Review article on: Leadership: The Shakespearean Way, by GRK Murty.

Review article on: Leadership: The Shakespearean Way, GRK Murty, Icfai Books, IUP, Agartala, 2009. pp. 313, Rs.675.

By Dr. AJ Sebastian sdb, Former Professor & Head, Dept. of English, Nagaland Central University, Kohima Campus 797001.
While conducting motivation programmes for the University students, I often quote from Daniel Goleman who speaks of the centrality of Emotional competence in leadership. As he says, “A leader’s strengths or weaknesses in emotional competence can be measured in the gain or loss to the organization of the fullest talents of those they manage.”1 In his recent publication, Leadership: The Shakespearean Way, GRK Murty has very intricately probed into various Shakespearean protagonists, who have excelled or failed as leaders, as role models for present day Company CEOs. In twenty lucid chapters, the author assesses several Shakespearean plays, ranging from, histories, romance, comedies and tragedies. The author’s parallelism between Shakespeare’s characters and the present day business executives, proves the genius of the great dramatist, who centuries ago, defined the role of a true leader who has a clear vision of success and how to achieve it. Some of the world’s top business schools have researched on leadership issues in Shakespeare and their relevance for today’s CEOs in their quest for success.

Shakespeare has created universal characters applicable to our contemporary world of business. The master story teller has woven powerful plots pivoted on genuine as well as vicious leadership. His protagonists are superb teachers in motivation skills and crisis management. His understanding of good and evil in human nature is manifested in the rise and fall of his protagonists. In the plays, charismatic leaders often succumb to their tragic flaw when they ignore good counsel, diplomacy and promptings of their conscience.

Murti has attempted an innovative method of bringing classical literature in tune with contemporary leadership discourse. In the introductory chapter the author establishes the concept of leadership from ancient cultures to the present time, making it a continuous historical process. As T.S. Eliot argues, “Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves…the historical sense… and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence…This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless and the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his own contemporaneity.”2 Shakespeare’s protagonists are, thus, made a timeless presence in the contemporary world scenario.

The author make a historical survey of various theories of leadership namely, “great men theories” of 1900s, “trait theory” of 1940-50s, “behavior theory” of 1950-60s, “the led” theory of 1960-70s, and the later day “transformational leadership” theory, “servant leadership” theory, “lead and act” methods, and “lessons of experience” methods. Strengthening his argument Murty opines: “The summum bonum of these arguments is that prospective leaders or leaders aspiring to perform better, must acquaint themselves with the Classics to broaden their horizon of imagination and visualization of complexities embedded in leadership and acquire insights to handle them from the experiences encountered by the fictional leaders.”3 The author establishes the plays of Shakespeare as superb reflections of human life in all its elements with its agonies and ecstasies. It is basic to these plays to ascertain “order, civility, humanity, and rhetoric”4 which the author finds essential in a modern day leader. The book is a study of these elements in the protagonists as he examines them in the various chapters with appropriate leadership titles.

In chapter one entitled “Being a leader is a matter of role play” is a reading of The Merchant of Venice, where Portia emerges as a typical CEO in role play. Love is the motive that impels her to play her role with courage and self confidence. Her genuine love for Bassanio motivates her to do the impossible in a situation of crisis. Studies have shown that most managers all over the world have found it difficult to play effective leadership roles. To be successful, a leader ought to “make the decision to be a ; focus on influence, not control; make one’s own mental organizational chart horizontal rather than vertical; work on one’s ‘trusted advisor’ skills; and not wait for the perfect time, just find a good time.” 5 Portia plays it best, dressed as lawyer Balthazar, pleading on behalf of Antonio. She begs Shylock to be merciful, enumerating the quality of mercy. When she fails to draw his sympathy, she goes the legal way, to cut a pound of flesh from Antonio, without shedding a drop of blood. Her effective role play resolves the crisis.

