in: Career & Wealth, Leadership, Podcast

• Last updated: March 9, 2024

Podcast #964: Shakespeare on How Leaders Rise, Rule, and Fall

When people think of the plays of Shakespeare, they tend to think of his comedies and tragedies that spotlight interpersonal dynamics like love and jealousy, pretense and reality. But my guest would say that many of Shakespeare’s plays, especially his sometimes overlooked histories, are also unmatchable in revealing the dynamics of power.

Eliot Cohen is a military historian, political scientist, professor of international studies, and former State Department counselor, as well as the author of The Hollow Crown: Shakespeare on How Leaders Rise, Rule, and Fall. Today on the show, Eliot takes us through what Shakespeare’s plays can teach us about navigating the three-part arc of power: acquiring power, exercising power, and losing power. Along the way, we discuss how these lessons in leadership played out in the lives of real-life historical figures as well.

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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. When people think of the plays of Shakespeare, they tend to think of as comedies and tragedies that spotlight interpersonal dynamics like love and jealousy, pretense in reality. But my guests would say that many of Shakespeare’s plays, especially as sometimes overlooked histories, are also unmatchable in revealing the dynamics of power. Eliot Cohen is a military historian, political scientist, professor of international studies and former state department counselor, as well as the author of The Hollow Crown, Shakespeare and How Leaders Rise Rule and Fall. Today on the show, Eliot takes us through what Shakespeare’s plays can teach us about navigating the three part arc of power, acquiring power, exercising power, and losing power. Along the way, we discuss how these lessons in leadership played out in the lives of real life historical figures as well. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at

All right, Eliot Cohen, welcome to the show.

Eliot Cohen: It’s, good to be with you Brett. Thanks for having me.

Brett McKay: So you got a new book out called The Hollow Crown Shakespeare on how leaders Rise, rule and Fall. Tell us about your background and how did your background lead you to writing a book about what Shakespeare can teach us about power?

Eliot Cohen: So it’s a little bit unusual. I’m not a literature professor or anything like that. I’ve spent a career in the university world, but also in government. I’m mainly a military historian. Somebody who writes a lot about national security policy, but I’ve also served in government, in the defense department during the George H. W. Bush administration, and then in the Department of State in the George W. Bush administration as the counselor. So I was the senior advisor to Secretary Rice and to the rest of the department. And I’ve done various things in the intelligence community as well. So I’m coming at it from a very different sort of perspective. And the reason why I decided to write the book is I’d always liked Shakespeare, but the moment that it occurred to me that there was something to do with this was going to see a play of Shakespeare’s that’s relatively rarely put on Henry VIII and in Henry VII, one of the things that happens is the king’s chancellor, Cardinal Woolsey, who’s been very powerful and quite arrogant, is suddenly deposed.

And if you and your listeners will, bear with me, I’ll, just read what he says in a soliloquy, a speech to the audience as, after he learns out that he’s suddenly been stripped of all his titles. He says, farewell, a long farewell to all my greatness. This is the state of man. Today he puts forth the tender leaves of hopes, tomorrow blossoms and bears his blushing, honors thick upon him. The third day comes a frost, a killing frost. And when he thinks good, easy man, full, surely his greatness is ripening, nips his root, and then he falls as I do. I have ventured like little wanton boys that swim on bladders this many summers in a sea of glory, but far beyond my depth, my high blown pride at length broke under me and now has left me weary and old with service to the mercy of a root stream that must forever hide me.

And it was, very good performance. And I looked at that speech and I thought to myself, I know that guy. As somebody who’s been in Washington now for over a generation, for over 35 years, I’ve seen people who’ve been swimming on a sea of glory. And then all of a sudden their pride burst beneath them and they sing. So it prompted me to begin talking with some of my students at Johns Hopkins, who are all graduate students and are going off to careers in government and things like that about some Shakespearean speeches. And that turned into a course. And that made me in turn realize that there was a different kind of book about Shakespeare to be written, one that really talks about what he has to tell us about leadership.

Brett McKay: What I love about this book is you show how this idea of Shakespeare exploring power goes beyond just politics. It’s applicable to business. I’m sure there’s lots of executives who can be like that guy giving the soliloquy like, I was riding high, and then suddenly, the wheel of fortune has turned and now I’m out of a job. Or it could be like a young person who seems like they’ve got everything going for them, and then suddenly their fortune shift. And what do you do with that? How do you deal with that?

