Learning from Leadership

John Bell August 19th 2019

Over the last several years Australia has experienced an ongoing series of leadership crises. The Banking Royal Commission left people dismayed and disgusted by greed and corruption within the financial sector. Christian churchgoers were disillusioned by the spectacle of so many leading clerics being convicted for child abuse and cover-ups. The major political parties were shaken by a disaffection of supporters drifting to Independents in search of authenticity. Even that stalwart institution the ABC experienced a destabilising crisis in leadership.

Where do we look for leaders? What do we expect of them? Where are the men and women with integrity, imagination, compassion, vision and the ability to transmit that vision in a way that will galvanise the nation?

One place we can look into is our history and study the lives, characters and messages articulated by inspirational leaders like Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela – all of whom, as it happens, were keen students of Shakespeare. They learned a lot from his analysis of human nature and the working of politics. They used his rhetoric as a template for their own.

I have drawn much of my understanding of leadership from the same source. Over the last fifty years I established and ran two highly successful and sustainable theatre companies – Nimrod and Bell Shakespeare. In each case I started with zilch. I had no experience in management. But I surrounded myself with the best brains I could find in the areas of administration, finance, marketing etc, and had to learn on the run the skills of people-management and team-building. Needless to say I learned a lot more from my mistakes than from any successes.

From my late teens I have devoted most of my life to the study of Shakespeare – producing, directing and acting in most of his plays – many of them several times. Thus Shakespeare has become my secular Bible, my Book of Wisdom providing many lessons in leadership.

There is Henry V, the charismatic team-builder who has an uncanny knack for reading the mood of the room. He can adapt his language and his level of energy to suit the occasion – ranging from full-blown rhetoric to the chatty, homely vernacular. He listens to his troops, he takes advice and he leads from the front, displaying not only personal courage but also a contagious optimism. His power to inspire leads him to victory over seemingly impossible odds.

The obverse side of the same coin is Coriolanus – another military genius and a terrifying fighting machine. But he is a disaster in peacetime: arrogant and narrow-minded, he is totally lacking in diplomacy and is incapable of compromise. Thus he is out-manoeuvred by crafty politicians and is driven to self-destruct.

Other examples abound: King Lear, who refuses to let go the perks of office and establishes a catastrophic succession plan. Hamlet, the prince of procrastination. And then there’s Julius Caesar – a playbook of the do’s and don’ts of successful leadership:

For a start is there is Caesar himself – inclining towards egomania, unable to read the signs of disquiet around him, easily flattered and too vain to take precautions.

Brutus: a man of unimpeachable integrity but too stubborn to take advice, insistent on doing everything his way.

Cassius: too personally insecure, eaten up by envy and resentment. He always defers to Brutus, even when he knows Brutus is wrong. 

Mark Antony: a canny and ruthless politician with a genius for oratory: he is able to turn the Roman mob a full 180 degrees in the space of ten minutes. But he destroys himself through his laziness and hedonism. It’s one thing to attain power. But you have to develop the self-discipline and flexibility to hang onto it.

In my various talks on leadership I take great pleasure in not only describing the lives of great leaders in history (whether real, mythical or a combination of both), but also in performing and analysing some of their most famous speeches. It is a rewarding exercise to deconstruct them, to see what makes them so effective and to learn from them how to enhance our own skills of communication. There are certain great speeches, after all, that have changed the course of history.

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Learning from Leadership
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