Knowledge Center: Article

Chief Executive Officer & Board of Directors

What Shakespeare Can Tell CEOs About Leadership in Disruptive Times


Three Kings

If we look at today’s world through the prism of William Shakespeare’s world toward the end of the 16th century, we find that the type of leader he identified as being the most effective in a time of disruption is just the type of leader we are seeking today.

In the Bard’s day, the authority of leaders was under challenge, and the people were ready for change. They wanted a more democratic polity, greater freedom of expression, and less authoritarianism. But their rulers did not.

From his first play in 1590 until his death on April 23, 1616, Shakespeare saw these problems and spoke out about them in his work, inviting censorship and putting his acting company’s and his own welfare at risk.

In order to protect himself and his team, he disguised these issues by placing them into a different period of history or by satirizing them through comedy or tragedy.

Shakespeare was born during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, who ruled for 45 years and was seen as a great queen despite being under constant threat from domestic and foreign enemies. Yet in her fear, she executed for treason the Earl of Essex, her one-time favorite.

In Elizabethan England, as in our 21st-century world, the ruling class was never sure of its stability or support. Such were the schisms that continued to divide society due to leadership failures; true democratic reform did not take place there for more than 200 years, until the passage of the Reform Act in 1832.

The enduring quality of Shakespeare’s plays rests on his ability to never cast judgment but instead, through his characters, to ask questions. He leaves his audiences to determine for themselves what to think. While it is clear in retrospect that he did not much favor King Richard II or King Henry IV, he describes their characters and leadership styles, rather than judging them as good or bad.

This practice not only engaged and delighted audiences but also ensured that Shakespeare kept his head when all about him were losing theirs. By cleverly illustrating leadership deficiencies through drama, Shakespeare not only built a prosperous business but also escaped the fate of others, including fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe, who met with a violent end for his outspoken political views.

So how do the questions that Shakespeare raises about the leadership styles of earlier kings resonate with our views on what makes a good leader today? This question is especially relevant in our age, when declining tenure rates and levels of public trust suggest that corporate leadership has not kept pace with increased expectations.

What we learn from Elizabethan England and Shakespeare’s plays is that it is impossible to resist the forces of change. Change must be welcomed with an open mind and a willing heart. New leadership styles must be developed that can accommodate and facilitate the new ideas upon which progress depends.

The leadership styles of the rulers who dominate some of Shakespeare’s most successful plays range from the “divine right to rule” (King Richard II) to “the autocratic leader” (King Henry IV) and then “the people’s hero” (King Henry V), who learns from his mistakes and becomes a collaborative, inspiring, and innovative leader.

Shakespeare shows us how different leadership styles favor different times, situations, and cultures. He leaves us with the challenge to make a judgment call on which leadership style best suits us and the environment in which we are operating.

The fault is not in our times, but in ourselves

While an autocratic leader may have a place in a crisis, or to achieve a temporary stability, this style unravels when the way forward becomes murkier. In times of doubt, the answer is never to work the old levers harder or to shout to be understood when the listener doesn’t speak your language. The solution is to slow down, listen more, consult widely, and create management structures that allow new ideas to flourish.

Research by Heidrick & Struggles in The Success Formula and in interviews with more than 150 chief executives in The CEO Report puts forth an important assertion: when it comes to leadership, it is not just diversity in terms of gender, nationality, age group, or culture that is needed but a true diversity of thinking that will help global business find new pathways to growth.1

Change is painful. It involves giving up comfortable old ways and habits. It is often said that the only thing we learn from history is that we do not learn. But at a time when answers are not easily forthcoming, we need to do what Shakespeare did and ask questions.

The key to honesty is objectivity, as leaders allow the facts to emerge so that new narratives become clear and can be safely adopted by all.

In his plays, Shakespeare gives us enough color and raises sufficient questions about his three main leadership styles—“divine right to rule,” “autocratic leader,” and “people’s hero”—for us to make a judgment on the one we favor.

We have seen all three styles emerge in global business in recent years, and we can still see their outlines in the characters of Shakespeare.

Divine right: The last refuge of the powerless

Richard II believed he was the anointed king who was entitled to rule, even if he had little sense of direction and was prone to lose touch with reality. His impulsive and injudicious behavior quickly led to him alienating his subjects and losing his authority.

