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Learning from King Lear

Updated: Nov 25, 2021

Can familiarity with the plays of William Shakespeare make you a better local authority property asset manager? I believe it can. At least certain plays.

In his tragedies, many of Shakespeare’s central characters suffer a central flaw. In the creation and criticism of fictional works, a character flaw is an imperfection of some kind. This could be a limitation, personality disorder, vice, phobia, prejudice, or bias. Apart from this flaw the character might otherwise seem to be perfectly functional.

The flaw can be a problem that directly affects the character's decisions or capabilities. Alternatively, it can be a simple foible or personality defect, which affects the character's motives or social interactions.

The flaw in Othello is his vulnerability to jealousy and his tendency to believe Iago, who is manipulating him into believing his wife is unfaithful. As a result of this flaw Othello loses a loyal friend, murders his wife, and is driven insane before eventually committing suicide.

In King Lear – my favourite of the Shakespeare’s tragedies – Lear’s flaws are arrogance and misjudgements. Through misjudgement he decides to stand down and divide his kingdom to his three daughters. To earn their share, he asks each of them in turn to articulate how much they love him. That is his arrogance.

In the first scene of the play the first two daughters (Goneril and Regan) heap love and praise on him. He then turns to his youngest daughter Cordeila expecting the highest of praise. Her response is simple. Avoiding the hyperbole and empty praise of her two evil sisters, she simply replies “I love your majesty according to my bond and nothing less”.

Lear’s arrogance creates misjudgement. Out of anger he splits his kingdom between the two evil sisters, and banishes Cordeila, which sets running a whole series of tragic events.

You are now I am sure wondering what on earth this fictional tale of a tragic Shakespearian king has to do with local authority property asset management.

It is to do with arrogance and ignorance.

As an asset manager you will encounter arrogance. You might not recognise it as that. You might otherwise call this organisational propaganda. The political nature of local government organisations means that it is in the interests of the political administration to communicate everything in a positive light. After all, positive outcomes leads to votes, which leads to re-election. Where there is a story to be told about a property project or initiative, you will of course put as positive a spin on it as possible. If you don’t you are unlikely to keep your job, right?

There is a pragmatism to being an asset manager, which understands the political context and gives decision makers what they want. That is only to be expected. The trick with being an asset manager is the ability to separate the propaganda from the facts. To separate the spin from the reality.

By all means allow the political leadership to communicate with spin. But if you are to be an effective asset manager – not just in the eyes of your organisational leadership, but in your own eyes – you have to remain in touch with reality.

This brings me on to the second potential Shakespearian character flaw you need to avoid, which is ignorance. Not your ignorance, but the ignorance of those around you, most especially your decision makers. Not only must you separate spin from reality in your mind, you must do everything to counter ignorance of the reality by those decision makers. It is your job to make sure when your decision makers make decisions or take actions, they do so in full knowledge of the reality. By all means allow them to spin what they want to spin, but you must shine your torch of truth into the dark recesses of ignorance.

If you fail to do this two things could happen. Firstly, bad decisions will get taken. Secondly, if bad decisions result in later inquests, the person to blame for not shining light on the truth will be you, and not your decision makers. In part then this has something to do with self-preservation. But that should not be your main motive. Your main motive should be simply doing the right thing, to avoid bad decisions in the first place.

I am reminded of a scene in the 1995 film Clear and Present Danger, starring Harrison Ford as CIA analyst Jack Ryan.

Having uncovered illicit funding to counter drugs activity in South America, coming out of the President’s office, Ryan is given some advice by his boss Admiral Greer: “You took an oath, if you recall, when you first came to work for me. And I don't mean to the National Security Advisor of the United States, I mean to his boss... and I don't mean the President. You gave your word to his boss: you gave your word to the people of the United States. Your word is who you are”.

I accept that may sound a bit grand, and as a local authority asset manager you might struggle to appreciate the comparison. I accept the scale is completely different. But have a think for one moment about who you owe a duty to the most. Is it to the elected decision makers or is it to the local residents and businesses of your area?

Decisions made around your property portfolio will have long lasting effects. Such effects are likely to outlast the period of office of many elected officials. The impact of decisions on financial budgets, portfolio affordability and the quality of services could last many decades. It will impact too on your ability to ensure an efficient and effective property estate, and the ability of your successors to do so too.

You can do the right thing today, by countering arrogance and ignorance wherever you encounter it. You can keep shining that torch of yours, to ensure transparency of the facts and reality in all property related decision making. You may find decision makers welcome your candour.

I remember once being asked to amend one of my Cabinet reports because “Members won’t want to be told that”. My response was “Members not wanting to see this information, is the very reason they should see it”. I am pleased to say my stance worked, and my report was not watered down in the way my manager wanted it.

I don’t recount that story in any way to boast about my ability to be stubborn – although stubborn I can be. The point of the story is to let you know that members in that case made a point of recording that they were pleased to see the information provided. They were glad to be told the raw and painful truth. The report made them uncomfortable, but they knew they needed to be uncomfortable. They knew they were better off for it, and made better decisions because of it.

We had cut through any potential for arrogance and ignorance. I urge you to use your office to do the same.

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