Eliot Cohen: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. I’ll tell you another thing that motivated me to write the book was I, for a number of years I was the dean of my division of Johns Hopkins, the School of Advanced International Studies. And so much of that was a applicable of, what’s in Shakespeare was applicable to my own experience. And one of the things that Shakespeare has to teach us is thinking about human organizations as courts. And if you think about it, you don’t have to have princes and kings and queens, but most organizations are pretty hierarchical. And at the top there is a king or a queen. There may be a crown prince, who’s the designated successor. There’s certainly a whole bunch of courtiers out there. There’s often a court gesture or two. And what Shakespeare really knew and understood very, very well was the politics of courts. And for sure, when I was a dean, I had my own kind of, mini court president of the university. They had a much bigger court and it affected human relationships. So it’s true of business, it’s true of universities, it’s true of nonprofits. There are things that go well beyond people in robes who are wearing crowns on their head.

Brett McKay: Yeah. And I love that idea that seeing the world through the world of the court, right, there’s courts everywhere. It’s not just in a king. It can happen in a corporation, it can happen in a nonprofit, it can even happen in a restaurant. And so what I love about this book is you highlight, how we gain influence, what are the problems of managing our influence and what happens whenever our influence starts to wane. And you also highlight, there’s a lot of famous leaders from world history who studied Shakespeare to get insights about how to gain power, how to wield it, and how to manage with people trying to overthrow you. What were some of these leaders that you found?

Eliot Cohen: So I think the one who’s, would be most interesting to an American audience, of course, would be Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln adored Shakespeare. He believed it was better to read it than see it, although he actually did attend a number of plays. One of the things I talk about in the book is he invited a very famous actor who is actually the, among other things the brother of the assassin, who eventually killed him to kind of quiz him about one of his performances. But the thing that’s chilling, I think, is he particularly liked the play Macbeth. And, if I could read just another short excerpt.

Brett McKay: That’d be great.

Eliot Cohen: He’s coming back from a visit to Richmond after the fall of Richmond to the army of the Potomac. And he’s on a steamer and he is coming back to Washington. And he is sort of in a reflective mood. And he of course has his staff around him and some of his subordinates. And he says, have you read Macbeth? Macbeth is wonderful. And he recites from memory one of his favorite passages. This is after the King Duncan has been killed by Macbeth, and it’s actually Macbeth himself saying this, “Better be with the dead, whom we to gain our peace, have sent to peace than on the torture of the mind to lie in restless ecstasy.” Duncan is in his grave after life’s fitful fever, he sleeps well. Treason has done his worst nor steel, nor poison, malice, domestic, foreign levy, nothing can touch him further.

Now, the thing that’s chilling about that of course, is that only five days later, treason did its worst, and Lincoln was assassinated. It’s a very interesting passage ’cause I think it reveals some of the dark side of Lincoln or the sort of more melancholy side. It’s, interesting that line that better be with the dead whom we to gain our peace, have sent to peace. And I suspect that he spent time thinking about the tremendous human cost of the Civil War. Another great Shakespearean was Winston Churchill. It’s interesting, there’s a lot of his letters which have spontaneous quotes sometimes from rather obscure plays. There’s one from World War I where he is quoting Henry VI, which is a play that most people don’t know at all in three parts. There’s a great story that the great actor Richard Burton used to tell.

So after World War II, he’s playing Hamlet and, he gets word. This is shortly after the war that the old man is gonna be in the audience. Well, when you say the old man in England in, 1949, there’s only one old man, and it was Churchill. So there was Churchill in the front row. And Burton describes his horror when he hears this kind of rumbling. And he realizes that Churchill is reciting the speeches even as he’s giving them. And he describes trying to speed it up and try to slow it down to shake him off, and he can’t shake him off. And so he’s, thoroughly traumatized by this. The story has a more or less happy ending. He’s, quite shaken at the intermission. He goes back to his dressing room, there’s a knock at the door, and he opens the door.

And there’s Winston Churchill, who looks at him and says, my Lord, Hamlet, may I have use of your washroom?

And which is a great, it’s a great story. Now, the one thing though to be aware of is it wasn’t just the good guys who liked Shakespeare. The Nazis liked Shakespeare. And it wasn’t just because of Merchant of Venice, which is in many ways an antisemitic play, although it’s much more than that. There were other plays that really appealed to them. And I think, we have to wrestle with that. And I think it’s, the reason why that could be the case is because Shakespeare is as, some of the people who’ve commented on him have said a mirror to human nature. He’s giving us all of human nature. He is not giving us a political point of view. He’s not telling us what to do. He’s showing us people as they really are. And that I think is really his genius. And there, are aspects of human nature which are pretty ugly and appeal to really ugly people as well.