“CEO, thou art management of change” is a study of King Richard which contrasts a weak King Richard II versus a strong King in the making, Bolingbroke. Richard II proves himself a failure as a King, bringing about the required change in management as a CEO. He does not play the leadership role as an honest King, ready to do the right thing at the right time; while Bolingbroke, the King in the making, establishes himself as a perfect CEO bringing about the required reforms. Bolingbroke had to undergo banishment, being accused of murdering Richard’s brother. Determined to prove himself, Bolingbroke returns to England to accomplish his mission. When he raises an army to unseat Richard II, the King remains inactive in resisting the movement. He remains clinging to his anointed Kingly power in his world of inherited power. His inability to impersonalize his power costs him his throne when troops desert him. Shakespeare portrays, how, clinging to his fixed mindset, he is deposed from power by Bollingbroke, who acts as a super CEO, ushering in change at the appropriate time. He is able to establish his position in the heart of his subjects and reclaim his inheritance as a true leader.

In chapter three “Making of a leader” asserts that a leader should be passionate in his pursuit of achieving his goal. In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, the author comes across the idle life of the King’s son Prince Hal, who lives a life of idleness and waywardness. Realization comes to the Prince when he decides to be a leader, rejecting his wanton ways in the company of Falstaff. Murty surveys the various scenes where Hal shows himself growing up to be a leader. He decides to banish Falstaff and all his waywardness to begin to play his reformed role as King. The play climaxes in Hal becoming the leader after defeating his rival Hotspur and declares:

I am the Prince of Wales; and think not, Percy,
To share with me in glory and more.
Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere,
Nor can one England brook a double reign
Of Harry Percy and Prince of Wales (Part I, V, iv, 63-67).

“Communication, the hallmark of leaders” focusses on Mark Antony as a classic example of a CEO who is able to grasp the context with required hardiness as a leader. After the assassination of the Emperor, Antony is focussed on his role as a communicator, adapting to the situation of treason and treachery perpetrated by Brutus and his aids. The author highlights the adaptive capacity of Antony in handling a dire situation. His historical speech proves himself a rhetorician who communicates with people, referring to Caesar’s will in their favour. Antony, thus, exhibits the best capacity for adaptability in countering Brutus’ justification for murder, appealing to reason as well as emotions of the public. His rhetorical device thwarts the accusations leveled against Caesar as ambitious. Instead, Antony proves otherwise, reading the will of the Emperor.

Here is the will, and under Caesar’s seal.
To every Roman citizen he gives,
To every several man, seventy-five drachmas (III, ii, 241-243).

Antony achieves his purpose by working on their reason and emotion with appropriate rhetorical device, proving himself better in his adaptive ability in handling a crisis. Shakespeare proves through Antony that a true leader has to grasp the gravity of an adverse situation and effectively communicate to transform the negative situation to one’s advantage.

“Charismatic leadership” is a fundamental quality of a leader as shown in Henry V. Though steeped in waywardness in youth, Prince Hal decides to mend his ways to be a man of ‘reason and divinity’. As a charismatic leader, he proves his mettle, setting to achieve his desired goal, using whatever resources available. He motivates his subordinates after intelligent assessment of their allegiance. As the writer observes: “…he simply rises to the task because he is being tested; he becomes more internally directed; and importantly, he becomes less self-absorbed and more focused on others, and open to the external stimuli.”5 His strength lies in motivating his followers to believe in themselves as possessing superhuman qualities to achieve victory. He employs various strategies to elicit the best in them such as, appealing to their basal instincts as well as saner elements. Shakespeare proves his protagonist a perfect blend of all the vital characteristics of a born leader, possessing extraordinary vision, rhetorical skill to communicate with a deep sense of mission, self-confidence, intelligence and expectation for his followers. The outcome is the conquest of France and establishing his hegemony over that Kingdom through marriage alliance. Prince Hal’s achievements are a result of his caring to know his people and assessing the situation intelligently and acting with vision and determination. This is the type of charismatic leadership expected of a CEO today.