We see the downside of “divine right” in the issues that bedevil some family-business dynasties and conglomerates today, or in corporate management, in leaders who tap a favored insider on the shoulder and pass the baton with little or no objective scrutiny, only a sense of entitlement and hubris.

Hubris was nearly IBM’s undoing in the 1980s. But Big Blue learned to renew itself by abandoning its “divine right” to lead the computer industry. What saved the company and prevented it from “sleepwalking off the edge of a cliff,” as its new CEO said when he arrived to start the turnaround, was a shift to an evidence-based culture.2

By consulting with its stakeholders, employees, customers, suppliers, and others, the company developed an awareness of big changes in its industry and identified new opportunities for growth. While IBM faces new challenges today, few would argue that at a time of crisis—when it almost missed the switch from mainframes to personal computers and then to services—IBM had to adopt new leadership and shape a new culture.

Autocrats blinded by their own rhetoric

King Henry IV was autocratic in his manner. He seized power from Richard, and his style was authoritarian, which created conflict rather than healing after the tensions of Richard’s reign. Henry became paranoid and distant, as his anxieties and guilt over his treatment of Richard grew. He did, however, have an eye for succession and was able to die peacefully knowing his son, Prince Hal, would take over.

Today, as in Shakespeare’s time, autocratic leaders drive strategy through the force of their personalities. Autocratic leadership usually comes to the fore when the strategy is not evidence-based but instead based on intuition or drawn from a chief executive’s prior experience (“fighting the last battle” syndrome).

Such leaders often suffer from the blindness that comes from being right often enough. In short, they have come to believe their own publicity.

Arguably, this could be said to describe the leaders who brought down the Royal Bank of Scotland in the biggest bank bailout in British business history, as well as those who led the failed takeover by HP of the computer giant Compaq in the United States. As The Success Formula explains, these leaders disregarded evidence-based strategies and instead relied on their own judgment of “perceived value.”

In an interview from The Success Formula, one senior executive told of another strategic failure by an autocratic leader: “The CEO’s friends in the top team and on the board supported his idea, and those who attempted to challenge were browbeaten into submission. The line managers did not dare say a word, and yet they all knew that a new service offering to the market was going to fail. In this case, it was a vigilant press and media . . . that brought the failing strategy to the attention of the board. What happened? We, the general managers, got the blame.”

The people’s hero: Open to learning

King Henry V united his troops with common purpose at the Battle of Agincourt before leading them to victory (against all odds) through a series of innovative moves and canny strategy. However, his progress to hero king required considerable leadership and personal development. From his early years as a ruffian and an irresponsible young man, he learned that to be a successful leader, he had to be a team builder who motivated people to follow him as they believed in him.

Henry V may well be the man of our hour. He illustrates the competencies required in today’s volatile and uncertain economic climate, when the role of business and the expectations of society on leaders have shifted dramatically—even as the clamor for positive results grows louder.

He is the leader who faces oblivion as he leads an exhausted army of 6,000 foot soldiers against a fresh, armored force of 30,000 horsemen. How does Henry V master his complex and volatile environment?

  • He relies on evidence, gathering information about the mood of his army by walking in disguise from tent to tent the night before the battle.
  • He focuses on building a strong team by bringing together an unlikely group of misfits and molding them into a disciplined force. People who did not accept his values, such as Falstaff (exiled as a drunken rogue) and Bardolph (executed for thieving) were dealt with accordingly.
  • He is an inspiring chief, using motivational speeches to build inclusivity and direction. His objective is to make his motley group behave like a tightly knit team able to face any challenge.
  • He is an innovator, adopting the latest technology: the longbow, which cut down many of the opposing French early in the battle, and sharpened pikes, which impaled their horses at the first charge. As a result of this battle, future English armies made even greater use of the longbow.
  • He is an accomplished strategist, making sure he chooses the battleground, forcing the French into a narrow corridor between two wooded areas to diminish their numerical superiority.
  • And he has luck on his side—a vital quality in battle, as in business. It rained on the day of the battle, and his opponents became quickly mired, their heavy armor weighing them down and anchoring their feet in the mud, making them vulnerable to sword, dagger, and pole-axe.