Brett McKay: Which plays of Shakespeare explore the idea of power the most. I’m sure everyone has read Romeo and Juliet or Midsummer’s Night Dream when they were in high school. Those plays maybe a little bit talk about power, but what are the ones that you focus on in this book?

Eliot Cohen: So there, are many more. I do a lot with the histories. There’s really eight plays, believe it or not, that carry you through there. So there’s Richard II, which is about a brilliant but very weak king who gets overthrown by Henry Bolingbroke, who becomes Henry IV. So then you have two Henry IV plays, Henry IV, part one and part two. Henry IV’s son is Prince Hal, who’s a brilliant leader, although I tend to think he’s extremely unscrupulous, problematic. And so there’s a play called Henry VI, and then there are three plays called Henry VII, Henry the VI, part one, two, and three. And Henry VI is Henry V’s Son. But he is actually a very weak king. So a lot of that is about infighting among courtiers. And then finally there’s Richard III and Richard III is the ultimate bad guy.

He’s the evil king, but he’s absolutely fascinating character, which is troubling in many ways. And so you have those eight plays, I would say those, are really at the core. But there are others. There’s a, set of Roman plays, I think Julius Caesar, Corey Elenis, which is not put on very much, but, which I think is very powerful about a Roman general who is a terrific general. He wants to be consoles or the top job in Rome. And he blows it because he doesn’t know how to deal with the people and he becomes a traitor. So that’s a terrific play. There’s Anthony and Cleopatra. So you have the Roman plays, and then there are some of the great tragedies and above all, I think Macbeth ’cause Macbeth is a story of a warrior who is not necessarily innately a bad guy, unlike somebody like Richard III, but who is seduced by power and ends up committing one murder hopes he can get away with just committing one murder. But of course he really can’t.

Brett McKay: Alright, so what you do in this book is you take readers through a three part arc of power, acquiring power, exercising power, and losing power. So let’s talk about acquiring power. How we get power in the first place. And in Shakespeare’s world, you argue there are three ways that a king or a leader can acquire power. It’s through inheritance, through their own skill and cunning or through seizure, or that is there’s a Coup d’etat, or something like that. Let’s talk about inheriting power, in which plays does Shakespeare explore the dynamics of inheriting power?

Eliot Cohen: I think for the question of inheritance, is in some ways the best is are the two Henry IV plays. Because the two Henry IV plays are only partly about Henry IV. They’re really much more about Prince Hal, who is a continual disappointment to his father, although he will turn out to be a greater leader who is hanging around with false staff, who’s this wonderful comic creation, but who is somebody who has no illusions about human nature and is a coward and a drunkard. And Prince Hal is kind of living in the rough side of town at what’s pretty clearly a brothel. And he is actually, at first you might think he’s just kind of dissolute, actually what he’s doing is he’s learning how to be a leader because he, unlike his father, he learns how to deal with normal people, people who are not like himself consumed with this lust for glory.

Now he also has to achieve success on the battlefield. And he does particularly, he ends up killing, Hotspur, Harry Hotspur, who’s leader of the kind of rebellion against his father and Hotspur is a very attractive figure. And I think the point of all that, that Shakespeare shows us is even if you can inherit power legitimately, I mean Henry V is the son of Henry IV, and the way Royal succession worked in England at that time is the oldest son becomes the king. What, how Prince Hal realizes is he has to earn it. And I think that’s a big insight. I think a lot of people don’t understand that once you get to a position of power, that’s not where the story ends, you have to be continually earning it. And Hal is actually able to do that. Other people are not somebody who inherits power but doesn’t understand that he has to continually win it, as it were, is Richard II, who Henry IV has killed. Richard II is somebody who’s intoxicated with the office. If there were corner offices back then, he’d want one. He’d want a limo and all the trappings of power, but he doesn’t know how to use it. And for sure he doesn’t understand that he has to continually win it, and he pays the ultimate price for it.

Brett McKay: And you talk about how we see the inheritance of power in our own day. This plays out in politics, right? When a president, they often choose their successor, they’re gonna groom a successor or they have a successor in mind. In the business world, sometimes the CEO, once they know they’re going to retire, they start grooming their successor and trying to figure out, who’s gonna replace them. But often, even when they have a plan for succession, it doesn’t work out the way they planned.

