Monday, January 07, 2013

Management and the Liberal Arts II

In any library or book store you can find dozens maybe even hundreds of books on management written by many experienced and some inexperienced managers. These books purport to teach you how to manage in simple terms. In essence these books tell the reader that if you just follow the processes and techniques you will be a successful leader and manager. Of course as we all know that things “as seen on TV” don’t always work as shown and the same is true with these books as well. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with these books and the processes and techniques are usually sound but at best they simply bring you up to the level of your peers who have read the same books. But in general these management books really don’t address management at a theoretical level nor do they give any indication of the downside of a failure to understand the foundation and exercise of power because management is essentially an exercise in power. However, this insight can be gained from many sources within the liberal arts and perhaps one of the best sources is Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s lessons in power are much more specific and useful because they cover the ups as well as the downs of power. In his three plays, Richard II, King Lear, and Antony & Cleopatra Shakespeare shows how power is not enough and a failure to understand and exercise power leads inevitably to humiliation and destruction. In all three of these plays the title character enters at the height of power but in the end dies humiliated and destroyed due to his lack of understanding the basic nature of power. Richard begins as a new king with inherited power. In modern terms this would be similar to a loyal subordinate or new hire being promoted to the top spot. Lear is an aging King who desires rest without the day-to-day responsibilities of running the kingdom. In modern terms Lear is the CEO who becomes Chairman of the Board while delegating the daily exercise of power to subordinates. Antony is a subordinate who has clawed his way to the top but thinks that the power delegated to him is his alone and because he is Antony. All three offer lessons in the exercise of power and the need to understand its source and how to employ it.

All three of these leaders see their authority as tied to them personally and that authority alone gives them the right to lead. Of course Richard has succeeded as King and being king is enough in his eyes to justify all of his actions. People should simply obey him without question. In modern terms this is the executive who has been given the top job and thinks that because of his position no one should question him. Of course Lear has been the successful monarch and feels that his power is his by right and tied to him personally. This attitude regarding personal power is very visible with Antony who sees the power delegated to him by Rome is his personally – power is Rome – Antony is power. But their failure to really grasp the source of their power leads all three inexorably to death and destruction. Of course in modern management the failure to grasp the source of power rarely leads to death but it certainly can lead to failure and humiliation.

The executive who follows the King Richard model is the executive who brings in his cronies while ignoring the incumbents. This is the executive who is out to change things and bend the organization to his will without regard for any past history or recommendations from the incumbents. In this scenario the incumbent executives will typically react by ignoring the inner circle cronies and their edicts. This will evolve into passive aggressiveness followed by active resistance unless the executive mends his ways which he rarely does. The irony here is that the executive usually fails to understand why he failed and why his subordinates opposed him when he was acting in their best interest and the best interest of the company. The lesson is that when you come into a top spot you may bring some trusted colleagues with you but you cannot ignore the incumbent leaders. They must be consulted and included in the planning and execution.

Lear is a rather sad case because he truly believed that his power and influence was his personally. King Lear divided his kingdom. He thought that he would still be in control and influential in the running of the kingdom. Of course he was ignored, ultimately humiliated and destroyed. There is an excellent modern example of this with Lee Iacocca former President of Ford Motor company. When Iacocca was fired from Ford he was stunned to find that many of his “friends” of 25 years would no longer return his phone calls. Like many other executives Lee thought that his power and influence were tied to him personally rather than to his position. But the reality is power is tied to the position not to the person. A bitter lesson that Lee learned and this seems to be a hard lesson for many executives to grasp. Once you leave a position the power and perks leave as well but on the positive side so do the sycophants, courtiers, and hangers-on that you thought were friends.

Antony’s view of power is more complex. He feels he achieved his power through his military conquests and it is his and his alone. He fails to understand that the power he wields is Rome’s power and not his individually. In modern terms we find the Antony style manager to be the one who has risen through the ranks and survived bruising political battles. But with power he feels it is his by right and he is free to act as he chooses. This type of manager commonly runs into trouble when his personal goals conflict with those of the organization. To some extent an organization can withstand the conflict but if the leader persists in viewing his power as his personally then inevitably he will be stripped of that power. This may come about through termination, resignation, or simply being moved aside without power.

There are many management lessons to be learned from the liberal arts and Shakespeare is simply one such source. These plays by Shakespeare show how power can become destructive to the person once they think that the power belongs to them and not to the position. This is a trap that all modern managers must be cognizant of because their power belongs not to them but to the position. Power always belongs to the group or organization and a failure to recognize that subordinates and peers as well as superiors must be taken into account.

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