Book Of The Week: Is this wisdom I see before me?

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The Independent Online
Shakespeare on


By Paul Corrigan

(Kogan Page, pounds 16.99)

LOOKING AT the list of other management titles advertised by his publishers in the back of his book must have made Paul Corrigan feel a bit like Macbeth looking at the apparition of his hated rival's offspring: "Why do you show me this? - A fourth? What will the line stretch out to the crack of doom? Another yet? A Seventh? I'll see no more!" In fact there are 20 more, 27 other titles, a small sample from the ocean of management advice around.

The seemingly bottomless need for advice, wisdom, tips and training for managers makes it look as if there must be something very peculiar about a job so many people do, but no-one seems to be at all confident about. Perhaps the generic term "manager" is the problem. People rarely have it as the only title on their business card. People usually manage something, some process or system that involves people in a task. Remove the task from the picture and what is it you actually do?

Actors describe themselves as actors but know they don't really exist until they are acting in some production. Yet actors have a specific range of skills. They are trained for three years in the physical, emotional and intellectual skills necessary to perform their job. Managers don't seem to get this. They are often, effectively, amateurs and the managing part of their work is picked up on the job, snatched from short training courses, or got from books.

In Management, Paul Corrigan makes a good case for managers looking at the stories and personalities of Shakespeare's great heroes and villains to gain insight into the complex personal issues of achieving and wielding power. He points out that there is, at last, a perception growing in the world of business, that managing is about people, rather than systems. People - with all their needs, desires, emotions, passions and ambiguities are the raw material of theatre and dramatic story-telling, and Shakespeare is the master. His works are a place to look for insights and understanding about oneself and others.

So what does Shakespeare have to teach the modern manager? The middle three sections of this book look at the leading characters in a handful of Shakespeare's most famous plays and draw lessons on leadership from the tragic arc of the (exclusively male) protagonists. The idea is a good one. The challenges of motivating people when the odds seem stacked against them, the pitfalls of ambition, the dangers inherent in the isolation that come with power - these lessons can be drawn from the works of the great poet-dramatist. The book provides an easy and accessible analysis of the relevant threads of the plot that illuminate the lesson.

The story of Richard II tells us authority does not rest in the job- title. To be the anointed king is not enough, you need the earned respect of your peers to exercise your power. The Tragedy of King Lear teaches us the dangers of complacency and listening to flatterers. If you divest yourself of your responsibilities, others will no longer give you the authority you had, and change may sweep you away. The lessons in this part of the book are broad and dramatic, as befits the towering tragic stories from which they are gleaned. They would be well heeded by the Rupert Murdochs and Tiny Rowlands of the world, and give pause for thought to anyone who has to exercise authority over others.

Unfortunately, some of the oversimplifications necessary to draw out the management lessons in the first three sections mean it is hard to see who would really enjoy reading this book. The busy manager looking for tips would do better to go direct to the management guru Tom Peters who is frequently quoted throughout, in passages that eloquently summarise the points painstakingly teased from the Shakespeare text. The interested Shakespeare lover will find a discussion of Antony and Cleopatra that barely mentions Antony is utterly in thrall to Cleopatra will hardly deepen their understanding of the play. To readers unfamiliar with Shakespeare, the school-book explanations of plot and text will revive memories of GCSE revision and make Tom Peters seem a much more enjoyable read than the bard.

Nevertheless if you are a manager unfamiliar with Shakespeare and thinking of going for a night out to see a Shakespeare play, a look at this book might give you a good way of enjoying the evening from a different perspective. It could also make what can be a life-changing, soul-shaking night at the theatre into a bit of a busman's holiday.

The last section of the book that deals with the lesser characters, the "little people" as Corrigan condescendingly refers to them, is more interesting. The treatment of the characters of Falstaff and Lear's Fool are much more complex and ambivalent than the flattering but faintly worrying idea that managers should model themselves on Henry V.

The complex and ambivalent relationship between Prince Hal and Falstaff is explored in some detail and the way the seeming friendship and respect Hal gives Falstaff only to utterly reject him when he gets promoted to the top job, seems much nearer to the complex difficulties faced in everyday business interactions.

Business is seldom like the battle of Agincourt and most managers have much less power than Elizabethan monarchs. The sorts of behaviour which infect the workplace are much more like those of Hal and Falstaff. The weakness of the earlier sections of the book is the weakness of a lot of largely American management advice - it is egocentric and phallocentric.

Management is about relationships with others and this latter section of the book delivers telling observations about the difficulty and ambivalence of managing relationships with friends and colleagues. There is a growing perception now that all businesses are people businesses. Good human resources management is the single most important indicator of productivity in any organisation.

This is clearly the time for a new set of metaphors to guide and help people who have responsibility for others. The old, macho, sporting and military metaphors of management are out of fashion. The world of work is a richer, more female, more complex and more emergent place.

The insights and skills of artists, with their tolerance of ambiguity and ability to innovate, their ability to adapt and transform perceptions, are the skills we all need to cultivate. And where better to begin to learn them than from Shakespeare: "He was not of an age, but for all time."

Piers Ibbotson

The reviewer is a Royal Shakespeare Company theatre director, and also runs the RSC's Directing Creativity Programme which provides training and consultancy to businesses.