Lessons in leadership via Shakespeare

Stephen Richer Law Student, University of Chicago
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The Washington D.C. Shakespeare Theatre Company chose its plays wisely this year.  Just as the country is searching for skilled leadership to deal with the economic crisis, the continued violence in Iraq and Afghanistan, the massive government deficit, and the Iranian nuclear threat, the Theatre is offering its Leadership Repertoire—two months of concurrent performances of Henry V and Richard II.

President Obama has already learned some of the plays’ leadership lessons—his newly acquired gray hairs substantiate Richard’s quote that “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”  But has President Obama learned the more important leadership lessons that Shakespeare offers through these two protagonists?

More than its plot, Henry V is known for its speeches, foremost of which is Henry’s St. Crispin’s day speech:

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile

This day shall gentle his condition:

And gentlemen in England, now a-bed

Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,”

Certainly President Obama knows the importance of speech-making, and like Henry, the President has the ability to rally people to his banner.  But Henry’s speeches move in the direction of the public wind—the President’s do not.  Henry taps into the patriotism of his subjects to spur the English army to new, seemingly impossible accomplishments.  Henry is a leader who kindles and guides the pre-existing sentiment.

The President was similarly successful when he served as the guiding light for Democratic sentiment.  But now, as leader of the country, he uses his speeches not to harness America’s energy in a positive direction, but rather, he tries to recreate American opinion.  The majority of Americans do not want to apologize to the world, but the President tries to convince us that we should.  The majority of Americans do not want immediate comprehensive health care reform; the President tells us we should.  As a result, the President has not gained the loyalty that Henry won, nor has he mimicked Henry’s success.

Richard II fails as a leader for two primary reasons: his disrespect for established wisdom and his lack of focus.  The king’s seasoned advisers—the Dukes of Gloucester, Lancaster, and York—are at once dismissed in favor of younger counsel.  The new consultants encourage Richard’s spendthrift ways, and they fail to warn him of his impending danger.

Despite President Obama’s initial difficulties with appointments, the staff he has now is top notch, both in terms of education and experience.  The President did not appoint Richard’s incapable sycophants—if anything, the previous Bush administration is guiltier of that.  But the President has shown a certain disdain for the old-guard and accepted wisdom both symbolically through his attack on the Supreme Court and, more importantly, tangibly, through his disregard for previous health care reform efforts; his willingness to ride rough-shod over Senate rules; his desire to break with anything associated with the Bush administration, even in potentially dangerous ways such as the trying of terrorist combatants in civilian courts.

Richard’s other faulty decision is to march off to Ireland in the face of civil unrest.

“Now for our Irish wars:
We must supplant those rough rug-headed kerns,
Which live like venom where no venom else”

This self-satisfying adventure is unjustifiable in the eye of the public—they just want to see England reestablish its coffers and competency.

So goes the story with President Obama and health care.  Health care does need serious reform and, likewise, perhaps the Irish of Richard II’s time needed a thumping (I don’t know the history).  But there is a time for these things, and it is not now.  According to a February 10, 2010 Rasmussen Report, Americans see the economy as the most important issue.  Other polls reiterate this finding—the economy far outweighs health care in the public’s eye.

Why then did the President spend his first year tilting at the windmill of health care?  And why, despite some recent efforts to bring the economy to the foreground, does he continue to make speech after speech on health care while Congress struggles over a jobs bill that many consider disappointingly small.  It seems that the President is running off to Ireland while approximately 10 percent of the country remains unemployed.

President Obama is smart—very smart.  He undoubtedly knows these characteristics of leadership, but their retelling in Henry V and Richard II could serve as a useful reminder.  If he does not remember them, then the American public could soon wish him gone and start looking for its next leader.  And when that happens, President Obama, and his goals, will quickly be forgotten.

“As in a theatre, the eyes of men,
After a well-grac’d actor leaves the stage,
Are idly bent on him that enters next,
Thinking his prattle to be tedious.”

Stephen Richer shares a birthday with Napoleon and Justice Stephen Breyer, and he is a redhead like Thomas Jefferson and Winston Churchill. As such, he harbors illusions of grandeur that have largely gone unrealized. Stephen is the Director of Outreach at a Washington, D.C.-based legal think tank.