In The Tempest, Murti finds “Transformational leadership” hinging on moral values, which influences better living by resolving conflict and animosity. Shakespeare’s Prospero is an epitome of a transformational leader, committed to high moral values. The author sums up very poignantly: “Shakespeare wants us to realize that no life is ever lived on this planet without ever seeking pardon and at the same time forgiving others. This observation of Shakespeare is perhaps more applicable to today’s globalized economy where no active dealer with the world can get away without seeking pardon for many things.”6 Patient endurance in a CEO can bring about transformation of people under his/her charge.

Assessing Julius Caesar, the writer points out that “Leaders too are human,” though they are cocooned in popularity, power, and showmanship. A leader needs to look inward and outward to feel the pulse of his organization. Caesar failed to look outward to assess the motives of the conspirators. Failing to assess his own frailty through timely introspection, he wrought about his own down fall. Self obsession of Caesar made him refuse to accept any pleadings from Calpurnia, his wife, to take heed of the portends.

Chapter eight entitled “Leaders- nature and nurture” reads into As You Like It as a play in which Shakespeare “navigates his characters through the eye of nature where passions and vanities that so much disfigure human life have little role to play, resulting in a certain natural harmony of character, wherein virtue is free and spontaneous to encircle the lead characters of the play, including Rosalind, Orlando, and Duke Senior. These characters teach us invaluable lessons of leadership, leadership without a leader, leadership training, and the indistinguishable nature of leadership and fellowship.”7 A leader ought to be embedded in goodness as shown in the case of Orlando, who in his sincere love for Rosalind, is groomed in genuine love which transforms him to live a fuller and happier life desisting all forms of revenge.

Murty makes an excellent assessment of Coriolanus as “Lessons in conflict management.” The protagonist Coriolanus is deeply immersed in conflicts with himself and everyone else due to his pride and prejudices. Though he surrenders himself to Rome, he succumbs to inordinate pride and superiority complex. He remains unrelenting in his attitude even at the pleading of his mother and wife. A leader by shedding his obsession with self can turn conflicting situations constructive with self control, humility, compromise, openness and tact.

While examining Shakespeare’s King John, the author establishes his argument that “Integrity matters most.” Integrity of character is an essential trait in a successful leader to win trust of his team. Shakespeare exposes the intriguing King John, who by foul play, clings on to ‘formal power’ without ‘intrinsic virtue.’ He does not allow a transparent selection of a successor to the throne. He conspires secretly to kill the legitimate heir to the throne, abusing his Kingly power to gain personal power by hook or by crook. He continues to play his diabolical game even after his barons, Church and the people denounce him. The King goes headlong into disgrace and is poisoned by a monk. Shakespeare brings out powerfully the essential quality of transparency and honesty needed to succeed as a leader. Murty sums up his thoughts: “No matter, whether it is a country or organization, unless its leaders operate from a platform of ‘formal power’ coupled with ‘intrinsic virtue,’ which in modern jargon is referred to as ‘personal power,’ they cannot influence the behavior of its inmates. Secondly, in the context of organizations, if vesting of formal power is made transparently, it facilitates easy acceptance of a leader as fit to rule by the led, from where it becomes easy for a leader to exercise power over the led positively.”8

In chapter eleven “Emotional intelligence – a must for leaders,” Murti makes a study of King Lear, who falls a victim to imbalance in emotional intelligence. Quoting Daniel Goleman’s concept of emotional intelligence, consisting of self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skill, the author examines how King Lear succumbed to failure. His impulsive nature and superiority complex made him a victim of flattery. He disregarded the allegiance of his faithful daughter Cordelia and gave away his kingdom to his intriguing daughters Goneril and Regan. He does not care to introspect on his own inflated ego even when warned by his faithful guide Kent. Eventually he is driven to insanity by his emotional instability. The author applies Lear’s lack of emotional intelligence to modern day CEOs: “Such free flow of self-will ruling the roost, unmindful of the wreck it inflicts on those involved, is more out of one’s inability to take a pause for a while and have a silent internal dialogue that facilitates rational analysis of the issue under consideration from all dimensions, including the perspective of others involved, and reason out a balanced way to move forward.”9

