Classic Leadership Wisdom from King Lear

Shakespeare’s King Lear features among its many characters two brothers, Edmund and Edgar. The former is a bad egg, but he knows a lot about human nature. He knows, for example, that people have a tendency to blame their misfortunes on anything but themselves. He uses this knowledge to present himself as a trusted advisor, “warning” his associates about the terrible things about to befall them–through no fault of their own, of course. Meanwhile, Edgar’s more honest (and less flattering) warnings are rejected.

It’s hard for leaders to hear that their bad luck is partly due to their own bad behavior. That’s why the Edmunds in our lives often get our attention and gratitude while the Edgars get the cold shoulder. 

Edmund: This is the excellent foppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeits of our own behavior, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars; as if we were villains on necessity; fools by heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical predominance; drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforced obedience of planetary influence; and all that we are evil in, by a divine thrusting on. An admirable evasion of man, to lay his goatish disposition on the charge of a star.

–Shakespeare, “King Lear,” Act I, Scene ii

About Jocelyn R Davis

Jocelyn Davis is Principal of Seven Learning, a leadership development firm that creates a lasting lift in leaders' effectiveness using classic books, films, and stories.
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