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Truth or Tragedy: Lessons for Leaders From King Lear

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The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it. – Flannery O’Connor

This winter, Canada’s Stratford Festival partnered with movie theaters across North America to show a filmed performance of one of their critically acclaimed productions: King Lear. I was delighted to experience the play again and took a few new insights with me as I left the theater.

While the play – one of Shakespeare’s most beloved tragedies – is ripe with lessons for fathers and kings alike, it also demonstrates with terrible accuracy the dangers leaders in business face when they value flattery over truth.

Early in the play, King Lear shares his plan to give up responsibility for leadership and governance to his daughters, but retain all of the pomp and benefits for himself (What could possibly go wrong with this strategy?). It is here that Lear makes what will prove to be a fatal error. He demands that his daughters first speak their love of him, saying that he will give the greatest share of the kingdom to she who loves him most.

His eldest daughters Goneril and Regan outdo each other with over-the-top declarations (“dearer than eyesight, space and liberty”) and are given their shares as compensation. However, Lear’s youngest and dearest daughter refuses to speak. She says that she loves him as a daughter, but that she cannot, as her sisters have “heave my heart into my mouth.” Lear is furious and banishes Cordelia – and the loyal and perhaps overly direct Kent – from his heart and kingdom. From then on, only Lear’s fool speaks truth.

As leaders, what lessons can we take from Lear?

The first is the importance of self-awareness. Know your strengths, respect your weaknesses, and continuously evaluate your own behaviors and the results they create. Share your areas of personal development with your team and ask them to call you out when you don’t follow through with your commitments. Be aware of your ego and its inherent danger.

Next, demand truth from your team, not flattery. Give your team permission to speak truth to you, even when it is uncomfortable and inconvenient. Commit to model truth-telling yourself, creating an environment where your team is rewarded, not punished, for it. As Shakespeare writes through the voice of Edgar, “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”

Finally, understand in your business who your Gonerils and Cordelias are (each business has them) and manage your talent accordingly. Take good care when you know your personal feelings may get in the way. Seek out the direct-talking Kents and heed their advice, even when it is hard.

There is much to learn about business and leadership from King Lear, in fact in many of Shakespeare’s great plays. Self-reflective leaders would do well to add a quarto or two to their summer reading list. And Stratford would do well to set their next Lear in the boardroom instead of England’s fair fields.

Haley Boehning is the Chief Change Officer at Storyforge. Building on 20+ years driving change for Fortune 500 clients, non-profits and start-ups, Haley has developed a pragmatic approach to change through storytelling, developing relevant, consistent and emotionally compelling messages and targeted communications strategies that help brand and culture triumph in times of great change.

 
 
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