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Craig Cochran

Quality Insider

A Shakespearean Lesson in Leadership


Published: Tuesday, December 2, 2008 - 12:03

War heroes are a special category of leaders. They embody bravery, resoluteness, and strength—quintessential attributes of good leaders. This is exactly the sort of leader Shakespeare gives us at the beginning of Macbeth.

At the start of Act 1, Macbeth, a Scottish nobleman and field general, has just defeated a rebellion, with Macbeth himself slaying one of the rebels and putting his head on a pike. Nobody can say enough about Macbeth and his virtues. The King of Scotland, Duncan, gushes like a schoolgirl:

            “O valiant cousin! Worthy gentleman!” (Act 1, Scene 2, line 24)

Macbeth is awarded a promotion from the King before even returning from the battlefield, receiving the title of Thane of Cawdor. We learn about all of this through dialogue before the character Macbeth makes an appearance. It’s an auspicious beginning that seems to lead to leadership immortality. But wait, this is a tragedy, remember? Events are bound to turn dark. In Macbeth, events turn very dark.

We first meet Macbeth as he walks across a heath with his fellow warrior Banquo. They’re finished battling and are heading home. One can imagine their exhaustion as they trudge across the heath. On the way, they meet three witches, certainly a trio that would grab your attention. The witches each greet Macbeth in turn, using his present title, his new title (which he doesn’t know about yet), and the title of King:

            First witch: All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis!

            Second witch: All hail, Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!

            Third witch: All hail, Macbeth, that shall be King hereafter!

            (Act 1, Scene 3, lines 48–50)

All of this comes as a surprise to Macbeth and Banquo, who ask the witches to explain themselves. Instead, the witches vanish into the mist. A short time later, Macbeth and Banquo meet two other noblemen who confirm that Macbeth has just been named the Thane of Cawdor. This starts Macbeth wondering, “If part of what the witches said was true, is it all true? Will I really become King?” The idea of becoming King starts to work on Macbeth’s brain like a parasite, nibbling at the edge of every thought he has. It consumes him. The remainder of the play illustrates what happens when Macbeth allows ambition to ride roughshod over everything. Are there any leadership lessons here? You bet there are.

A leader possesses courage

Macbeth possesses tremendous physical courage. When he has a job to do, he simply does it, without much thought of the danger it might put him in. The first mention of Macbeth’s courage comes from the report of an injured man returning from the battle:

            For brave Macbeth—well he deserves that name—

            Disdaining Fortune, with his brandished steel,

            Which smoked with bloody execution,

            Like valor’s minion carved out his passage

            Till he faced the slave;

            Which nev’r shook hands, or bade farewell to him,

            Till he unseamed him from the nave to th’ chops,

            And fixed his head upon our battlements. (Act 1, Scene 2, lines 16–23)

According to this report, Macbeth personally leads the assault on the rebels. As a leader, he’s not content to stand in the rear and provide directions. No, he’s slashing and chopping at the enemy as if he were cutting through a field of sugar cane. A leader of this sort provides immediate inspiration to his or her followers. Most business leaders don’t have the opportunity to demonstrate leadership in such a dramatic manner, but they can still embody the spirit of Macbeth by personally leading whatever initiatives they direct. A modern leader can use a broom, a cash register, a forklift, or a computer terminal to demonstrate that they believe in their cause enough to get their hands dirty doing some of the work. This is the essence of leadership.

When Macbeth faces his foe, he cuts him down the middle, chops off his head, and turns the head into a landscape ornament. This is undeniably resolute, and for Macbeth is no more than a day’s work. His first words in the play are spoken to his fellow warrior Banquo as they head home:

            So foul and fair a day I have not seen. (Act 1, Scene 3, line 38)

That is all Macbeth has to say about it. Essentially, he’s saying, “It was a rough day that came out okay.” These are the words of a man who led the charge into battle. His own courage doesn’t surprise him, and he doesn’t feel the need to comment on it. Great leaders know their courage, and their actions require no remark. Too many leaders are in love with their own reputations. When a leader begins to think too highly of herself and her deeds, it puts blinders on her judgment. The course is to be brave, lead the charge, and let your actions speak for themselves.

