When it comes to learning to be a better leader, everyone should take some lessons on what not to do from the Bard himself, Mr. William Shakespeare.
Consider that familiar high school classic, Romeo and Juliet. Every year when I pull out our well-worn copies and teach it to my ninth grade students, they are quick to notice that the adults in the play demonstrate appallingly poor leadership.
Here are just a few ways in which they do so:
They’re Stuck in the Past
The two clan leaders, Lord Montague and Lord Capulet don’t even remember what their feud is about, yet they still keep fighting. Their failure to let go of the past eventually leads to the deaths of six people.
Thankfully, in most cases, the consequences of “doing things the way they’ve always been done” aren’t quite so drastic. They can, however, be devastating. Businesses that don’t keep up with the times or that are too slow to adapt or change often fail. Leaders who are still tilting at old windmills will find themselves at the bottom of the pecking order or, worse, out the door.
Good leaders must be willing to let go of the past and change with the times.
They’ve Lost Control of Their Followers
When the play opens, two Capulet servants pick a fight with servants from the Montague household. This leads to an all-out brawl in the streets. Prince Escalus tells the heads of the two households he’s had enough, and that he will impose the death penalty on them if there’s another incident. Despite knowing this, the hot-headed young men of the two households get into it yet again a couple of days later.
One way this plays out in the real world is when a leader takes too much of a “hands-off” approach. I worked for just such a manager once upon a time. By the time I started the job, he had lazily let things get so out of control that some of the workers on the night shift were spending hours goofing off instead of doing their jobs, and, worst of all, taking major safety shortcuts that could have led to serious accidents. They were just following the example he himself set. His own boss was overextended, managing too many different projects, and not really paying attention to anything other than what he was told by those below him. The situation was so bad that people in other departments finally started complaining, which eventually led to a major shake-up in staffing. Those of us left, though, had to pay the price of being micromanaged for awhile by the new manager.
Good leaders influence, empower, inspire, and lead by example.
They Make Impetuous Decisions
When Romeo asks Friar Laurence to perform the marriage ceremony just one day after Romeo and Juliet met, Friar Laurence quickly agrees to do so, thinking that it will somehow lead to an end to the feud. Another example of this is when Lord Capulet decides, within a few hours of finding out about Tybalt’s death, that he will marry Juliet off to Count Paris the very next day in order to “cheer her up”. This decision directly leads to Juliet faking her death, ultimately bringing about the final tragedies of the play.
While it’s possible to be too slow and deliberate when making major decisions, most decision making fails come from acting too quickly, without enough time taken to examine the potential fall-out. I’ve particularly noticed this in leaders I’ve worked with who have a conflated sense of their own knowledge and abilities. Generally, when an underling speaks up and points out what might go wrong, managers like this take it as a personal repudiation and get angry or even more wedded to their poor decision.
In other cases, the problem is caused not so much by acting too quickly, as by acting based on a lack of varied perspectives. In cases like this, the leader is often surrounded with “yes” men and women, only hearing or seeing the shiny reflection of their own ideas and biases when seeking input. I can’t help but wonder if the recent brouhaha over that Pepsi ad might have stemmed from just such a situation.
Good leaders seek multiple perspectives and weigh the consequences thoroughly when making decisions.
They Lose Their Temper When They Don’t Get Their Way
When Lord Capulet excitedly shares the “good news” with Juliet that he’s arranged for her to marry Count Paris, he goes from loving father to screaming banshee in zero seconds flat. He even goes so far as to tell her that if she doesn’t get her fine self to the church to marry Paris, he’ll kick her out of the house and let her die on the streets. Needless to say, his temper got the better of him and he lost complete control of not only his emotions, but the situation. In the end, all it did, of course, was lead to his daughter’s suicide.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen, and been on the receiving end a couple of times, of this sort of managerial fail. In both of the cases when I was at the wrong end of the tongue lashing, I immediately began job hunting. In fact, when I’ve not been a party to the incident, but, instead, merely witnessed it happening to a colleague, I had the same reaction. Who, in their right mind, would want to continue working in a situation where they are treated with such disrespect. Yes, employees often make errors or demonstrate incompetence or possibly even lose control of their own emotions, but at no time should a manager scream, yell, or threaten, especially in front of others.
