Power Plays: Shakespeare’s Lessons in Leadership and Management

Michael Egan (University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA, USA)

Management Decision

ISSN: 0025-1747

Article publication date: 1 August 2000




Egan, M. (2000), "Power Plays: Shakespeare’s Lessons in Leadership and Management", Management Decision, Vol. 38 No. 6, pp. 437-440. https://doi.org/10.1108/md.2000.38.6.437.1



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

Modern companies are not democracies but little kingdoms led by monarchs driven to enlist their followers’ cooperation and support. Corporate politics express ambition, loyalty, greed, and vicious battles for control. Usurpers may be booted out the door next day or kept in office till they die. Family businesses, like principalities, often face difficult power and generational transitions.

These analogies lead us straight to Shakespeare, whose works of course bubble with factions and conspiracies, ambitious dukes, deposed or anxious kings, loyalties and betrayals. His turbulent universe connects readily with our own: even Harold Bloom calls Octavian “the world’s first CEO.”

Taking this cue, Power Plays offers an exploration of the ways Shakespeare’s dramas might relate to corporate enterprise. Its 11 chapters and long epilogue range over a wide variety of business issues, including leadership, the problems of lieutenancy, company perks and their abuse, the value of organizational mavericks, oral persuasion, ethics, the situation of women, etc. Where Shakespeare is relevant his authority is invoked, though there are also long stretches when management issues alone predominate.

As this suggests, the book’s title is somewhat misleading. Power Plays is not Shakespeare on Leadership but a useful if conventional review of people strategies for upper‐level managers. References to the Bard – some relevant, others less so – are thrown in by way of illustration and support. The book is also less co‐authored than a monologue by John Whitney, consultant, educator and businessman. Tina Packer, founder of Shakespeare & Co., a theatre group, steps forward occasionally to speak, but Whitney’s is the major voice.

Unfortunately, while wise in the ways of business, his understanding of Shakespeare is, well, superficial. (Packer may know better but she doesn’t contradict.) He insists for example that Iago turns against Othello because he’s been passed over for promotion, a familiar business gripe. Certainly, but as the plot evolves we are offered a range of other motives too, including Iago’s racism (“an old black ram is tupping your white ewe,”), his claim that Othello may have slept with Emilia, his own lust for Desdemona, and finally the sly suggestion that he is literally Satanic. (“If thou be’st a devil I cannot kill thee,” cries Othello, who lunges at but merely “wounds Iago.” Emphasizing the point, the villain sneers: “I bleed, sir, but not kill’d.” )

Again, “What went wrong with Hamlet?” the authors ask, and answer that he fatally delays. Well, yes, but a more nuanced reading probes the cause. Clues may be found in Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy, or later when he contemplates poor Yorick’s skull. Is life worth living? That’s indeed the question, and Hamlet/Shakespeare’s answer seems to be No. Then why kill Claudius? Because the Ghost…but then…etc. However, the authors are not interested in this, preferring to advise Hamlet on the ways he might have triumphed the Prince without Hamlet. In other words, they impose rather than discover Shakespeare’s meaning.

The idea behind this book is attractive and its authors well‐intentioned. But as Cleomenes remarks in The Winter’s Tale: “You might have spoken a thousand things that would/have done the time more benefit.”

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