Macbeth’s physical courage dwarfs another kind of courage—psychological courage. Macbeth allows others to suggest deeds that he knows are contrary to his principles, and he lacks the psychological courage to stand up to these suggestions. A leader must embody physical courage and psychological courage to be effective. Macbeth may be a hell hound on the battlefield, but when his wife says, “Jump!” he says, “How high?” That leads us to our second lesson:

A leader is never manipulated

Much is said about leaders who try to manipulate others. The manipulative leader, especially a business leader, is almost a cliché. Much less is said about leaders who allow themselves to be manipulated, although this happens with surprising frequency. Macbeth certainly allows it to happen to him. His wife, Lady Macbeth, reads a letter in which Macbeth describes his conversation with the witches and how one of their prophesies has already come true. Lady Macbeth reflects on Macbeth’s nature and how it will require some modification:

            Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be

            What thou art promised. Yet I do fear thy nature;

            It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness

            To catch the nearest way. (Act 1, Scene 5, lines 16–19)


Lady Macbeth is saying, ”Yes, you’ll end up being king in spite of yourself.” Lady Macbeth suspects there’s a “nearest way” that will lead to Macbeth becoming King. She is seeking the straight line—the shortest path between points. Macbeth is the Thane of Cawdor now, and she wants him to follow the easy path to King, which, of course, involves murder. Lady Macbeth doesn’t think he has it in him, though. Whether Macbeth is inclined to take the shortest route or not, Lady Macbeth has a plan:

            Hie thee hither,

            That I may pour my spirits in thine ear,

            And chastise with the valor of my tongue

            All that impedes thee from the golden round

            Which fate and metaphysical aid doth seem

            To have thee crowned withal. (Act 1, Scene 5, lines 26–31)

What could be more insidious than “Hie thee hither, that I may pour my spirits in thine ear”? Basically, Lady Macbeth is saying, “Get yourself over here so I can reprogram your mind.” She plans to manipulate him into taking whatever action is necessary to become King as soon as possible. Lady Macbeth knows that Macbeth has some contradictory characteristics (“ All that impedes thee”), and she sees these qualities as weaknesses to be overcome.

Macbeth lacks the psychological courage to rebuff his wife and lets himself be manipulated. When Lady Macbeth tells her husband, “…You shall put this great night’s business into my dispatch…,” there’s no doubting that she has in mind the murder of the King. Macbeth responds with a few stoic words:

                    Macbeth:                We will speak further.

            Lady Macbeth:                Only look up clear.

                                                To alter favor ever is to fear.

                                                Leave all the rest to me.

            (Act 1, Scene 5, lines 72–75)

Macbeth’s response is ambiguous. Is he saying he agrees with her plan, but that they will develop it further, or is he telling her to put a lid on it? Either way, there’s nothing ambiguous about Lady Macbeth. She tells her husband to put on his game face and leave the thinking to her. Macbeth has a few minutes alone to think about this. His decision is that Lady Macbeth’s plan is a bad idea:

            We will proceed no further in this business:

            He (Duncan) hath honored me of late, and I have bought

            Golden opinions from all sorts of people,

            Which would be worn now in their newest gloss,

            Not cast aside so soon. (Act 1, Scene 7, lines 31–34)

It seems that Macbeth is trying to take back his leadership role. He says Duncan has been pretty good to him lately and everybody seems to think Macbeth is a fine fellow. Why rock the boat? Macbeth wants to wait and see, which seems reasonable when a leader is faced with a proposition of the kind his wife is proposing. Lady Macbeth will have none of it, though. She insults Macbeth’s courage and manhood, aware he doesn’t have the psychological courage to withstand her barrage:

            Art thou afeared

            To be the same in thine own act and valor

            As thou art in desire? Wouldst thou have that

            Which thou esteem’st the ornament of life,

            And live a coward in thine own esteem…?

            (Act 1, Scene 7, lines 39–43)

Lady Macbeth is asking her husband if he’s afraid to go after what he really desires. She even pulls out the dreaded C-word (coward), which would have been a big blow to a war horse like Macbeth, and he can’t stand it:

            Prithee, peace!

            I dare do all that may become a man;

            Who dares do more is none. (Act 1, Scene 7, lines 45–47)

He’s saying, “Hush, woman, I’m as much of a man as anybody!” Lady Macbeth turns the heat up a notch. She even says she would rather smash the brains out of a nursing baby than have a coward like Macbeth for a husband:

            I have given suck, and know

            How tender ‘tis to love the baby that milks me:

            I would, while it was smiling in my face,

            Have plucked my nipple from its boneless gums,

            And dashed the brains out, had I sworn as you

            Have done to this. (Act 1, Scene 7, lines 54–58)

In the face of this withering attack, Macbeth collapses like a wet tent. He agrees to everything, ceding his leadership role to his wife:

            I am settled, and bend up

            Each corporal agent to this terrible feat.

