throw light onto leadership and management behaviours. 

Many years ago, I had the pleasure of listening to Richard Olivier at the Institute of Directors. He was reminding us that Shakespeare had a thing or two to say about the topic as well. Richard is the son of the great actor Sir Laurence Olivier whose statue stands outside the National Theatre on London’s South Bank.

Richard reminded us of some of the great moments of Shakespeare’s Henry V. How they currently relate to modern day business. Perhaps the most memorable is when Henry stands before his army on the night before the battle of Agincourt. With the English army outnumbered by the French, and invites his troops to become his ‘Band of Brothers’. It is a classic call to action which leaders still use today, and on which the TV series was named. 

Shakespeare’s leaders knew about doubt and a brave face

It’s all good rousing stuff, but for me one of the more memorable parts of the play is when Henry in disguise walks through the camp of his soldiers on the night before the battle. He gets into an argument with one of his soldiers, Michael William, about the spiritual fate of those who will die in battle. ‘I think the King is but a man as I am,’ he says, as he pretends to be someone else.

It’s a revealing statement, often overlooked. It serves as a reminder that leaders, even kings, can be doubtful about their decisions especially where they involve other people. My bet is that all leaders, at some point of their career, have had second thoughts about a decision they have made or are about to make.

In this particular case, the English were outnumbered as they prepared for battle. Even against the odds, leaders are always expected to show a brave face – sometime no matter how they personally feel. From ‘As you Like it’, Shakespeare separately reminds us that ‘All the World’s a Stage…’ I wonder how many leaders also become actors, and deliberately ‘ham it up‘ for maximum impact in important presentations?  

Leadership issues explored in Shakespeare’s plays

Issues of leadership are sprinkled through Shakespeare’s plays. In Othello, Iago who is one of the leaders in Othello’s army is overlooked for promotion without explanation and ultimately seeks revenge. This reminds us of the need for transparency in decision making. In Hamlet, the fool Polonius advices Hamlet “To thine own self be true…“. Which should remind leaders to be honest with themselves. At a darker level, elsewhere Lord Macbeth tells a different tale of ruthlessness. One where his desire to remain in power is more important than to exercise the virtues of leadership, and ultimately comes to a sticky end. 

What would Shakespeare have written if he was alive today, about this new technological age and all its apparent mysteries and wonders? He might just have been writing soap operas, but personally I’m sure he would have had some sort of observations on the political and pandemic situation. Shakespeare lived his life in the shadow of the plague and had a lot to say about that particular topic. He writes about it as a fact of life rather than as a curse. The Countess Olivia in Twelfth Night compares it to the speed at which she has fallen in love, as “quickly…(as) one (may) catch the plague.” And in the famous family feud in Romeo and Juliet Mercutio calls down “A plague on both your houses.” 

Perhaps we should focus on less upsetting topics like technology. I wonder if Mr S would have even seen this new era of data as some sort of Midsummer Night’s Dream, where people disguise themselves to be someone else, as is often the case in cyber-crime? Somehow I doubt he had modern day scammers in mind in the 1600’s. 

Shakespeare on data & analytics

Alternatively, if he had been writing about data and analytics, I suspect he might have been a fan. “Ignorance is the curse of God, knowledge is the wing wherewith we fly to heaven”, he writes in Henry VI (Part 2). My bet is that he would also have been keen on predictive analytics“If you can look into the seeds of time, and say which grain will grow and which will not, speak then to me…” Macbeth asks the Three Witches.

In times of organisational transformation, I wonder if he would have been in favour of management consultants. Those whose bread and butter is that of change. In Macbeth, the Three Witches rhythmically chant “Fair is foul, and foul is fair” as they claim the need to disrupt the natural order of things. 

And would Shakespeare have appreciated innovation? In ‘The Tempest, Prospero the Magician reminds us ‘We are such stuff as dreams are made on…’ It’s an expression which might readily be the motto of any forward thinking organisation.  But let’s not be misled by a few words taken out of context – this particular expression refers to a deeper view of the meaning of life

Final thoughts, what say you?

At the end of the day, there are lots of opportunities to consider what Shakespeare had to say not only on leadership but many other modern day subjects as well, if we only stretch the imagination and his use of words a little. 

But what might he really have thought about his words being used in modern business, and especially technology? His ‘philosopher-fool’ Feste in Twelfth Night probably best sums up what he might have said, “Better a witty fool, than a foolish wit.” 

Thanks to Tony for those literal thoughts. Has it inspired any Shakespearean thoughts in our readers? Can you see any other lessons for data leaders today from The Bard?