Bard Leadership

We've seen how numerous companies have been able to greatly "Shake" up mediocre performance and culture through trained "Peer" Safety leaders, even without positional power.

We are Shakespeare aficionados, like so many others throughout the world. That's because we see how The Bard's works reveal a common core in people, offering unique insights into human nature both timeless and superseding geographic, ethnic, and gender differences. By "human nature," we mean the complex swirling dynamics that weave together emotions, thoughts, and physicality that, in turn, drive decisions, actions, communications, and relationships.

The most obvious evidence of Shakespeare's impact is the breadth and longevity of reactions to his works. Check it out. We Googled "Shakespeare human nature" and got about 130 million hits! This, over 400 years after his death.

Shakespeare's main characters were leaders. He offers strong examples such people (especially those furthering Safety) should know about and employ in order to become more insightful and influential—as well as to lead better personal lives themselves. We define "leadership" as "achieving positive results by working with and through other people."

As leaders become better at clearly discerning the hearts and minds of others, they become more able to influence them, and thereby maximize best efforts/results while minimizing otherwise destructive resistances and conflicts. Conversely, those who ignore human nature are doomed to be ineffectual, have lowered influence and credibility, and suffer becoming disregarded or mocked. Worse, leaders who attempt to ramrod/go at odds to peoples’ inner natures will always foster resistance.

Pushback happens in all relationships, from parenting to friendship to supervision to Safety persuasion.

While certainly not exhaustive, here's our take on three significant principles from Shakespeare that seamlessly dovetail with effective leadership.

  • Leaders should embrace the unknown, realizing there’s a lot they won’t know about that’s going on. Humans' relationship to the unknown is a significant thread in Shakespeare. Hamlet postulates about "the undiscovered country" and also contended, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

While best leaders realize they'll never know everything, they try to discover whatever they can. Regrettably, we’ve often seen Safety planning done in too much of a vacuum, with insufficient input from those who actually do the work. For example, to this day, too many ergonomic designs don't incorporate the questions, "Will our people actually use this?/What might get in the way?" and "Will this 'fix' create a cascade of other ergo problems?" (e.g., in order to save extra lifting, moving pallets so close to a conveyer line so that people now twist, placing greater tensions on knees or lower back.)

  • Emotions rule decisions and actions, as much as many leaders would have it otherwise. Shakespeare depicts extreme examples of how emotions tend to dominate reason. For example, against his better judgment, Macbeth follows his beloved wife's pressure to kill his father figure King Duncan in order to assume his throne. His guilt at doing this winds up destroying Macbeth and leads to the death of everyone he loves.

In a hopefully much less dire way, we've seen many Safety leaders (and this includes those who don't specifically have "Safety" in their titles) attempt to elevate reason above emotions. They try to motivate Safe actions through "shoulds" or "it's the right thing to do" and then become perplexed, frustrated, or angry because people won't act in expected ways (Does "What's the matter with them? Don't they care about their own safety?" ring any bells?) We suggest these leaders are likely missing something, with a probable disconnect between their plans/expectations and their understanding of human nature.

When attempting to motivate, first consider others' likely fears and hopes. Leaders might first ask themselves, "What do they get satisfaction from?" and "What are they afraid might happen?" rather than just "How do I get them to follow our rules?"

  • Strengthen internal locus of control. Another common theme in Shakespeare's characters is that their seeds of success or destruction emanate squarely from within. Measure For Measure's Angelo steps in as the temporary Duke of Vienna during a time of great corruption. Because his fatal flaw is hubris that, like his namesake, he's a superior angel, he winds up punishing others for the very human feelings that he himself believes he's above. But when love strikes him, he winds up hating himself for becoming everything he himself despised—a lust-driven, emotionally trapped man. His life doesn't end up the way he would have most desired.

A positive example of internal control: King John's Philip The Bastard is able to rise above the temptation of an offered quick path to power to instead assume a gradual commitment to service—and, in so doing, is eventually accorded a position of much greater influence and respect.

Similarly, we've found time and again that Safety leaders are likely to have far greater success in raising culture and performance by stoking/encouraging internal satisfactions of self-control and inner motivation than they are by attempting to get them to adhere to Safety proclamations that come from outside.

  • Supportive relationships strongly promote Safety. In the beginning of The Tempest, Prospero is a heartless despot who enslaves his friend, Ariel. Even so, Ariel fights for Prospero's soul, encouraging kindness. This works. Prospero eventually turns around to become a wiser leader who champions the welfare of his people. And in As You Like It, Celia's support for her best friend (and cousin) Rosalind saves the latter's life and position.

Devon Allen, Shakespeare consultant and coach, actor, and director, relates how, in The Winter's Tale, "Blind jealously drives King Leontes to unjustly imprison his wife and wreak havoc on his entire family. However, the careful, patient and persistent counsel of his wife's leading waiting woman, Paulina, who is far below his status, brings him to the point of understanding of what he has done. His realization and his repentance lead to his and his family's redemption."

Similarly, we've seen how numerous companies have been able to greatly "Shake" up mediocre performance and culture through trained "Peer" Safety leaders, even without positional power.

This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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