Good leaders manage their emotions and treat others with respect.
They Develop Poorly Thought Out and/or Poorly Executed Plans
After her father screams at her, her mother and the nurse, people Juliet thought would “have her back”, in fact, don’t. With Romeo off in Mantua, having been banished for killing Tybalt, her only option for people to turn to is Friar Laurence. When she goes to him, rather than come up with a simple plan that makes sense, the good Friar instead develops a plan that is so poorly thought out, and so poorly executed, that it leads to the play’s final tragedies.
I once worked in fiber optics R&D on a project that I never quite understood. The engineers in my department were supposedly smart guys and had been given a big pile of money to play with, so I trusted them. Big mistake. On one occasion, a poorly designed experiment ended up with my having to go to the ER with minor chemical burns to my eyes. Luckily, I caught another, potentially more serious, design flaw before I executed the experiment. After a lot of math (not my strongest skill) and arguing, I managed to finally demonstrate to the engineer in charge that his calculations had failed to take into consideration that gases expand when heated and that by heating up a sealed container pumped full of a certain gas, we were going to have a big explosion if we went ahead with the experiment as he’d designed it.
Good leaders seek input to ensure that plans are well-designed and executed.
They Don’t Communicate Clearly (or at all)
Both Friar Laurence and Juliet’s caretaker, Nurse, know what’s up with the young lovers, yet they keep it a secret. When Friar John is tasked with taking a letter to Romeo outlining the plan for Juliet to fake her death, he fails in the mission, simply returning the letter to Friar Laurence instead of making an attempt at delivering it. Both of Romeo’s friends, Mercutio and Benvolio know that Tybalt has sent a letter challenging Romeo to a duel, but they neglect to tell him. These are just a few of the communication failures in the play. Alone, they are bad; taken together, they lead to catastrophe.
There are a lot of ways that leaders can fail in their communications strategies. Some don’t like to deliver (or acknowledge) bad news. Some think their message is going out as they mean for it too, but something gets lost in the translation and those on the receiving end interpret it differently. Worst of all, some, hopefully few, deliberately try to obfuscate in order to mislead others.
Good leaders communicate clearly, concisely, and appropriately.
They Don’t Take Responsibility When Things Go Wrong
At the end of the play, Friar Laurence tells Juliet that Romeo and Paris are both dead and she must come with him and he’ll hide her in a monastery. Then, though, he hears a noise and runs away, leaving her in the tomb and she kills herself. Eventually, when rounded up and questioned by the Prince’s men, Friar tells the truth about what happened, but he seems to indicate that he maybe doesn’t feel responsible. Sure, he tells the prince that if he played some role in the tragedy, he should be punished, it doesn’t seem that he thinks he was in the wrong to have married the young lovers and kept it a secret or to have helped Juliet fake her death. The prince doesn’t acknowledge his own lack of leadership, either. If he had followed through on his threat about making the two fathers pay with their lives when the duels occurred, perhaps young Romeo and Juliet would have lived.
Somewhere along the line, the idea that “the buck stops here”, has been lost on a lot of leaders; otherwise, we wouldn’t have banks and companies failing and employees losing everything while the “big bosses” walk off with huge bonuses and multi-million dollar severance packages. This also plays out on a smaller scale every day. Once, a manager tried to hold me responsible for a customer service failure when I was simply the bearer of the bad news. It’s human nature to want to pass the buck, but a good manager will try to assess what went wrong rather than being quick to take credit and slow to take the blame.
Good leaders accept responsibility when things go wrong and share credit when things go right.
Shakespeare’s play, of course, wouldn’t be the classic tragedy it is without all of the poor leadership. Thankfully, real life leaders can learn from the characters and avoid a tragedy of their own.