Echoes from the boards

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Olivier Mythodrama’s Michael Boyle talks to JACQUI WALKER about his company’s unique take on leadership and the lessons that business can learn from some classic sources.

By Jacqui Walker
Michael Boyle Olivier Mythodrama

Michael Boyle is the associate director of Olivier Mythodrama in Britain. In Australia to give a series of workshops on leadership lessons from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, he spoke to Jacqui Walker about what the classic play can teach managers and leaders about power and influence.


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Jacqui Walker: First of all can you give us a quick précis of the play Julius Caesar and how it can teach us about power and influence?

Michael Boyle: Well Julius Caesar is high tragedy. It’s got four leaders in it, all of whom are imperfect. There’s Julius Caesar, the most powerful man in the world, but he’s very self important and becomes vain and power-crazed as we often see with our leaders in this world. Doesn’t want to give up easily and is continually ambitious for his own success.

We have Mark Antony who is the kind of protégée, as it were, who’s very turbulent emotionally but determined. Ruthless in fact.

Then we have Brutus who is an honourable figure. One who is willing to look at the greater good and for the greater good of Rome and act accordingly. Eventually he perceives there’s a danger of Caesar becoming a tyrant.

And there’s Cassius who is a real strategic networker. A real fox who can make things happen and drop the right thing here, and manipulate and influence in different constituencies.

So all of these are characters that our colleagues who come along to these workshops recognise quite readily. And we look at how particularly Cassius influences and we offer people a model of the elements of influence.

We give them rehearsal or exercises to do and they physically embody these in programs. It allows people to have conversations they wouldn’t otherwise have and so there’s an element of ‘edutainment’ in it really because they’re getting the themes and working with the themes and also getting a little experience of the great text that Shakespeare produced.

I’d like to try and ask you some questions that elicit some of the material that you’re talking about in the workshop. So first of all, how do we go about getting things done that we believe are right and should be done?

Well that’s the big question.

We put a model up of political behaviour in organisations. And there are those people who are just in it for themselves. Let’s be honest about it; the question is, what’s in it for me. The fox will always try and steal credit for other people’s actions. He’ll be quite a short term self interested operator.

As distinct from those who we identify as owls who are looking for the long term future and the greater good of the organisation and who encourage leadership and ethical behaviour.

And then there are so-called lambs who are people who are genuinely well intended but just look at the foxes operating and think well, you know, it’s not for me. We’ll now stay out of the politics. Politics is not for me.

And in leadership you can’t really afford to do that. And so we’re trying to encourage owls really. The ones who will develop a group consciousness which is beyond any particular ego or personal agenda.

So the owls and the foxes have the same abilities and skills but have different motives. Would that be fair to say?

Well foxes are very effective in organisations but usually for short term and generally motivated by self interest.

What are the skills that you need to be an owl or a fox, and not a lamb?

If we’re going to create more owls we can probably recruit them from lambdom. I was reminded earlier on that there’s politics in a bus queue. So there is politics wherever you are. As leaders we need to realise that. And if we don’t realise that then whenever our particular agenda is that we want to drive, will not be met.

So that’s one of the prime realisations. Early on the workshop the people say OK, if I’m going to really make a difference here, I’ve got to realise that being a lamb’s not going to work.

Can you develop that political intelligence without sacrificing your integrity, because I’m sure some lambs would be thinking, ‘I don’t want to engage with this because it’s morally challenging’?

That is always a challenge isn’t it? Is that ‘how do I keep my integrity and get what I need to be done, done?’. I suppose it’s just about being authentic. Being honest. And being able to share power with others. Not wanting to be the one at the top of the hierarchy.

I think the whole command and control thing is all over really, and what we are is team leaders, and as a team leader, an owl is more of a facilitator. You know, to get the best out of the group, you know… owls are good listeners. They’ve got superb hearing and good eyesight but they’re not afraid. To be an owl is a predator.

It will make difficult decisions and be ruthless if necessary for the long term future of the organisation. Particularly around budgets or whatever needs to be done. So it is about focusing on the intention and in focusing and elaborating on the shared intention then people will be inspired by that hopefully and follow that person. Not because of who they are but because of what they stand for.

How do you develop those skills in yourself if you’re a leader in an organisation and you want to be an owl, how do you develop those skills in yourself?

I suppose you have to first of all think about what inspires you, because if you don’t know what that is, you’re not going to inspire anybody else. And then once you’ve found that for yourself on an intellectual level you have to find the courage to stand up and be seen and heard.

