Article: Leadership insights from Shakespeare - Hamlet

Sports, Books & Movies

Leadership insights from Shakespeare - Hamlet

This is the second part of our series on leadership insights from Shakespeare
Leadership insights from Shakespeare - Hamlet

An analysis of Hamlet will reveal an inner dynamic that is central to all of us in potential


Success, specially the one you are not psychologically prepared for, brings with itself a host of fears about your competence


It is a curious fact that Hamlet is the most known character after Jesus Christ. There is something in the character of Hamlet and his actions that resonates with mankind. There is something in the dynamics of that play that resonates with the ebb and flow of life itself. Failure. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear itself. Fear of consequences and at the center of it all is a poetic apathy. Hamlet is too aware of the larger picture. And the larger picture paralyzes him. In corporate life too – all control and movement is artificially managed. Sure vision, mission, strategy are human efforts towards making meaning of the madness that the modern, unpredictable world is. Unpredictability in an environment of rapid and entropic change is the dynamics the tragic hero is hopelessly faced with. Could he have done things to escape his fate? A psychologist may quietly inform, perhaps not.

It is probably the right time to explore the unconscious compulsions of the tragic hero. At the onset the play begins with the tragic hero as being a very capable character who is powerful, respected, strong, capable, statured and successful. Yet by the end of the play he is depleted, thrown down and often killed by those very people that admired him. This rather sinister destiny, at the end of the day, is brought upon by the hero himself. He is sometimes in the grips of mechanisms that he initiated in the first place. And now, by the law of karma, his actions catch up with him, nay, overrun him and he lies in the dust wasted! The consequences of CEO action may often time exceed him and overrun him if he were to not operate with awareness within the bounds of human dignity and meaningfulness. The tragic hero has psychological components that are a part of all human psyches and depending on a variety of external and internal conditions they may be triggered off. Before the protagonist knows it, he is a victim of his own excesses. The fault does not have to be against someone – the greatest evil is the evil against the self. As when, in the dying scene, Richard II laments – “I wasted time, and now Time doth waste me”.

Hamlet is his own problem. He gets in his own way. He is his own worst enemy. He is his own most alienated friend. Hamlet’s problem, then, is isolation and introversion accompanied by maniacal but poetically brilliant depression. This is both the boon and bane of the hero. The poetry sustains him. His suffering is beautiful and not for all the physicians in the world will he give up his self-indulgent pity for himself, and as a consequence, for all mankind. Take for example – “How dull, stale and unprofitable to seem the uses of this world…’ and elsewhere, “What a piece of work is man… and yet to me what is this quintessence of dust?”

At the psychological level, Hamlet enjoys his suffering and the depressive vortex that he creates around himself sucks everyone else in. His poetry, his vocabulary, his abstraction of thought, his clarity and power of expression and above all his ‘intuitive intellectuality’ render his saviors petty – incapable in their own eyes of helping him. Of all the characters in the play, Hamlet trusted only Horatio but Horatio was too much in awe of the prince to be able to help him. Also, in Hamlet’s own words Horatio was too spiritually evolved and therefore detached to meaningfully intervene in Hamlet’s mind and bring about a change.

Ophelia could have helped him but he sabotaged that. He alienated her. Completely. In fact almost personally drove her to insanity and then to suicide. This then is an abiding trait of a tragic hero – he almost invariably drives the important woman in his life away. Or ridicules her. Neglects her. In so doing he is killing his anima, his yin, his feminine aspect. In short, he alienates himself from the feminine aspect in his life. The Hindus have a concept of the ‘ardhanarieshwara’ where one half of your psychological existence comes from the feminine presence in your life, just as Shiva himself is part Parvati. An examination of one’s personal life may indicate that one is erring too much on the side of the masculine and the rational -- to exclusion of the emotional. The blindness so self-imposed does prove disastrous. In the play all the main characters die, succumbing to deception, deceit, revenge, power-games, lust (bordering on incest), greed and unbridled anger. Since these attributes are biologically hard-wired into the human psyche, the appeal is universal as is the fatality.

An analysis of Hamlet will reveal an inner dynamic that is central to all of us in potential – the lesson therefore is to cognitively understand its compulsions and then re-cognize them in ourselves as possible operating principles. Hamlet’s ability is that he sees too much, understands too much, empathizes too much, analyzes too much and consequently is paralyzed by his own intelligence. This is the classic intelligence trap: where you are trapped in a point of view by your ability to defend it. He can think for and against an issue with equal élan. He trusts the ghost of his father that tells him of the crime his uncle has committed by murdering him and marrying his queen – this is double sin: murder of ‘God’s representative on earth’ and incest. When the time comes to revenge and deliver on the promise he made to his father’s ghost, he is plagued by doubt -- by the ‘nature of evil’ as a possible trick of the mind induced by Satan himself! Thus no action flows, except internally as a monologue with the self.

The other possible consequence of delay in action (procrastination) is his pathological fear of failure. But every fear of failure shares an insidious border with the fear of success. Success, specially the one you are not psychologically prepared for, brings with itself a host of fears about your competence – the fear that others will now know what your true worth is – as if you were bluffing your way to the top all these years! The solution is what Hamlet himself provides before he dies – “preparation is all” along with a leaf out of the tome on the Level V leader who is equipped with the twin weapons of humility and ferocious resolve.

In an organizational context, Hamlet had no insider friends who would bring in raw data for processing and action. There are no external sources of communications. There is almost complete reliance on himself and the meanderings of his own thinking. He has no mentors in the organization or outside it. No coaches – just a naïve, sentimental mother and a foolish courtier in Polonius. His dislike for Claudius has an irrational (supernatural) basis and goes on to do the opposite of what his uncle could have liked. This is akin to a boss-subordinate relationship where the subordinate dislikes favoring the boss because, at some level, he fears becoming like him or being perceived as wanting to be like him. Hamlet felt a moral and ethical superiority to his uncle. While this has logic, it was, in the play self-defeating.

Doubt. Indecision. Procrastination. Lack of external sources of reliable information. Absence of a coach and mentor. These are central to Hamlet and bring about the fall of the hero. The lessons from Hamlet are, therefore, clearly in the plea for ‘task’ oriented, goal focused activity, avoiding emotional and intellectual excesses—in pursuit of the larger good—stake-holder value in this case.

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Topics: Sports, Books & Movies, Leadership

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