Ten Insights on Leadership From Hamlet

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By Thomas J. Lee

A few weeks ago my daughter and I scored tickets to the opening night’s production of Hamlet at the exquisite Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Now, any time I can enjoy an evening with my grown daughter is a wonderful thing. When you add dinner at a favorite Italian restaurant and then a splendid performance of perhaps the greatest play of all time—well, let’s just say I was happy.

Since then I have been thinking about the messages that Hamlet offers to leaders and aspiring leaders. I am certainly no Shakespearean scholar, and I don’t even play one on TV, as the modern cliché goes. Indeed, in what follows I may be misrepresenting or distorting the Bard’s intended meaning. But it seems to me that some of the best lines in this 400-year-old play have practical applications for twenty-first-century leadership, if only we should look.

The new ChicagoShakes production spurred my thinking, for it is a modern retelling with a decidedly contemporary look and feel. In lieu of Elizabethan costumes, business suits and cocktail dresses are the order of the day. So it is easy to think in terms of today’s business organizations, which have their own kind of poison and daggers.

Consider one well-known verse, and ask yourself what it says to leaders. In Act I, the laughable character Polonius offers some sage advice to Hamlet:

“This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

Polonius is a pompous fool who is quick to tell everyone else what to do, but cannot take his own advice for himself. Still, his recommendation here is sound. It certainly has stood the test of time—more than four centuries, to be specific.

Clearly, one of the big problems facing many leaders is the difficulty of arriving at truth and believing it. Everyone lies to himself or herself. For most people it is a moral failing with only modest implications. But for leaders, whose truth affects the lives and fortunes of many others, lying to oneself can be a big problem. It’s one thing to look in a mirror and tell yourself you’re the fairest of them all. It’s quite another to tell yourself that you have all the answers or that your judgment is better than anyone else’s.

Ask yourself: What lies do you tell yourself? Why? What truth are you refusing to acknowledge? What half-truths or untruths do you perpetuate?

Here’s another example. In Act I, Polonius counsels his son Laertes, who is embarking for Paris:

“Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.”

In other words, listen more than you talk, and think before you speak. If someone speaks ill of you, accept it with equanimity. This, too, is good counsel for us all. Alas, most of us are like Polonius; we would rather dish out advice to others than take it for ourselves.

In the same passage, Polonius offers more time-tested counsel:

“Neither a borrower nor a lender be,
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.”

william shakespeare and the second quarto of hamlet.

william shakespeare and the second quarto of hamlet.

This recommendation is well-taken for everyone, too, and it is doubly true for leaders, who need to set a virtuous example. Obviously there are times when borrowing is sensible—home mortgages, student loans, start-up capital—but wanton borrowing to cover routine expenses is a perilous course, from which it can be difficult to disentangle oneself.

In another scene later in Act I, after seeing the ghost of his late father, Hamlet challenges his friend Horatio:

“There are more things in Heaven and Earth,
Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

People haul this quotation out to argue for all kinds of conspiracy theories and conceits of one sort or another. I prefer to use it to challenge the assumption that we know things we really don’t or that something we haven’t considered cannot possibly matter anyway. One of the best questions any leader can ask is simply: What haven’t we thought of? And another, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan: What do we “know” that just ain’t so?

Then, in Act II, Hamlet is conversing with two buddies from college, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He remarks:

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

This line is open to competing interpretation, but the Stoics of ancient Greece would have been comfortable with it. I think of it as a repudiation of ironclad, Manichaean rules, and an invocation to put ethical choices in a fuller context that acknowledges their complexity. Probably everyone who has managed a business or any other organization—or even raised a family, or taught in a classroom, or run for public office, or almost anything else—understands that black and white is a barren, frozen field in a world colored by the warmth of human emotion, ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty.

Shakespeare was a master of irony, as you know. Early in Act III, King Claudius offers an ironic observation about young Hamlet, whose youthful intelligence he respects, but is actually and unintentionally speaking of himself, when he remarks:

“Madness in great ones must not unwatched go.”

Claudius has murdered his brother, Hamlet’s father, and married Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude, to ascend to the throne. Of course, it is the king whose sanity must be questioned. The advice is eerily relevant today for us in the United States.

Later in Act III, the king is praying emptily for divine forgiveness of his crime, though he knows in his heart that he feels no remorse. He stands and declares:

“My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”

Completely apart from prayer, how many of us speak without conviction? How many of us talk for no reason beyond sounding smart or appearing participative? In an age of instant tweeting, it is endemic to our times. I look on this simple verse as a reminder to speak with self-discipline and to speak courageously from the heart as well as the mind.

Still later in Act III, Hamlet casts insult after insult on Ophelia, the daughter of Polonius. In one, Hamlet declares:

“God hath given you one face, and you make yourself another.”

His message is twofold, having to do with both cosmetics and character. For modern leaders, though, it is another reminder that authenticity and realism are the coin of the realm.

In Act IV, Queen Gertrude remarks:

“Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be.”

Her statement reflects the uncertainty that pervades the entire play, but for leaders it has special meaning. It is an acknowledgment of the difficulty inherent in imagining the future, much more than seeing our present situation. I cannot think of a single organization that doesn’t wrestle with this challenge.

Shakespeare even seems to recognize the dynamic of courtiers alongside royalty, not unlike twenty-first-century business consultants at the right arm of CEOs. In a playful dialogue between Hamlet and clownish Polonius, the courtier points to a cloud and likens its shape to that of a camel.

The young prince demurs. He thinks it resembles a weasel. Yes, Polonius agrees: “It is backed like a weasel.” Hamlet, toying with him, instantly pivots to the image of a whale. Polonius spins around and immediately agrees again. Some people will tell you anything you want to hear. Beware the cloying sycophants, the yes-men. Leaders need to surround themselves with confidants who will speak truth to power and with whom the leader can think out loud.

Finally, as a lagniappe, let us look at the most famous line of all in Hamlet and arguably the best-known quotation in all of literature:

“To be, or not to be, that is the question.”

As you know, Hamlet’s soliloquy is a rumination on suicide. I certainly don’t wish to exploit or trivialize the trauma of suicide, but I would argue that we can view this verse as something more, beyond it.

At the risk of projecting my own priorities, I suggest it can serve as a reminder to ask ourselves some existential questions, along the lines of who we are and why we are doing what we are doing. We can answer those questions superficially, or we can answer them profoundly. They go to the heart of our purpose and to the heart of our resolve in fulfilling that purpose. Certainly it behooves us from time to time to check and double-check our purpose and to make any necessary mid-course corrections.

These are simple but profound questions, and they cut to the chase of the leader’s work. By asking them, and answering them, we will likely learn something of ourselves that we have been keeping hidden, even from ourselves.