Eliot Cohen: Yeah. And, the classic example is Jack Welch famous head of GE who built it into a huge corporation, very successful, widely regarded as one of the best managers of all time, who prided himself on grooming talent. And he goes through this elaborate process, and he picks Jeffrey Immelt to be the head of GE and in very short order. Immelt blow up GE. Now, people argue, was it his fault or not? But, the point is, leaders often think that they can control the future, that they can control what’s gonna happen once they’ve stepped down. That’s also the story of King Lear, by the way. He thinks he’s gonna have all the perks of power and he’ll still exercise control even after he is handed over his kingdom to his two evil daughters. And you know what? You can’t, and I think a lot of people wrestle with that.

One of the problems with picking a successor is, you have to set your own ego aside and realize, well, maybe I need somebody who’s different than myself. One of Henry IV’s problems, and he doesn’t really get along with his son just about till he dies, is he can’t understand that the ways in which Henry V, Prince Hal is different from him could actually make him a more effective king. And, he’s just disappointed that Prince Hal isn’t more like his old man. And that’s, somebody who’s helped raise four kids. I know that’s always a bad idea.

Brett McKay: This idea of inheriting power and how it can go wrong, made me think about the relationship between Theodore Roosevelt and Taft.

Eliot Cohen: Oh, that is a great case.

Brett McKay: Yeah. So, Roosevelt, he was basically grooming Taft to be his successor. And the thing about Taft was, he really didn’t want to be president. He had high ambitions, but he wasn’t like Roosevelt, who loved to be out making decisions and being out with people and just taking action. Taft was a little more surreal. He wanted to be a Supreme Court justice. That’s where he thought he’d be most suited.

Eliot Cohen: Right.

Brett McKay: But he kinda got on this conveyor belt and felt this pressure, well, I gotta do this, ’cause Roosevelt wants me to do. My wife wants me to be president, and so he becomes President and Theodore Roosevelt is just basically Taft he’s doing a terrible job and basically turned against him and it hurt their friendship.

Eliot Cohen: And he essentially runs against him for president. No, I think it’s a great case because what TR is looking for, and I think this frequently happens with people pick their successors, subconsciously or not looking for somebody who’s simply gonna do with the old, follow the guidelines that the old man set out for him rather than really carve out his own path in his own way. And they’re always disappointed. And the other thing about Taft, Taft was a very able subordinate for TR. And there are certain kinds of people in this world who are excellent number twos but you never want them to be number one.

And I think that’s really what happened to TR and to Taft and it was a tragedy in many ways, and they sort of reconciled a bit at the end, but he was really unfortunate and it wasn’t fair to Taft, and I say that as an admirer of TR. It wasn’t fair to have picked him, and then it wasn’t really fair to have turned on him either. It also speaks again at how hard it is for powerful people to walk away from power.

Brett McKay: Yeah, so let’s talk about what Shakespeare can teach us about acquiring power through skill, any plays or a character from Shakespeare plays that really highlights how through cunning and their own virtue or excellence or skill, you can acquire power.

Eliot Cohen: Well, we’ve been dwelling a lot on the Henry IV plays, but I would talk about Richard II actually, the Richard II play, and the figure of Henry Bolingbroke, who becomes Henry IV, who is very cunning in the way that he pushes Richard aside. Now there’s a… I’ve had very lively debates with critics about is Bolingbroke, did Bolingbroke always wanna be king, or is it just that he was treated unjustly by Richard II to confiscate his father’s estates, John of Gaunt. But I think what he does is he’s very subtle, he’s very restrained in his use of force. Henry Bolingbroke like Henry IV, that he becomes knows when to be quiet. He knows when to be decisive. One of my favorite lines of his is, if these be necessities, let us meet them like necessities. Which is not bad motto, if you’re a leader in difficult times, but he’s restrained, he… Unlike somebody like Richard III he doesn’t kill for the joy of killing people, he’s not innately cruel, unlike Macbeth, he doesn’t deceive himself into thinking I can kill somebody and then I’ll be king. He is very concerned about legitimacy and his legitimacy is always to some extent in question.

And he’s cunning, there are other people who are like that. It’s a dimension of Lincoln, for example, that people I think often overlook his law partner, Willie Herndon once said that any man who took Abraham Lincoln for a simple man, usually found himself lying on his back in a ditch, there was a lot of subtlety and a certain degree of ruthlessness, I think that’s part of Shakespeare’s measure there too, you don’t acquire power simply by being a nice person.

