What Does Verdi’s Otello Tell Us About Leadership?

Verdi’s sensational opera is based on Shakespeare’s play Othello. And we all know the story of Othello even if we have never seen the play.  Othello, the Moor of Venice, marries the beautiful Desdemona and ends up fighting, on behalf of the government of Venice, in the far from civilised island of Cyprus.  There his Ensign Iago manages to poison Othello’s mind and convince him that his new wife is being unfaithful with Othello’s officer Cassio. In grief, in rage, in despair Othello murders his wife and then discovers Iago’s calumny just before he takes his own life.

It is a classic story about the fall of a great leader. He is suddenly placed outside his normal environment where new information is hitting him at a rate that he simply cannot cope with and he makes one bad decision after another.  Othello is one of Shakespeare’s great tragic heroes.

 Verdi takes this story and compresses into four short acts.  The pace of Otello’s undoing is swift and furious. The shifts in Otello’s fortune are even more dramatic and emotional.  In fact the entire collapse of Otello is mirrored in the trajectory of the great, first act.  The seeds of Otello’s fall offer us some valuable insight into leadership.  The fact, quite simply put, is that Otello is an astonishingly naive and bad leader.  His position was redeemable all the way through the opera, almost to the very end, but his poor decisions and shockingly naive leadership ensure his fate. The dramatic tension of the opera is in the continuing tension between how wonderful things might have been, and how increasingly awful they are. And the music exploits this tension vividly and dramatically. The hauntingly beautiful duet at the end of act one between Otello and Desdemona has double the dramatic power because you are aware of the encircling chaos.

Rather like a contemporary CEO, Otello rises in a blaze of glory, gets the headlines for his charisma and brilliance and is then fired in disgrace eighteen months later. Only Otello’s trajectory takes place over a few short days!

So what are his most egregious leadership errors?  Errors, by the way, we could all make. Here are my top ten:

1. Smart trust is the only trust to go for. Otello trusts the wrong person. In a display of, what Stephen Covey, calls ‘blind trust’ he puts his faith in Iago and refuses to believe anything which appears to contradict that world view. Trust always needs validation.

2. Fast decisions are not always best decisions. Otello makes hasty and ill-judged decisions that increasingly are about the world as he wants to see it, and further and further away from the world as it is.

3. Disappointment is more effective than anger. Otello gets angry very quickly and that frightens people around him and blinds his judgement.  If he had shown disappointment rather than anger it would have been much more powerful and much more controllable than anger.  He arrives in Cyprus in the middle of a huge storm and then when the weather calms down he creates his own chaotic tempest. He has his personal life and viewpoint impinge on the good running of the island which he is supposed to be in charge of.

4. If you promote someone, they are on your side almost by definition. It is folly to appoint and then ignore that person and his or her advice. Stay close to the team.

5. Beware the vitriol of the one you overlooked when you built your leadership team.  They have no vested interest in your success.

6. If you make decisions, they are rarely catastrophic.  But an unwillingness to review those decisions sometimes is. Otello’s misjudgments in the first act, determine the tragic final outcome because he refuses to contemplate that he might be wrong.

7. Validate the evidence.  What you want, and what the data is pointing to, can be different. Just spend time looking closely and exploring other possible interpretations. Then get the conclusion validated. Talk about it, listen to views, be prepared to shift focus.

8. Worry a lot when the environment changes. What worked smoothly in Venice is a catastrophe in Cyprus. A key leadership competence is adjusting to that new environment and, I guess, knowing when it is a new environment. Pursuing old models rarely leads to success.

9. Don’t exaggerate your own importance and don’t assume your own invulnerability. Organisations are  made up of people.  Someone knows the answer and that is not always the person at the top. Have your processes for testing the water, and seeing what is actually going on.  Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, spends a morning a year on the help desk listening to the complaints of customers. He gets a clear understanding of how things go wrong and what Amazon can do, not just put that right for that one person, but for everyone.

10. Total commitment, passion and belief do not conquer all:  remember the external environment!  However talented you are. You work in context, and if you fail to understand that context you will end up in big trouble.

The summary is simple, and the key word is resilience.  Resilience in terms of the external environment, but also resilience in terms of personality.  Otello has so much ego and so little resilience, he can be turned easily.  And he has so little understanding of the nature of that external environment that Iago is able to twist reality and used Othello’s ignorance against him. That deadly combination clouds his perception and therefore his judgement to the point where, in spite of his obvious greatness, he loses everything.

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