In the Summer of 2011, I was fortunate enough to work with my brother and the cast of the RSC’s production of Measure for Measure about power and politics. This is the programme note I wrote for them.
A tricky play. Confusing in genre, with protagonists who refuse to behave. But if you understand anything about modern leadership theory, the actions of the Duke and of Angelo suddenly become much clearer. The Duke, for instance, is textbook. In politics they call it ‘deniability’. Your company – or your country – has gone to pot. You need to act tough, but either you are a coward or you just don’t want to tarnish your personal brand as an all-round nice guy. The analysts in the City are used to this classic Machiavellian manoeuvre. Heard any of these? ‘Board appoints McKinsey to review strategy’, or ‘Youngbuck Goldenboy recalled from Asia to turn around failing UK trading arm’, or any of the recent efforts to look ‘tough on crime’ by importing New Yorkers with formidable track records on reducing knife crime and gang warfare. Once the mess has been cleared up, you can waltz back in, neutralise whichever pretender you chose as your strong man, and take all the credit. Maybe Vienna remains seedy, and Angelo, while disgraced, is still alive, but the bawds have had a shock, and will think twice before plying their trade so shamelessly in future. And the Duke? Vienna is delighted to see him return, his brand enhanced by his absence, and his saintliness confirmed by his proposed marriage to an almost-nun. A finale that would rejoice the heart of Max Clifford. Vienna’s share price would go up.
But what is Angelo’s story? Begging Shakespeare’s pardon, let me draw a parallel with the modern senior executive. Ashridge Business School has been training leaders since the 1950s, and has collected a lot of data about them. Those of you who have ‘been on a course’ may well have undertaken psychological profiling as part of it, and this data tells us that senior executives are indeed a breed apart. For instance, statistics on the general population show that Joe Average will tend to make decisions subjectively, taking into account emotional and personal factors as well as rational ones. 80% of senior executives, however, tend to prioritise the rational, discounting non-rational factors as ‘noise.’ The stereotype of ‘unfeeling’ management ignoring the plight of the workers suddenly starts to make sense, as does tabloid indignation about one-size-fits-all bureaucracy. And the problem with over-using one muscle is that its opposite number atrophies, and in this case the rational subdues the emotional. Not for nothing does the modern executive need to be taught ’emotional intelligence’ through statistics and neuroscience, lest the phenomenon be discounted as touchy-feely rubbish. So, we have a situation where senior people – of both genders – tend not exactly to be in touch with their ‘feminine’ sides, and under pressure this suppressed part of the psyche tends to blurt out. But why is it so common for senior male leaders throughout history and across the professions to be caught out by a bit of skirt? I think there are two key reasons. The first is that this atrophied emotional muscle, rusty in application, is likely to be deployed ineffectually, a bit like your arthritic granny trying to disco-dance. It looks both ungainly and unseemly, and is severely career-limiting if made public. So, maybe the untried Angelo is overcome with an unfamiliar urge, but why could he not master it? This leads me to the second reason, which concerns male physiology.
Until recently, we all thought you could describe the human reaction to stress as ‘fight or flight.’ That was until some enterprising ladies noticed that all of the research on stress had been carried out on male specimens – originally rats – because ‘the moon’ rendered women unreliable test subjects. Remedying this, it became clear that ‘fight or flight’ as a response to stress is predicated on the presence of testosterone. Where oxytocin is involved, a ‘tend and befriend’ response instead triggers the cartoon-style female rush for the phone. Fight or flight is fundamentally about zero sum games: I need to prevail in order to survive, which means that my adversary must perish or disappear. Poor Angelo. He is promoted over the head of Escalus, who could seemingly run Vienna with his hands tied behind his back, and has to make life-or-death decisions right from day 1. It must be pretty stressful, learning how to lead in public, as those of our leaders haunted by the 24 hour news cycle would attest. So Angelo is fizzing with adrenalin, and Isabella walks in. One of the only people brave enough to ‘speak truth to power’ she dazzles him in the way that so many great men have met their match, when a feisty broad has dared to defy convention and eschew deference. Overwhelmed by a visceral response to her that he does not quite understand, and supremely ruled by his logical brain, he must find a way to make this zero out. And of course there is a way. The perfect and beautiful logic of atonement – Isabella could rub out her brother’s sin by reversing it through Angelo. Warped logic, admittedly, but when your brain is desperately casting about for something to make sense of an acute physical shock, this solution is blindingly obvious, and makes everything work out. The brain under pressure narrows its gaze to the here and now, and literally stops seeing future consequences in order to prioritise immediate survival.
Greer might well add something about penetration and release at this point, as might Freud and Jung, as a way of explaining Angelo’s driving need to fuse with his perfect match. Either this is to subdue Isabella and earth all this adrenaline, or it is about becoming more completely whole, depending on how cynical you are feeling. And this almost explains Angelo’s behaviour. He is possibly emotionally and sexually retarded. A virgin, even. He is stressed out of his tree. His great brain tries to make sense of the physical effect Isabella has on him, and comes up with the seemingly perfect solution, which sets off a Macbeth-style chain of tragic events. But why is he powerless to stop himself falling into this abyss? One last piece of leadership theory, about will-power. The grown-up part of our brain which helps to regulate behaviour by overcoming impulses is rather delightfully called the Executive Function. It acts a bit like a battery, and your ‘store’ of it is depleted with every action you take that is ‘effortful’: forbearing when your spouse interrupts you; smiling at someone annoying in a shop; avoiding a pudding at lunchtime. In leadership terms, this function is responsible for abstract thinking, decision-making and interpersonal behaviour. The more of these activities that you do, the more you use up your mental reserves, until you have to recharge your batteries through sleep. So Angelo is having to make great efforts of will in a new, senior and public role. His brain is trying to give his impulses free rein, and he probably had a sleepless night worrying about all of this. The amount of effort that would be required for him to overcome his body’s automatic response to Isabella would be Herculean, and his brain, in a state of neurological arousal, is too busy trying to keep him safe to waste valuable resources on sophisticated moral reasoning. The only thing Shakespeare gets wrong is that with all of this going on there would be no way Angelo could express himself so very beautifully.