Shakespeare’s Hamlet proves that “Decision making is an eternal challenge.” The author discusses the various difficult choices that confronts a leader today in making decisions. He is thrown into a ‘to be or not to be’ situation that haunted Hamlet in the midst of multiplicity of choices. Unable to make his choice, Hamlet is driven crazy. Full of contradictions he utters:

No, whether it be
Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on th’ event-
A thought which, quartered, hath but one part wisdom
And ever three parts coward – I do not know (IV,iv, 40—44).

Hamlet proves himself a man of procrastination in delaying his plan of action. Present day CEOs may fall into such dilemmas and uncertainties. Hence, the writer calls attention to a decisive corporate culture characterized by openness, candor, informality and closure. He writes: “It is ‘closure’ that tests the inner strength and intellectual resources of a leader most. Simply put, it defines the very ‘decisive culture’ of an organization….the single greatest cause of corporate underperformance is the failure to execute.” 10

“Leaders emerge from the crucible of adversity” is a chapter based on interpreting the traumatic experience of the mother of Coriolanus. Murti bases himself on the research findings of Warren G. Bennis and Robert J. Thomas that “everyone is tested by life, but only a few extract strength and wisdom from their most trying experiences.”11 Great leaders are made out of people who have emerged out of adverse situations in life, like the way ancients believed in producing gold from base metal in a crucible. In most cases it had been shown that there have been transformative experience in the lives of people, giving them an altered sense of identity. Though the mother of the banished Coriolanus undergoes a crucible experience, she does not yield to despair and defeat. She makes herself strong and goes to plead with her son, who wages war on his own nation. She achieves the impossible despite undergoing trauma. She proves that “happiness is not a function of one’s circumstances; it’s a function of one’s outlook on life.”12

Interpreting Antony and Cleopatra, the writer muses on how “Leaders need to balance power and pleasure” to survive as effective leaders. Shakespeare portrays Antony as a leader who failed to balance power and pleasure as he became a victim of Cleopatra’s eternal beauty, ignoring his Roman valour and honour. There is gradual decadence in his character, as his passion for Cleopatra turns him into an emotional turmoil. He does not care to acknowledge his tragic flaw, which ultimately drives him to his doom and death. Today’s CEOs can become similarly victims of their own overconfidence and emotional imbalances as the writer notes: “…effective leaders typically take advantage of all their sources of power. Indeed, wise leaders work ardently to increase their various power bases – whether expert, referent, reward, or legitimate power”13

In chapter fifteen “Why women executives are so few at the top,” the writer takes his cue from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, assessing the role of Lady Macbeth in the crimes perpetrated by her husband. She uses her skills in prompting Macbeth to kill King Duncan, to usurp the throne. Then he goes on a killing spree of all possible adversaries, having succumbed to his adage ‘fair is foul and foul is fair.’ Though women have stronger empathy and relationship skills, Lady Macbeth uses them for evil purpose. The author points out how due to historical male domination, society has attributed agentic qualities associated with assertion and control to men, and communal traits of compassion and concern to women. This has led to attributing leadership roles to men than to women. The author points out: “If women leaders are found to be highly ‘communal,’ then they are discounted for not being agentic enough. On the other hand, if they are highly agentic, they are criticized for lacking communal traits. Thus, either way, they are dubbed as not made of right leadership stuff.”14 It may be pointed out that female leaders tend to be more ‘transformational’ than males in supporting and encouraging their subordinates. They are also more affectionate and effective in practicing participative and collaborative style of management.