Brett McKay: Yeah. What you have to do is you have to appear nicer, you have to cloak your ambition and your desire for power through… Yeah, I’m a nice guy, I’m trying to do a good cause… Maybe you are doing good in the process, but the ultimate aim is to acquire power.

Eliot Cohen: Right, right. And again, another Willie Herndon quote, he said that Abraham Lincoln’s ambition was a little machine that never stopped ticking, the kinds of people… And I think Shakespeare is very alive to this in a certain way, it comes up best in the Roman plays, all of us have some level of ambition in some case, but people who really aspire to the top positions… And again, whether it’s a CEO or President of a university or president of the United States, that level of ambition makes you very, very different than most normal people, and the rest of us have to understand, that’s what those people are like, they are just different than you and me, and they in turn, have to understand the people who support they are trying to get. And the ones who succeed are the ones who manage to do that.

Brett McKay: And then you also talk about one thing that Shakespeare were touches on, and you see this in the lives of great leaders, you might be skilled in one domain, you can say the… You see this a lot for leaders who did well in the military, and they say, Well, I’m a great general I could be a great president now, and they try their hand at another domain and they just Fumble, they do terrible. Anything Shakespeare can teach us about that.

Eliot Cohen: Oh absolutely, the play to look at Is Coriolanus, which I mentioned earlier about this roman general, who becomes a traitor, who is a brilliant military leader, and he’s a great speaker, his speeches are terrific, they’re filled with advective and he has no self-discipline though, when it comes to talking to the people, and he has no control over his temper, and there comes a moment where he’s just won the smashing victory, and even though the people don’t really like him, ’cause he’s kind of sarcastic and rude and rough and contemptuous, and the tribunes who were so the representatives of the people are fearful that he really wants to be a tyrant, they have to go along with this until the moment comes when in order for Coriolanus to be elected a Consul, he has to show his wounds, take off his toga. And show all of the scars, and he just detonates he said, I’d rather anything than show you my scars. Because in his view, this would be pandering to the vulgar curiosity of people who have never been in battle, and it would make it look as if he got those wounds, not for his own honor or glory or a sense of duty.

But in order to pander to the people and get power, parenthetically by the way. I’ll just tell you, this is one of the joys of teaching Shakespeare. Where I did at the School of Advanced International Studies, a Graduate School of International Relations, I had a number of students in my class who are in their early 30s who had served in places like Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya, and I said to them, Don’t feel obliged to answer this, but when you came back, did anybody ask to see your wounds.

By which I meant not physical wounds, but kinda probe their psyches and boy, they all detonated, they felt exactly the same emotion that Coriolanus did, now they had kept it under better control I dare say but it’s a very, very human reaction, and what makes Coriolanus, his fatal flaw is not that he has that kind of instinctive resistance to exposing himself to people, but that he doesn’t know how to control it either to say, Look, I won’t be consul, I’m not gonna stoop that low or kind of grit his teeth and put up with it, and that’s really his fatal flow.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show, so you talk about another way you can acquire power is ceasing it. What do you mean by ceasing power?

Eliot Cohen: Well, quite literally, in the case of Macbeth it’s murder, he murders King Duncan, but again, there are… Let’s not forget there are analogies to this, I won’t name the institution, this was a number of years ago, but I know one institution which was led by a not particularly effective leader, and one of his key subordinates really plotted against him and was able to convince the Board to remove him, and then kind of orchestrate things that he would be put in charge of it. And I know another more recent case where somewhat similar kind of thing happens, there are coups, there are people who will try to undermine somebody in charge with the idea of replacing them, either themselves or with the creature, and it’s ugly, but it can succeed and that’s also a part of organizational life.

Brett McKay: Does Shakespeare have any insights on the dangers of acquiring power through seizure or how to navigate that definitely.

Eliot Cohen: Absolutely. There’s a famous passage when Macbeth is thinking about should he kill Duncan. And he knows it’s wrong and he knows is doubly wrong because he’s his guest, but he’s thinking maybe I could just do this and then it’ll all be over and everything will be okay, and he does go ahead with it, even though deep down, he knows that one murder will lead to another murder, and I think that’s really the key to it, that Shakespeare is teaching us that if you take power that way, the chances are the original crime are not gonna be the only crime you’re gonna have to commit. You’re gonna have to do other ruthless things, and the illegitimacy of your seizure of power will never go away, even the case of Henry IV, where I would argue it’s more by manipulation because Richard II resigns his crown and he’s pressured and so on, but it’s not the same thing as simply ordering his murder, he’s haunted by this for the rest of his days, and even his son Hal is also haunted by this, so I think that’s what Shakespeare has to teach us there that if that’s how you take power essentially through some sort of coup d’état. It’s not gonna end there. It’ll be with you for a long time.