            (Act 1, Scene 7, lines 79–80)

How is it that Macbeth is so easily manipulated? After all, the guy was a war hero with a great deal of physical strength, raw courage, and prowess with a sword, not the sort of person one would expect to be steered like a mule. Could it be that Macbeth didn’t have much confidence in his decision making? Once someone convinced him of what to do, he jumped to it with steely resolve. Macbeth didn’t feel comfortable making independent decisions, though. His biggest decision came at the prodding of his wife, and all subsequent decisions are in response to this flawed and manipulated decision. Once a leader has been manipulated in such a significant way, it’s nearly impossible to turn back, and the bad decision breeds more bad decisions. Even Macbeth understands that he’s on a hellish road with no exit:

            I am in blood

            Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more,

            Returning were as tedious as go o’er. (Act 3, Scene 4, lines 137–139)

A leader must be painfully honest with himself about his strengths and weaknesses. If Macbeth lacked the analytical skill and judgment for good decision making, that’s something he should have addressed. Relying on bad advice was no substitute. In the era of Macbeth, leaders were assumed to arrive fully formed for their roles. Now we realize a leader is never fully formed and is always a work in progress. One strength leads to another weakness, and true balance is very rare. Leaders must be attuned to their weaknesses so manipulation becomes harder to accomplish. Humility and adherence to principles can help.

A leader remains true to his principles

Macbeth begins the play with his principles—valor and honor—intact, and he acts on these themes. Macbeth is vicious on the battlefield, and his ruthlessness is in the service of valor and honor. All in all, he’s a principled leader.

The witches plant a thought in Macbeth’s head that causes his grip on these principles to loosen. They present him with a compelling notion—he will become king. The witches explain nothing and only throw the promise out in front of him. Macbeth begins to think he must do something to fulfill the witches’ prophesy, though the idea of murder disturbs him:

            …Why do I yield to that suggestion

Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair

And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,

Against the use of nature? Present fears

Are less than horrible imaginings.

My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,

Shakes so my single state of mind that function

Is smothered in surmise, and nothing is

But what is not. (Act 1, Scene 3, lines 134–142)

Shortly thereafter, the King’s son, Malcolm, is pronounced the Prince of Cumberland. This appointment pricks at Macbeth, since it seems to block his path to King. His principles weaken and ambition takes hold of his brain. The idea of taking action begins to seem necessary, even though Macbeth understands the action is contrary to his principles:

The Prince of Cumberland! That is a step

On which I must fall down, or else o’erleap,

For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires;

Let not see my black and deep desires:

The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be

Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.

(Act 1, Scene 4, lines 48–53)

Lady Macbeth weakens him further, completing the divorce of his principles from his psyche. Macbeth has one last blast of principled thought before giving up the ghost:

            First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,

            Strong both against the deed; then, as his host,

            Who should against his murderer shut the door,

            Not bear the knife myself. Besides, this Duncan

            Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been

            So clear in his great office, that his virtues

            Will plead like angels trumpet-tongued against

            The deep damnation of his taking-off…

            (Act 1, Scene 7, lines 13–20)

An effective leader must always embrace a core set of principles—unshakable values the leader truly believes in and which inform all decision making. The principles act as the foundation for everything the leader does. The leader may not call attention to these principles, but her actions and decisions are always consistent with them. Macbeth abandons his principles when faced with temptation and manipulation. Did he even have any principles to begin with? Yes, it’s clear that he did, but he allowed them to fall by the wayside. The abandonment of his principles causes the demise of him and many of those around him. When a leader abandons his principles, the results are often fatal. Don’t imagine that this doesn’t apply to business leaders. The death analogy can be translated to the demise of an organization. Consider the crash of Enron and the greed that motivated the company’s executives; their actions aren’t so dissimilar from those of Macbeth.

