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Leadership: A Day with William Shakespeare…400 Years after Cordelia’s Silence

July 18, 2011

“Remember not only to say the right thing in the right place, but far more difficult still, to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.” ~ Benjamin Franklin

Imagine William Shakespeare calling your office to schedule an appointment. Think about what it would be like to meet him. His feather pen dipped in ink, gliding across blank parchment.

Picture the mesmerizing moment he begins writing. Perhaps sensing your anxiety, Shakespeare writes down only two phrases: “King Lear” in small point, and “Cordelia’s Silence” in larger print.

Shakespeare frames the meeting with a brief rundown of Lear’s kingdom. The main takeaway: nothing is as it appears. Evil mimics good and good cloaks itself. In short, Lear is a tragedy.

The era of Lear reflects the decadence and political corruption of the Elizabethan and Jacobean court. Lear is insulated from reality and blinded by the flattery of those around him. He is arrogant, self-indulgent and angry.

It’s an uncanny resemblance to modern day government and business. In the aftermath of  Enron, Goldman Sachs and others, a walk down memory lane suggests one thing seems to always be missing: principles. Mark Twain puts it this way, “history does not repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme.”

A foolish King ousted by two evil daughters.

Cordelia is Lear’s favorite daughter. She is honorable, loyal, courageous and intolerant of hypocrisy. Cordelia is disinherited for refusing to make a false declaration of love for Lear. Consistency with the truth is her strongest quality. Lear sees in Cordelia his own positive traits.

Goneril is the eldest daughter. She’s evil, hypocritical, lecherous and materialistic. Above all else, she resents Cordelia. There’s one catch; she’s jealous of Regan too.

Regan is the more ruthless and vindictive of the two evil daughters. She is hypocritical, lustful, sadistic and greedy. And in lockstep cadence with Goneril, she absolutely loathes Cordelia.

Goneril and Regan share a common bond – hatred for Cordelia. A hate which is so blind, so dark, that love only makes it more violent. Not to be confused with a smidgen of positive feelings and genuine sisterly love for each other.

Lear brings suffering and death to himself and his family by disinheriting his virtuous daughter and dividing his kingdom between his two evil daughters. He is ruined by pride and self-importance worsened by sycophancy and excess. He squandered opportunity by failing on the most important leadership requirement: act with principles.

After a perfectly timed moment of  silence, Shakespeare looks up and asks — “What’s your succession plan?” An act designed to reinforce his earlier statement — “nothing is as it appears.”

400 years after Cordelia’s Silence, the echo is still deafening.

Cordelia represents honesty and courage. She is the mirror that shows up the duplicity of her sisters public speeches. Her “Nothing” response at the division of Lear’s kingdom is timeless.

If you remember only one thing, uncompromising integrity matters. It matters in life, politics and business. The bottom line is: actions speak louder than words.

The descriptor “uncompromising” is just as important as “integrity”. People, governments and companies are judged not when times are good or the decisions are easy. What differentiates a person acting on principles from everyone else is the willingness to make tough decisions at tough times.

In light of the financial crisis, this is the era of integrity, of voluntarily going above and beyond federal guidelines, ethic codes, ground rules and moral obligations. It’s the era of continuous improvement and never settling for the status quo. No matter your past successes or failures, strive to do more… and do it better.

Lear’s division of his kingdom was a foolish abdication of responsibility. Accountability means those in power answering to those who put them there. It’s about making things right when they go wrong. It’s about never, ever making the same mistake twice. If you do not make perfection your standard, you’re going to get beat by someone who does.

Lear failed to protect himself. A small circle seems safest. Isolation exposes you to more danger than it protects you from. It cuts off valuable information and you become an easy target. This is true of individuals, governments and businesses. The age of social media underscores this point.

Flattery is treacherous. Lear could not get enough of it. He surrounded himself with sycophants who told him what he wanted to hear. Not what he needed to know. Effective leaders recognize – it’s not what’s said that important, it’s what’s not said that’s essential. Best case, too much of any good thing loses its value. It also stirs up suspicions. Worst case, you lose a kingdom.


From → Leadership

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