June 18, 2014

Learning Succession Planning from Shakespeare


Shakespeare's King Lear is a story of the pitfalls of poor succession planning. Although King Lear was trying to pass the kingdom of England, instead of a business, to his three daughters, the issues are similar.

In the beginning of the play, King Lear announces his intention to etire:

"Meanwhile we shall express our darker purpose… 'tis our fast

intent to shake all cares and business from our age;

Conferring them on younger strengths, while we undburthen'd

crawl toward death."

The King calls his children together to announce the plan to avoid future fighting among them:

"We have this will to publish

Our daughters' several dowers, that future strife

May be prevented now."

But King Lear does not execute his plan very well. He chooses his successors on their ability to flatter him with professed love, not on merit or leadership qualities. Listen to Goneril, his oldest:

"Sir I love you more then words can wield the matter;

Dearer then eyesight space and liberty;

Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare…

Beyond all manner of so much I love you"

This works and she receives one third of the kingdom. Regan, the next oldest, declares herself "an enemy to all other joys," save her love for the King and is given one third of the kingdom. Cordelia, the youngest, does not pander to the King with speeches of love and is disinherited, and thus Goneril and Regan, and their dukes, each end up with half the kingdom.

As the play demonstrates, the King's method of choosing his successors was badly flawed. He was unable to evaluate his children objectively and rejected the wise council of his advisors. The Earl of Kent is banished from the kingdom, upon penalty of death, when he tries to persuade the King that he is making a grave mistake by disinheriting Cordelia. (Family business lawyers and consultants should pay close attention to Kent's role in the play.)

The King made another mistake by failing to plan for his retirement. After giving away the kingdom, he had to rely on his two daughters for food and shelter (i.e. a leg of mutton and a castle to live in). This was a problem because the King's companions were 100 rowdy knights. Both Goneril and Regan demanded that the King send away his knights. The King became outraged at this perceived betrayal and vented his anger:

"No you unnatural hags, I will have such revenges on you both,

That all the world shall — I will do such things — What they are, yet

I know not; but they shall be the terrors of the earth."

The strain of this filial betrayal is so great that the King goes mad in a howling storm.

The succession plan goes awry in other respects. The King of France (who has taken Cordelia as his queen) attempts a takeover of England. In addition, a rivalry between the sisters arises because both want to marry Edmond, bastard son of Gloucester and (I believe) want to control the whole kingdom. The sibling partnership of Goneril and Regan fails when Goneril poisons Regan and then kills herself with a knife. The play ends with both Cordelia, who Edmond orders to be killed, and the King, who is unable to bear the loss, dying.

While the some of the actions of English royalty in a Shakespeare play may seem extreme when compared to the actions of family members working in a family business today, take heed, there are important lessons that can be learned.

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