Leadership Lessons from Shakespeare

On the 450th anniversary of the Bard’s birth, our classic piece on what his work can teach you about risk

Written by Rick Spence

Once there was an entrepreneur (call him Henry Plantagenet) who wanted to expand his enterprise to France. But while he was preparing his campaign, he found three associates were actively plotting to foil him. So he had them killed.

While that’s hardly a solution we’d recommend, Henry’s problem was typical. Many entrepreneurs face internal opposition when embarking on risky enterprises. But how do you know who’s just guarding your interests, and who’s out to get you? Richard Olivier, son of British actor Sir Laurence Olivier, has a formula that may help you. The theatre-director-turned-business-consultant now makes a living mining Shakespeare’s best plays for their leadership lessons.

“Dealing with traitors” is just one of the themes that Olivier finds in Henry V, the play about the young 15th-century king who wins a huge victory over France with his outnumbered English army (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”). Henry V is one of the most heroic roles in English drama, and Laurence starred in the 1945 movie version that is considered the first successful Shakespearean film. Richard, 42, has had issues with his generally absent father, and for a time shunned the Olivier legacy entirely, but now he uses Henry V as a handbook for inspirational leadership.

When I saw him deliver his program recently for members of The Executive Committee, a Calgary-based entrepreneurial networking group, Richard shared no juicy anecdotes about Sir Larry. But he got our attention by artfully comparing the challenges facing Henry — developing a strategy, building consensus, allocating resources and overcoming setbacks (“Once more unto the breach, dear friends”) — with those facing any business owner.

In the second act, three old friends of Henry’s have been paid to kill him before he leaves England. They pretend to be onside, but the king is tipped off and turns the tables. To Olivier, how you handle internal opposition is as important as how you manage your supporters. Many leaders avoid conflict, especially with difficult people. Bad form, says Olivier: “If you don’t engage them, the traitors win.”

“Traitor” may be an overstatement, but all leaders have people who oppose their initiatives. The trick is to avoid labelling all resistance as traitorous. You must separate feedback from sabotage, a process Olivier calls “distinguishing the disagreers.” Based on his work with business leaders, Olivier has identified four categories of opposition: Naysayers, Overt Critics, Covert Critics and Traitors. Naysayers, he says, are open and honest staff who genuinely believe an initiative is wrong. Overt Critics are equally vocal, but don’t really want to do anything. Covert Critics criticize the mission behind your back. Traitors are determined saboteurs who may be jealous of your success or who want to run the show. Like Henry’s friends, they may be urging you on even as they undermine you among key supporters.

You have to handle each disagreer differently. Listen carefully to Naysayers’ arguments. “Good leaders need good naysayers around them,” says Olivier. If you believe your course is right, get them on board by telling them the best way to achieve their goals is for your project to succeed.

Overt Critics may also have good points, but their resistance demotivates others. You must find the best way of shutting up these critics, perhaps by assigning them to other projects. To counter Covert Critics, keep your ears open. “We need to have people around us who we trust, who can report some of the gossip,” says Olivier. If you find bellyachers, tell them to bring their issues to you first.

The Traitors are hardest to spot. Think of people who might bear you a grudge, or who could benefit by the project failing. Watch their body language. Faces, eye contact and vocal enthusiasm often give liars away. “Human beings are very good at disguising what they feel with the words they speak,” says Olivier. “They’re much less good at disguising what they feel in their faces and their gestures.” If you unmask a traitor, act decisively, he adds: “If someone is trying to sabotage you, the relationship is over.”

In my own experience, many entrepreneurs are loath to take “executive action.” It costs money to fire people, and besides, what will other staff think? More likely, however, the rest of the staff wants you to take action. Delaying your decision just demotivates the team. I treasure a quote from Elias Vamvakas, co-founder and CEO of laser-surgery giant TLC Vision Corp., who once said that, “I have often regretted hiring some of the people I have hired, but I have never regretted firing anyone I have fired.”

Richard Olivier admits he isn’t the most experienced business coach — but he’s getting there. His London-based company, Olivier Mythodrama, now delivers six Shakespearean leadership programs, and is preparing four more. He expects to have 30 employees in a few years. So does he think his father, who died in 1989, would approve of his new career? “I think he’d be really intrigued by what I’m doing,” says Olivier. “I share a passion with him—getting Shakespeare out to people who don’t really think about him.”

Rick Spence is the Toronto-based author of the Canadian Entrepreneur blog and a consultant on marketing, strategy and business growth. You can reach him at rick@rickspence.ca. This article was originally published in PROFIT in 2004.

More columns by Rick Spence

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com