Pointedly, Henry V aligns and engages his troops before revealing his strategy, not the other way around. It wasn’t a case of “strategy first, and everyone get on the bus,” but a leadership style that first builds trust, then alignment and engagement, then discipline, and then, and only then, flawless execution of the plan.

Many of today’s high-performing leaders have similar attributes. They are open-minded, comfortable with being uncomfortable, and not put off by opposition. As one prominent global chief executive said in The Success Formula: “I learned to be more open-minded by living in different countries, as well as changing industries. . . . I also adapt to different styles.” By looking beyond style, he added, “[You can] understand what really are the drivers of the business, and which people can be successful, and you don’t have a cookie-cutter view of talent, when you do your assessments. We have board members with many different backgrounds. . . . if someone’s challenging, I don’t start off with a defensive attitude, ever.”

Our research has found that value delivery based on evidence trumps perceived value or an intuitive strategy. Value is derived from consultation with some of the most knowledgeable people in the business (your staff and your team) and is driven by alignment and engagement.

Diversity of thinking is a critical component as ideas are gathered and “the troops” in the organization are consulted. Once they are engaged with the purpose (victory in the battleground of the marketplace), the strategy, whatever it may be, can be executed with power and passion.

How to embrace and not fear the unknown

If success may be defined as preparation meeting opportunity, how do leaders, from King Henry V to modern chief executives, prepare for disruptions they cannot see and seize opportunities not yet obvious?

More than 150 global chief executives we interviewed ahead of the 2015 World Economic Forum, in Davos, Switzerland, for The CEO Report broadly agreed that traditional approaches to strategy no longer apply. Several spoke of implementing regular, 100-day exercises and abandoning the standard three-to-five-year planning cycle.

Recognizing that chasing certainty is futile, leaders are catalyzing “not knowing” into a force for innovation. In the words of one CEO we interviewed: “A [certain] level of professional doubt should be the quality of any good leader.” Doubt sharpens the senses, makes leaders more alert, and provides the clarity to spot apparently innocent and unrelated trends.

Similarly, the executives we interviewed identified a quality called “ripple intelligence” that we find in many successful leaders. These leaders have a keen sense of how one unexpected splash or activity within their business, or outside of their industry sector, could create a huge impact as the effects (or ripples) spread outward.

Another CEO we interviewed understood the impact of digital technologies on financial services ahead of Asia’s currency volatility of the late 1990s. Shutting down sales in markets with failing currencies showed considerable foresight: “We made quite a lot of money that year when the [rest of the industry] lost its shirt. So it’s what you have to do, you’re looking at all the angles.”

It may not always be possible to find polymaths with over-the-horizon radar and perfectly rounded leadership skills, but it is possible to ensure a leader’s team is complementary and fitly framed together, able to help engage and align a corporate culture to match the company’s vision and purpose.

In uncertain times, perhaps the only certainty is that we all need to develop a mind-set of openness and a willingness to look beyond the obvious.

In the words of Shakespeare’s Henry V: “All things are ready, if our minds be so.” Just before the Battle of Agincourt, he must reassure Westmoreland who has expressed doubts about whether they can win against overwhelming odds.  In response, Henry V launches into the famous St. Crispin’s Day speech (“. . . We few, we happy few, we band of brothers . . .”) and leads his troops to a magnificent victory.

About the author: David Pumphrey is a partner emeritus of Heidrick & Struggles’ CEO & Board Practice and a life member of Bell Shakespeare, the Australian performing-arts company.

This excerpt was drawn from Shakespeare’s mind for the future: A modern-day tale, a collection of articles marking the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death. For the full collection, click here.

For more, see Andrew Kakabadse, The Success Formula: How Smart Leaders Deliver Outstanding Value, London, Bloomsbury Information, 2015; and The CEO Report: Embracing the Paradoxes of Leadership and Power, Heidrick & Struggles, in partnership with University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, January 21, 2015.

Steve Mullinjer and David G. Pumphrey, “Can your leaders deliver on your growth strategy?,” Heidrick & Struggles, May 4, 2015.

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