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Bard Blog: Confronting Confusion and Crises

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With the wallowing economy, business firms face a tough environment. Uncertainties abound, with vastly differing economic forecasts (none too good) and a political outlook that's just as murky. All which brings to mind that classic comment in Macbeth: "Confusion hath made its masterpiece."

What's a business exec to do in this "confusion masterpiece"? Taking the wrong steps can be as catastrophic to a business as it is to Shakespeare's kingdoms, as disastrous to today's executives as to the Bard's royals.

Claudius, the villain in Hamlet, is one of Shakespeare's most adept leaders in such confusion. But with one slight qualification -- that it's Claudius himself who triggers this chain reaction of confusion.

He provokes the kingdom's crises by poisoning his brother, which, as he readily admits, has "the primal eldest curse upon it." And not just that.

It's worse, worse than even Cain's sin, as Claudius is guilty of both fratricide and regicide. Moreover, he marries his victim's widow, Queen Gertrude, thus making his throne as illegitimate as his marriage. Truly a dreadful example of succession planning.

While not exonerating Claudius' sins -- which he does not exonerate, either -- today's executives can learn from his seven steps in managing through confusion, the crisis in his realm.

Claudius' seven steps of crisis management come after his step-son (and nephew) Hamlet, in total confusion, mistakenly slays Polonius. He was hoping it was the King behind the curtain (which would have precluded Claudius from showing his moxie as a crisis manager).

Anyway, the model of Claudius teaches us:

1. Show concern for those most affected. Claudius, upon hearing of Hamlet's deed, consoles his wife (and Hamlet's mother), Gertrude, sighing "O heavy deed!" He later empathizes with Polonius' family, as we shall see.

2. Coolly evaluate the situation. Claudius immediately grasps the big picture that Hamlet was really trying to kill him, the King, when Claudius comments to Gertrude, "It had been so with us, had we been there." He braces himself by acknowledging that the crisis will demand "all our majesty and skill" to handle.

3. Take prompt and dramatic action. Claudius acts decisively by first explaining to Gertrude that Hamlet's "liberty is full of threats to all -- to you yourself, to us, to every one" and then planning to dispatch Hamlet to England -- on one way passage -- and fast. "The sun no sooner shall the mountains touch but we will ship him hence." This is the 16th century equivalent of a field office assignment.

4. Heed the public reaction. Having addressed his main constituency, Claudius next thinks about public relations. Having an instinctive grasp of how the public will react is even more important in our world of instant global communications than in Claudius' Denmark. So while he considers Hamlet quite dangerous, "yet must not we put the strong law on" him since "he's loved of the distracted multitude."

5. Seek outside consultation. "Come, Gertrude," Claudius says. "We'll call up our wisest friends and let them know both what we mean to do and what's untimely done." They can give advice and help plug damaging rumors. Those "wisest friends" today would make a crisis management "red team."

6. Keep abreast of changing circumstances and information. While crises are masterpieces of confusion -- wherein information is at best incomplete and at worst wrong -- it is still essential to gather as much as possible. When Polonius' son Laertes learns of his father's murder, he returns to Elsinore leading a (shareholders') rebellion. Claudius informs his wife of this new twist to the crisis: "Her brother is in secret come from France."

While Laertes may have tried to return "in secret," the King's adept intelligence-gathering network picked up his whereabouts as fast as an arbitrager gone short.

7. Show courage and go to the scene of the crisis. The outraged Laertes bursts into Elsinore leading a mob shouting, "Choose we! Laertes shall be king!" Claudius confronts them directly, and hears Laertes demand, "O thou vile king, give me my father!"
A shrewd crisis manager, Claudius attempts to stop the fighting and start the talking. "What is the cause, Laertes, that thy rebellion looks so giantlike?" he asks. When Laertes repeats, "Where is my father?" Claudius gets the facts out quickly and succinctly, as a crisis manager must: "Dead," he replies. He then makes his main point, showing in a forthright manner that he cares: "I am guiltless of your father's death, and am most sensibly in grief for it."
Nonetheless, the crisis deepens -- as crises are apt to do -- when Laertes' sister Ophelia enters the room, insane. Claudius again shows empathy. "I must commune with your grief, or you deny me right."

Such display of human concern is the first half of the essential message from a top leader amidst a crisis. The other half -- "And I'm doing something about it right now" -- comes in Claudius' case when he and Laertes plan to engage Hamlet in a duel of swords.

Claudius offers Laertes one crisis management principle he has already practiced, namely to seek outside counsel. "Go but apart. Make choice of whom your wisest friends you will, and they shall hear and judge."

Unfortunately, most of us are not as naturally adept at crisis management as Claudius, although thankfully almost everyone is more adept at crisis avoidance. Nonetheless, today's executives must expect crises and prepare for them. "The readiness is all," says Hamlet.

To prepare for a crisis, prudent executives draw up: (1) a "worry list" of five or at most ten events that can most easily and gravely land the business in extremis, (2) a brief summary of the consequences of each such occurrence, (3) the cost of prevention, and (4) the likelihood of realization.

Such anticipated events can often be managed before the problem balloons into a full-blown crisis. As Clarence says in Henry VI, Part III, "A little fire is quickly trodden out which, being suffered, rivers cannot quench."