In a chapter entitled “Crime and Punishment,” Murti surveys Shakespeare’s King Richard III to prove that although King Richard perpetrates crimes through his villainous ways, he is punished duly as the play ends. The story of Richard is the very opposite of what a leader should be. To be a successful leader one ought to be a person of integrity, establishing partnership with colleagues than by centralizing power around oneself. The play is the very antithesis of it as Richard lives in a world of manipulation, deception and murder. Though he realizes in shame his wickedness, he is too demonic to be repentant and he cries out:

Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.
What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by.
Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here?…
And if I die no soul will pity me.
And wherefore should they, since that I myself
Find in myself no pity to myself? (V, iii, 181-184; 201-203).

In Othello, Shakespeare presents his perception of jealousy as the ‘green eyed monster’ which has inspired the author to attempt a chapter entitled “Leaders, beware of jealousy.” For any organization to be successful, the leader ought to build relationships among members. The story of Othello climaxes in the Moor’s strangling Desdemona to death, being aroused in jealousy by the machinations of Iago. Murti opines that a successful leader, “…must move forward boldly by employing the services of the best available talent in the market and keeping them in good stead by exhibiting a genuine concern for their relationships, all for the good of the business, and importantly, without ever getting caught in the web of self-flagellating jealousy”15

Chapter eighteen entitled “BOS – a tool to enhance leader’s effectiveness” examines Cymbeline, where Shakespeare weaves the story around patience and perseverance of Imogen in executing her plans with flexibility and adaptability as a perfect leader, proving herself with intelligence and grace. She takes up the challenge with fortitude, moving beyond the situation of crisis. The author very deftly applies “blue ocean strategy” by “creating and capturing uncontested market space and thereby making the competition irrelevant….Under this strategy… companies should shift their focus from supply to demand and from competing to value innovation. Such a shift alone leads to creation of new demand – new markets. And for this to happen, companies must first shed their preconceived notions about their assets, capabilities, and macroeconomic constraints, etc., for it would make them captive to the environment.”16

“Vaulting ambition – the darker side of leadership” is a chapter assessing Macbeth as a play about tragic end of the protagonists due to their inordinate ambition for power. Macbeth betrays his social obligations and surrenders to evil machinations by his ambition to be King, propelled by Lady Macbeth. Macbeth being very successful as a warrior, lets his ambition gets strengthened as he commits crime after crime with the promptings of the witches. After murdering the King, he experiences hallucinations that prompts him to live on crimes to strengthen his ambition. CEOs can be victims of such ambition, if unchecked by introspection, that can destroy the very fabric of fair play in business management.

In the final chapter “Women better equipped to be Level-5 leaders?” the author assesses the contribution of women as CEOs. By their biological disposition and accompanying responsibilities, women are better equipped to play Level-5 leadership role as shown by Cordelia in King Lear with her endurance, humility and patience, proving her integrity. In a lucid and detailed narrative, the author has delved into the compexities of leadership in a multi-faceted manner, probing the various characters from a leader’s point of view.

In Leadership: The Shakespearean Way, the author proves his acumen contrasting literary protagonists with modern day CEOs in their interpretation of life. It is a resourceful handbook for CEOs and aspiring students of business management.


1. Goleman, Daniel. Working With Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books, 1998, 33.
2. Eliot, T.S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Three Essays. Calcutta: Oxford University Press, 1974,17-18.
3. Murty, GRK. Leadership: The Shakespearean Way, Agartala: Icfai Books, IUP, 2009, X.
4. Ibidem, XIV.
5. Ibidem, 60.
6. Ibidem, 85.
7. Ibidem, 106.
8. Ibidem, 146.
9. Ibidem, 157.
10. Ibidem, 162.
11. Ibidem, 179.
12. Ibidem, 190.
13. Ibidem, 195.
14. Ibidem, 206.
15. Ibidem, 247-8.
16. Ibidem, 249-52.