In the Shakespearean tragedy entitled Macbeth, emotionally supercharged and seemingly on the verge of insanity, the protagonist of the play, from whom the play derives its title, uttered these intriguing words; “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage,…it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Not only did Macbeth assassinate the king, but tyranny held sway as the desire to protect himself and his position pushed him to bungle leadership and soak his hands with blood. At the time he uttered the aforementioned words, his wife was dead, and death was knocking on his door. No doubt at the nadir of despair, with his sense of accountability blunted, he derived comfort in thinking that life signified nothing.
This helped Macbeth to unremorsefully live with the consequences of his actions without a twinge of conscience. For him, life was futile, and so were his morally questionable actions. Since for him everything was meaningless, he felt that whatever murders, follies and indiscretions he, like an idiot, had committed amounted to nothing. This spared him the grief of reflecting on accountability and agonising on the gravity of his actions. In his view, everything simply melted into inconsequential chaos.
Some leaders are adept at fusing the Macbethian leadership style with the Machiavellian one. What takes centre stage in their life is fetishistic obsession with hedonism. Niccolò Machiavelli was a 15th century Italian political philosopher who pushed the view that, for personal benefit, it is acceptable for leaders to pursue manipulative tactics and place conventional ethics on the backburner. He is known for quotes such as, “It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both,” and, “If an injury has to be done to a man, it should be so severe that his vengeance cannot be feared.” Machiavelli advocated a self-focused leadership style, perhaps in some way inspired by the predilection focused Epicurean philosophy, “Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we will die.”
Herein lies the crucial questions; do some elements of leadership across the world think in this fundamentally flawed manner? And are there lessons that can be drawn from the Macbeth tragedy?
The first lesson is; it is suicidal for any leader to choose to be insensitive to a groundswell of criticism and dejection. The view that concerns raised can easily be wished away or would gradually soften can result in the build-up of avoidable tension. While these views may tickle auditory hairs of weasels surrounding leaders, further emboldening them to make hasty and perhaps more controversial decisions, as if they are unaccountable to anyone, the truth is, the people will always be busy filling a ledger with unusually high and unforgettable entries on the liability side, and fewer, if any, forgettable credits. People will always talk about their dissatisfaction, whether in a hush-hush environment or in public forums. They will revel in grilling leaders in the ultra hot crucible of leadership virtues. It takes true leaders to pick up even the most subdued voices of frustration blowing in the wind. As a matter of practice, wise leaders do not wait until scathing complaints are vociferated by imploding irritable subjects. By then, it might be a little too late to win back disillusioned hearts.
The second lesson is the need for leaders to keep a beady eye on the mercury in the thermometer of ethics and integrity. Whenever they discern a miniscule drop on the mercury, this should prompt them to act. The practice of decisively acting only when the mercury has plummeted has never been and will never be a wise move. Captains of cruise ships loaded with passengers are adept at steering their ships away from troubled waters principally because they want to save lives and partly because they want to avoid damage to their ships. However, they cannot always avoid stormy high seas. Their vessels often get battered by towering waves. How do they navigate their way out of danger? Empowered by their passion to succeed, they create a positive atmosphere among crew members and passengers, keep their eyes peeled on the weather and resist ignoring warning signs such as a rapid build-up of cirrostratus clouds and a drop in temperature and pressure. In some cases, they are forced to decelerate or change direction.
Is this of any relevance to leaders? A true leader cannot always make popular decisions. In some cases, it might make sense for thick-skinned leaders to go head-on against the grain of populism. Populism is not the synonym of discreet. However, leaders must regularly reflect on the consequences of their actions. After gauging the temperature of their subjects, like smart captains, leaders may determine the need to retreat, to slow down or to chart a different course. These are not signs of weakness. Captains who avoid dangerous typhoons are not poltroonish. They are mature and astute. The same applies to leaders who choose to take the right action after gauging the mood of the people. True leaders forestall potential for revolutions by never being oblivious to the looming spectre of danger posed by disgruntled individuals.
Folklore claims a king once decided to surround himself with trustworthy advisers. At a special meeting with these counselors, all sitting in a circular formation, the king instructed his brew master to serve him beer in a large gourd. The beer had been deliberately made bitter. In a clear voice, after pretending to take a sip, the king loudly said, “Wow! First class!” He passed the gourd to the man beside him. After taking a large gulp, though the man struggled to swallow the beer, he echoed the king’s observations.
The gourd did its round through all the advisers and only a few summoned the courage to spit out the beer, complaining of its bitterness. From that meeting onwards, the king knew who his true advisers were. I know this will sound stupefyingly trite, but red flags often raised by unreliable advice support the third lesson; it is essential for leaders to surround themselves with credible advisers. People with the courage to look them in the eye, willfully set aside airy-fairy diplomatese, and without fear of repercussions boldly share their unburnished views. Leaders must resist the low self-esteem loaded temptation to loathe independent-minded advisers.
When Joseph Biden agreed to serve as Barack Obama’s deputy, he placed one condition on their working relationship; that he would be the ‘last man in the room’ with Obama. This gave him ample opportunities to advise Obama, boldly and objectively, even if it meant raising ‘unpalatable’ alternative viewpoints. One does not need to be rude to rise to the level of a credible adviser, but he would surely need nerves of steel to voice dissenting analytical opinions and powerful counter-views. It would take a true leader to consider such advice without falling into the trap of pigeonholing his advisers into unsupportive rabble-rousers.
By choice, great leaders refuse to march to the beat of their own drum, they are not loquacious conversational narcissists, and they are not known for being ‘full of sound and fury.’ They subscribe to the notion attributed to a Greek philosopher named Epictetus; “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” Leaders also recognise their obligation to test the credibility of their advisers. A simple litmus test would be for leaders to deliberately present a flawed view, vociferously argue in favour of it without batting an eyelid, openly rebuke unsupportive advisers, and objectively gauge the trustworthiness of individual advisers. Tacky ones would fall headlong into the bottomless trap.
It is unacceptable for leaders to wield the leadership sceptre in their grip with a sense of irresponsibility. Leaders cannot choose to be impervious to criticism, perhaps like Macbeth, hoodwinking themselves into believing their crown is a magic wand for staving off pressure by silencing critics. They cannot always afford to dismiss gradual erosion of support as inconsequential propaganda. Leaders cannot be steeped in the unfortunate practice of taking advantage of the brevity of life to focus on self-serving pursuits.
Like unicorns, perfect leaders are impossible to find. However, out of a strong desire not to suffer the Macbethian fate, selfless leaders would not hold the view that, “Life is a tale told by an idiot,” but would rather ward off impunity by pursuing a savvy leadership philosophy, fully appreciating that they are accountable to the people they serve. They must remember that when things go sideways on the back of a shambolic leadership gameplan, they may not be endowed with a benevolent round of mulligan to redeem themselves.