Shakespeare on Management

International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management

ISSN: 0959-6119

Article publication date: 1 June 2000



Ingram, H. (2000), "Shakespeare on Management", International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management, Vol. 12 No. 3, pp. 218-220.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

This book brings new meaning to the phrase “management literature” because it uses the Bard’s plays to comment upon current management practice and behaviour. Corrigan rationalizes this new pan‐historical and interdisciplinary approach by comparing the two Elizabethan ages that are separated by four centuries. Then, as now, power was important and was understood through strong leaders and personalities. In both eras there was burgeoning trade overseas and the strength of Shakespeare’s plays is the insight achieved of the strength and frailty of leaders through their characterization. Corrigan maintains that the great tragedies such as Richard II, King Lear and Anthony and Cleopatara demonstrate how rank or kingship is not necessarily concomitant with the authority to lead. Similarly, plays such as Richard III, Macbeth and Coriolanus show how leadership can be associated with spectacular disasters, and how lonely it can become when the taint of failure attaches to people at the top. Of course, politics in court or in the boardroom also focus upon the, sometimes strange, behaviour of people in powerful positions.

The first section synthesizes the views of modern management thinkers, including Tom Peters, Charles Handy and Peter Drucker into a picture of what managers do and how they lead. Corrigan then relates these managerial attributes to key characters in Shakespearean plays, with comparative examples drawn from modern “captains of industry”, such as Richard Branson, Nick Leeson and Bill Gates. The moral is that leadership was, and is, a far from rational experience and that great leaders can be just as emotional as the rest of us. The nature of motivation, responsibility and control are considered in managing kingdoms, state or organizations, and the author’s contention is that the reader can learn from these analogous human experiences. Questions are asked about whether leaders are born to lead or are made, and whether they assume their positions by divine right, luck or selection.

The next few chapters look in detail at individual plays and explore the personalities and acts of their mostly eponymous characters. They include Macbeth (ambition), Richard III (manipulation) and Coriolanus (aloofness), in which unpleasant tasks often produce unpleasant people. Similarly Richard II (inconsistency), Lear (capricious use of power) and Anthony and Cleopatra (nature of power) demonstrate the use and abuse of power and authority.

Nevertheless, it is not all doom and gloom, because the last section of the book draws upon the lessons of fools and knaves that appear in the sub‐plots. The author suggests that the major lesson from these lesser characters in these sub‐plots is that strong and sometimes difficult leaders should listen to the voices of smaller people, or risk being isolated from reality. Falstaff is a good example of a larger‐than‐life fool and a lovable rogue who appeared in a number of different plays and who shows how humour and alternative moralities can be of benefit to leaders.

Throughout the book, there are liberal sprinklings of quotes from the plays and chapter conclusions that sum up the lessons that are learned. Perhaps the main question to ask is, “Does this marriage of literature and management thinking work?” At one level, the ambiguous and contradictory plays of Shakespeare can be interpreted in a number of very different ways, especially considering the richness of language in the classic dramas. Art may well mimic life, and it can certainly teach us much about the ambiguity that exists in the world of management power as well as the possible consequences of hubris and pride in fallible leaders.

Glory is like a circle in the water,

Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself,

Till by broad spreading it disperse to nought

(King Henry the Sixth, Part I, Act 1, sc.ii I 133).

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