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Leadership Development

Leadership lessons from Shakespeare: How to change hearts and minds

10/31/2017 James Evans
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Fresh ideas are often at the center of great enterprises. Such enterprises can grow into efficient wealth-creation machines, but the ideas that inspired their growth are not sufficient to ensure long-term success. Organizations can die or be renewed according to the character of their leaders and their ability to adapt. Through perennial cycles of boom and bust, the keys to an organization’s survival and prosperity have been its culture and the ability of its leaders to manage change.

This was as true for the merchant guilds of Elizabethan England as it is for the digitally-enabled collectives of our modern age.

In this publication, we explore the connections between the disruptions that roiled Shakespeare’s time—and featured so prominently in his work—and their modern equivalents in both the C-suite and boardroom.

And to shed light on culture, and its impact on societies and organizational ecosystems, we visit the royal courts of England, Milan, and Sicily to find characters who best illustrate the good, bad, and ugly aspects of power. Through the protagonists of Richard III, Henry V, The Tempest, and The Winter’s Tale, we discern four main principles on the pathway to change.

Following is a brief overview of these four principles:

1. Purposeful leadership

The contrasting examples of Henry V (the inspiring king) and Richard III (the Machiavellian murderer) show us that purpose is everything, for both the leader and the organization; everyone needs to know what they are there for. If the leader’s purpose is simply his or her own personal aggrandizement, the culture will crumble and the mission will fail.

Similarly, being the boss—reaching the top of the ladder and winning power—is not enough to bring about culture transformation and to achieve lasting success, as each of these kings discovers. The process needs to be supported by committing resources to the mission, having a systematic plan of execution, and bringing everyone along for the ride and the rewards. Leaders cast a powerful shadow, and they must display the values and behaviors that will unite a team into a common goal.

2. Personal change

As the characters Henry V, Leontes, and Prospero demonstrate, the failure to change can lead to oblivion. Yet personal change sends a clear message, inspires the troops behind a cause, and pushes them onward to victory. Change is also about self-awareness and “letting go.” Great leaders are adept at empowering team members. They are sensitive to the needs of individuals and are open to advice from others.

3. Broad engagement

The plays demonstrate that nothing can be accomplished in the long term unless all players are on board with the objective. All levels of an organization must be engaged and aligned. There has to be a team leader, of course, but also “culture champions” throughout the organization. A leader who listens to these champions, and responds to them, will be successful in building a culture that is embraced and practiced by all.

4. Focused sustainability

Finally, Shakespeare’s characters remind us that to be permanent, leaders must resist the temptation to drift back into familiar habits. They should continue to consult widely, rather than relying solely on their favored cliques and inner circles. Sustainability not only shifts culture to a new level but also ensures a leadership legacy that will last long after the incumbents have departed.

For more on how Shakespeare’s characters exemplify the four principles of culture change, flip through the interactive publication above or click the download button for the PDF.

About the authors

James Evans is the associate director of Bell Shakespeare, the Australian performing-arts company; he is based in Sydney.

David Pumphrey ( is a partner emeritus of Heidrick & Struggles’ Sydney office, operating in an advisory capacity to the CEO & Board Practice.

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