Leading man

Bush, Sarkozy and Blair have much to learn from Shakespeare's heroes

It is a simple, but often overlooked, fact that organisations - whether they be companies, governments, charities, schools, hospitals, armies, or orchestras - need to be well led if they are to be effective. Developing and improving the quality of that leadership is something the business world has been seeking to do for a while; the public sector, and even the world of culture, are now following suit. Some 2,000 books are published each year on "leadership", but perhaps we don't need to look much further than the lessons we can learn from our greatest writer and dramatist: William Shakespeare.

There is something for all styles of leader in the plays. Ulysses, in his famed speech in Troilus and Cressida, gives a great evocation of the importance of order and "degree" in the governance of human affairs: "O! when degree is shaked,/ Which is the ladder to all high designs,/The enterprise is sick." It is one of the most fervent pleas ever written for everything keeping its proper place; he paints a hellish vision of what happens if all this is abandoned and anarchy is let loose:

Then everything includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself.

This view of leadership fits well with the "charismatic" US business-school model popular in the 1970s and 1980s, which emphasised strength, power deriving from the top, clear hierarchies, and leaders who knew where they were going and expected everyone else to follow. Ulysses could have quoted from it extensively in an effort to keep the "universal wolf" at bay.

But Shakespeare gives us other leaders, too: the Duke in Measure for Measure, withdrawing from leadership in order to test those left behind; Prospero, conjuring with his island and its inhabitants; Brutus and Hamlet, both torn by inner conflict and a desperate wish to do the right thing; and Malcolm, in Macbeth - a leader who knows himself, has determination, understands others, and is prepared to act. Indeed, the role played by Malcolm at the end of Macbeth, and by Cassio at the end of Othello and Fortinbras at the close of Hamlet, is one of restoring peace, justice and rightfulness through good leadership.

There is even Lear, the very antithesis of leadership, who gives up his authority and descends rapidly into agony because of the way others use and abuse him. Here, there is no Fortinbras or Malcolm to provide a neat resolution. Yet a perceptive critic once wrote that the catharsis that exists at the end of King Lear is not that we know Cordelia has triumphed over her sisters, good over evil - because she has not. The catharsis is that we know it is better to have been Cordelia than to have been her sisters.

This is the finest insight Shakespeare has to offer us: self-knowledge and self-understanding are the essential starting points for understanding the world and for daring to lead it. Most contemporary writers and thinkers on leadership have come to a similar simple conclusion: you must know and understand yourself; and you must build relationships with those around you. Good leaders now don't seek necessarily to lead from the top, but from the heart of an organisation. The emphasis is on collaboration and relationship, rather than on strength. It is a lesson that can be applied at the boardroom table in a major commercial enterprise, to the team running a small voluntary organisation, to the staff room of a school, or, indeed, to those sitting round the cabinet table in Downing Street. A determination to be seen to be "strong" at all times is not necessarily the best way of running a company or a country. Yet politicians are frequently tempted to do just this, be they George Bush looking at Iraq, or Nicolas Sarkozy talking about rioters in France, or Tony Blair wading into battle over the Human Rights Act. Real strength comes with consensus-building.

Crucially, it is a lesson Shakespeare applies to his greatest "leaderly" character. Through three plays - the two parts of Henry IV, and Henry V - Prince Hal (later King Henry) grows and develops and acquires experience, knowledge and understanding. Henry V tells us, entirely unironically, how the king goes from tent to tent, visiting all his soldiers on the eve of battle, giving them encouragement, "and calls them brothers, friends, and countrymen". There's a good model of team-building here. (John Reid, please note.) It is a lesson that would have been completely foreign to most business teachers, students and practitioners 20 years ago. It would have baffled Ulysses, because its rela tionship to orderly systems and hierarchies is counter-intuitive. It would, however, find ready resonance in most well-led enterprises today.

Chris Smith will speak on "Shakespeare and Leadership" at the RSC Café Bar, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, on 2 July. For more details call: 01789 403 492