Charles Handy looks at the Bard's great tragedy, King Lear, and highlights the dangers to managers of mistaking flattery for truth and truth for disloyalty.
'I am a man more sinned against than sinning.' It is the sad old King Lear speaking, in Shakespeare's great tragedy which can currently be seen at the Cottesloe Theatre in London, with Ian Holm giving a memorable performance in the title role. This is one of the plays rich in memorable lines - as someone once said of Hamlet: 'It's really just a lot of famous old quotes bundled together' - but it is also a play about life itself, or what Lear called 'the mystery of things'. We can see our families mirrored there - or our organisations. Watching it, I was reminded once more of how little really changes over centuries in man's relationships to man, or in this case, to woman. Which is why, no doubt, Shakespeare so often seems to be a man of our own times.
The old king was wrong in his unhappy declaration - the wave of misery that subsequently swept over him was all his own fault. Much as we might like to blame fate or malevolent enemies, it is usually we ourselves who are the architects of our own disasters. The story of Lear is a familiar one but loses nothing in the telling. It is the story of a man who mistakes flattery for truth, and truth for disloyalty, a man who, as a result, gives power to his real enemies and dismisses his true friends. Like the head of many a family firm, he hands the business over to his daughters but still expects to be able to come into the office as if nothing had happened and is unpleasantly surprised to find that things have changed.
As many are tempted to do, Lear mistakes the power of his office for the power of his person. I thought it was me everyone wanted - until I left the job and they invited my successor.
Power, trust and love are the themes of this play.
They are also, I believe, the central themes of business, although we might feel rather more comfortable talking about commitment than love when referring to our organisations. We probably think about such matters too little and give them too little importance. Get them wrong, however, and disaster beckons. To give power to those you do not trust, for instance, is both foolish and irresponsible, and to give trust where there is no trust or commitment offered in return is dangerous. Obvious truths, perhaps, but as organisations become leaner, more dispersed and ever busier, we often give power to those we hardly know and so can hardly trust, let alone be sure of their commitment to the causes we hold dear.
How many people, to begin with, do we really know well enough and long enough to trust, or to rely on, when they are out of sight, often out of mind, and out of our control? Perhaps 10, 20 at a stretch, and that is assuming that we have seen them in action for a year or two at least. Yet large organisations often find it necessary to present us with colleagues or subordinates whom we have never met before and to put together teams of perfect strangers.
In one organisation where I worked it was understood that high achievers seldom held a job for more than a year before they were moved on and often up. In such conditions it can be hard to know when anyone is speaking the real truth, or, like Lear's daughters, is only saying what the king will want to hear. We ought to 'speak what we feel, not what we ought to say,' says Edgar at the end, summing up the message of the play.
Indeed we should, but the truth can often be unwelcome to the hearer and then dangerous to the speaker. The trust has to go both ways. Which is where the commitment comes in. Unless we, in our turn, have confidence and a belief in those who claim to trust us, we will not return their trust. Hence the paradox - that it is only when we can earn another's confidence in us that we can fully trust them to tell us the truth. Lucky are those who have people around them who are not afraid to question.
Clever and wise are those who manage to create that bond of trust, with people committed to a common cause. Where everyone knows what they are working for, what has to be done and how, then management and control can be minimal. Sadly, such a bond is hard to win and all too easy to shatter and, like a sheet of glass, once shattered it is never the same again. It is, in every way, a precious commodity.
These organisations to which we give our lives, or a great part of them, with excitement and energy and enthusiasm are the ones where we have the power to make a difference, where we are trusted to do our best in the interests of something, and often someone, in which or whom we can believe. In the arts, in the voluntary sector and, sometimes, in the public service, it is often possible to find such places. It should be so more often than it is in business where control can seem to be more important than trust, and where there is sometimes little commitment to anything except one's own personal career goals.
It is worth taking a few risks with trust in order to create that better sort of place, and worth giving away some power to make it real; worth, too, doing it sooner rather than later. 'I gave you all,' said Lear sadly when his eldest daughter rejected him. 'In good time you gave it,' she sneeringly replied. All fathers should take note, but so, perhaps, should corporate managers.