It’s often helpful for a leader to document his principles in some manner. This may take the form of a mission statement, vision statement, charter, or some other “motherhood” statement. These types of documents are often discredited as cruel jokes on the organizations for which they’re written. They don’t have to be. If the document reflects the underlying principles of its leaders and serves to keep everybody focused on what the leaders really believe in, then it serves a critical purpose. It all comes down to whether the leader’s actions and decisions reflect the documented principles. Clarifying the principles in writing, then communicating them to everyone, is the first step.

As Chancellor of Germany during the 1930s and 1940s, Adolf Hitler remained steadfastly aligned to his principles. Unfortunately, his principles included global conquest and the annihilation of entire cultural groups. We may admire Macbeth’s principles when we first meet him. Then he allows them to dissolve into the mists of the Scottish countryside. Most leaders can claim that they have ethical and constructive principles. Whether they uphold their principles on a continual basis is another matter.

A leader maintains a sense of humility

Humility is an essential attribute for a leader. No one is infallible, and other people may have better ideas. Humility allows a leader to reach out and utilize all the accessible resources, namely the other people in the organization. A lack of humility leads to huge blind spots in anyone’s vision and causes us to ignore events that call our decision making into question.

Macbeth gradually drains himself of all humility. A humble leader would have had an awareness of his weaknesses and would take action to address them. Macbeth’s weakness is an inability to make independent decisions, probably resulting from a lack of judgment and weak analytical skills. He seems to have no recognition of this, though. This lack of recognition leads Macbeth to accept advice and information from his wife and the three witches without critical analysis.

Over time, Macbeth’s lack of humility blossoms into arrogance as a result of two pieces of information that the witches provide him:

  • Macbeth won’t be vanquished until Birnam Wood transports itself to Macbeth’s castle.
  • No man born of a woman can harm Macbeth.

Macbeth believes he’s invincible. Nothing can harm him, because the two conditions cited by the witches appear to be impossible. Macbeth’s lack of humility blinds him even when one of the conditions seems to be occurring.

Messenger:             As I did stand watch upon the hill,

                        I looked toward Birnam, and non, methought,

                        The wood began to move.

Macbeth:            Liar and slave! (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 33–35)

Here Macbeth is faced with an indication that he may not be invincible, after all. His angry reaction is typical from a leader lacking humility. How dare anybody utter the unvarnished truth! Macbeth goes on to threaten the truth teller with torture and death. This exposes a paradox of the unhumble leader: Followers become less and less inclined to challenge the leader’s vision—no matter how flawed—which further divorces the leader from reality. In this kind of environment, all but the most zealous followers defect from the cause. Macbeth faces this exact situation as his followers flee his castle for less tyrannical surroundings.

A leader’s lack of humility creates a slippery slope, part of a continuum that can result in the leader’s destruction:

  • Lack of humility: The leader believes he can do no wrong. Dissent is discouraged. Some followers may still attempt to express their opinions, but it gets more and more difficult.
  • Arrogance: The leader reacts with scorn and anger at anybody challenging his views. Followers know better than to present alternate points of view.
  • Delusion: The leader believes that he’s invincible. Evidence to the contrary is ignored or rejected. 
  • Destruction: Because the leader is blind to reality, he isn’t even aware of his empire crumbling around him. The few remaining followers aren’t willing to tell the truth.

This is exactly the path that Macbeth takes. Finally, he faces death from a man who was delivered by Cesarean section, which was fulfills the witches’ prophesy that only a man not born of a woman can harm him.

The world of Macbeth serves as a warning to us all. If your leaders don’t have true courage—physical and psychological—if they don’t uphold their principles, if they fold under pressure, and, ultimately, if they believe that they’re infallible, life will become unbearable. Near the end of the play, Macbeth sighs with weariness at the life he has created. It’s a brief flicker of reality that comes too late for him to act upon:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury

Signifying nothing. (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 24–28)

Macbeth is a work that all leaders would benefit from studying and remembering, both as a warning and a reminder to create a world worth living in.


About The Author

Craig Cochran’s picture

Craig Cochran

Craig Cochran is a project manager with Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute. Cochran is the author of The Seven Lessons: Management Tools for Success; Problem Solving in Plain English; ISO 9001 in Plain English; Customer Satisfaction: Tools, Techniques, and Formulas for Success; The Continual Improvement Process: From Strategy to the Bottom Line; and Becoming a Customer-Focused Organization, all available from Paton Professional. His most recent book is ISO 9001:2015 in Plain English, also available from Paton Professional.