Lessons from Lear

Last Updated Mar 29, 2010 2:11 AM EDT

Last week we went to see Australia's foremost Shakespearean actor, John Bell, perform King Lear for the third time. One of the great plays of English literature, King Lear has been open to many interpretations, the Freudians in particular having a field day about the causes of Lear's madness and his coming to his senses.

However it is comments in the program by Bell about Lear that make for compelling reading. To Bell, the play is not about madness but the pitfalls of power. He sees Lear as a man who has got used to absolute power and convinced that he has a divine right to it. Of course this is a common problem with CEOs and one is immediately reminded of the old joke in Silicon Valley. Q: What's the difference between God and Larry Ellison? A: God doesn't think he's Larry Ellison which has since morphed into a book.

Bell also makes the comment that Lear must be played by an old actor. Lear has been in the job too long, is bored, and wants out of responsibility. During his time in power he has demanded and basked in flattery, leading him to become out of touch with the business and his subjects. His grand plan had been created without a thought for its ramifications and consequences. This does sound like so many CEOs. The rest of the play is about what it is to lose that title, the authority and to realise that his only a 'poor, bare, forked animal' like other men.

I first studied King Lear as a student at the London Business School, in a course organised by Charles Handy called The Art of Decision Making. Each week we would read a classic and then in a Socratic debate try to work out what lessons there were for business. In The Humm Handbook: Lifting Your Level of Emotional Intelligence I used five plays as case studies including King Lear.

One of the great lessons from Lear for managers is the problem of succession. How many successors should you groom? As Shakespeare pointed out in Henry IV, having only one successor is particularly dangerous. Two, as in the case of Lear, can lead to a poisonous rivalry and may even be settled by a deadly embrace. The magic number appears to be three.

Why three? The best model is a truel. There three-cornered gunfight among Arnold, Bert, and Charlie. Everyone knows that Arnold's probability of hitting his target is .3, Charlie's is .5, and Bert never misses. The truelists must fire at their choice of target in succession, in the cyclical order Arnold, Bert, and Charlie, until only one man is left. What should Arnold's strategy be?

The answer is surprising but working it out will mean your successors will spend more time wondering about handling their rivals than trying to quicken your departure.