And not worry about asking for permission if it’s OK or apologising for it, and just stand up for who you are and say what you believe, which many young people tell me is what’s missing in politics. Actually because of the party line thing, the career politician thing. Which dulls the whole thing down and dumbs it down as well. I think that’s part of the reason why people don’t… particularly young people, are not voting.

They’re looking for a hero and they haven’t found them.

They’re looking for someone to stand up. The characters in politics that used to be there are less so. Everybody’s trying to play the party game and I think that that’s to the detriment of the drama that should be in politics and the excitement of it and in the business world, I mean I think that’s what we need to do.

We need to be able to say… be able to say what we believe in. At the risk of being over-ruled. And be able to get behind the policy that’s voted on or else, obviously resign.

I always say to people, what would you resign over? And if those people say they don’t know, well I say ‘why not?’. Life has a habit of just… helping you find that out, you know.

Another thing that you talk about is how to effectively influence others. Can you think of an anecdote from Julius Caesar that you use to illustrate that point?

Well the key thing about influencing others is not to sort of download your impulse on to somebody else. The key thing is if you want to influence another person, you’ve got to really find out how they influence themselves.

And Cassius in the play is very clever at this. He wants to win Brutus over. Brutus has a great reputation with the mob in the cities so in order to give the conspiracy the validity he needs Brutus. He doesn’t say ‘fancy joining a conspiracy?’ He actually sounds him out and then waits for him to hear the shout in the Lupercal ritual.

They’re standing outside and Brutus suddenly says: ‘I do fear the people should choose Caesar for their king’ and at the moment he said ‘Ah, you do fear it’. In other words he emotionally links with that. Brutus goes on to say ‘yeah, but if it’s for the general good I’ll do anything but it’s that honour in one eye and death in the other’.

In other words he says ‘honour is what’s most important to me’ and at that moment Cassius latches on to that and says, ‘funny you should say that…’ (this is paraphrased by the way, not Shakespeare).. ‘funny you should say that, honour is the very thing I’ve come to talk to you about.’ In other words, he finds out that what’s important to him and then meets him in that place. It happens all through the play actually.

So obviously listening… that’s also an illustration of where listening is critical.

It’s critical, and in the play the one who gives up listening is Julius Caesar himself. He doesn’t listen to the soothsayer who says ‘beware the Ides of March’. He doesn’t listen to his wife who says I’ve had a bad dream, ‘don’t go to work today dear’. He doesn’t even listen to the augurers who cut open a bird and find when they read the entrails to get a sign, an omen, when it turns out not to have a heart – which is a pretty bad sign in a chicken.

So he stops listening really and that’s… self importance kicks in and usually whatever derailing behaviours leaders have the first thing that goes is the listening.

And another point that you make is how you can survive organisational power struggles.

We use a model of what we call ‘sources of power’. We make the distinctions of what power is. The politics is why you go into the room. And the power is what you bring with you.

And if you know what you stand for, then you’re going to create opposition.

Naturally, there’re people who aren’t going to agree with you. So you need to have a coalition. If you don’t decide to work on your own, which is always pretty difficult, then you need to bring people onboard who share the same values and possibly the same policy preferences.

And when those two are combined that creates a good power coalition. There are going to be people who don’t agree with you and you need to identify them and devise tactics to overcome them. That’s the reality of it really.

What we do in the program is we ask people to stand up and the simple question ‘what’s the most important priority issue for leadership in Australian business at the moment, for the next 24 months?’ So it’s 60 people standing in a circle each one of them answers that question. We then leave them to form coalitions around the various factions of interest.

And what, in your opinion, are the biggest challenges that leaders face today?

Well I don’t know too much about the Australian tradition although I’m learning a lot from folks here.

I suspect that the big problems are the ecological crisis that’s pending and in order to engage with that people are going to have to give up… countries are going to have to give up… their own agendas. And that’s going to be tough.

So the ability of leadership to actually create a group consciousness around something which is far more important than any individual member of that group will be the great challenge and the great hope for the 21st century.

The heroic leader or the command and control leader is gone. No government is going to come up with some great answer that everyone’s going to follow. It’s not going to happen, but it’s going to happen from the ground. People are going to band together… because the ecological crisis is going to become more and more influential and it’s going to create all sorts of resource shortages.

It’s already been going to happen. In Victoria here, the water shortage. Luckily you can deal with that, but there are other countries that can’t.


This is an edited transcript.


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