Brett McKay: Yeah, it’ll probably… That’s how you’ll get removed. Live by the sword die by the sword. So once you acquire power, you have to exercise it, ’cause that’s how you keep your power, if you inherit power, you actually have to exercise power so you can earn it. And then you talk about the difference between management and the art of command. What are the differences between the two and what separates leaders who might be good managers from those who are good commanders?

Eliot Cohen: Let me actually make a three-part distinction between leadership, command and management, all of which are critical by the way, I think. So leadership, I would say management. Let’s start with management. Management is the art of coordinating human activity, and obviously, the bigger the organization, the more complex the activity, so let’s just think about organizing a picnic, making sure that you have all the food ordered and you’ve reserved the place where you’re gonna do the barbecue and you’ve arranged for a bus to pick people up, that’s the management part of it, command, which people tend not to think as much about is about the art of giving authoritative directions, and the military spends a lot of time thinking about how to issue commands. There are times for any organization where the top person has to say, I need you to do this, but that’s actually a more complicated art than you might think, but it’s like say, giving directions to the bus driver on the way to the picnic, you just need to tell them where to go and tell them in such a way that he’ll get you there with a minimum of fuss, it’s not about coordinating human activity, it’s about giving clear guidance.

Leadership is the art of getting people either to do things they would not otherwise do, or getting them to do them better than the otherwise would. So to use the picnic analogy again, it’s making sure everybody has a good time, it’s making sure that everybody feels included, it’s making sure that the baseball game that you play in the park is not a chore, but it’s something that everybody’s really enjoying doing and everybody’s participating and feels good about it. Leadership has those three aspects to it, and not everybody is equally good at all three of them, there are people who can be terrifically inspiring, but couldn’t organize their way out of a paper bag, there are people who are great at inspiring, but they can’t actually give guidance do this and so on.

Brett McKay: So any characters from Shakespeare that help us see these differences?

Eliot Cohen: Well, the person who’s really all purpose is Henry V, who can manage things. He arranges the pretext for an unjust war in such a way that it’s the French who start it, and the kind of moral difficulty associated with it falls on the English Church, that was an art that was management. You see him throughout that play, giving very direct orders, he knows what he wants people to do, and he knows what he wants people not to do, and he’s extremely clear about those things, and effectively so. So for example, he scares the hell out of the French at this town of Harfleur, but when they surrender, he is very, very clear about, I want the people in the city treated well, I don’t want any looting and that’s very important, and his instructions are clear, and then he is a great leader now, a lot of that, I think is… It’s of questionable honesty. So he gives this very famous speech, which makes everybody sit up straight in their chair. We happy few we band of brothers. For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother. And so on very, very famous speech and gets imitated by everybody from Winston Churchill to Vladamir Zelenskyy.

Now, does it represent what he really thinks? I don’t really think so, because he’s… The night before, he had been wandering around the camp, and he hears the soldiers grumbling, and he calls them fools and peasants, but when he’s on the battlefield, he’s calling them my brother, and he does it in a way that convinces us, even though we’ve just heard him describe his soldiers in a very, very different way the night before, so he’s really the all around leader. Henry IV, his father is a manager, but he’s not… He doesn’t inspire people really, certainly not In the Henry IV plays, he is very good at giving commands it’s not that if these be necessities, let us treat them like necessities, in I think plays like Julius Caesar, you see some characters who are tremendously inspiring, and Mark Antony is in this famous scene where he turns the crowd around against the people who have murdered Caesar, but he’s not actually great at managing things, the guy who’s great at managing things is Octavius, who will eventually become emperor, who’s kind of in the background. But it turns out to be much more effective. So it’s not clear that any one of these characteristics is always dominant, there are times and places where one of the three can be much more important than the others.

Brett McKay: Exercising power often requires manipulation and this is a big reason why people don’t like to try to go for power like, I don’t wanna do the politics, it feels dirty, it doesn’t make me feel good. But Henry understood to exercise power he needed to manipulate, so he believed one thing, but he was willing to give this stirring speech, so these peasants would fight for him, even though he didn’t think much of them, any other Shakespeare characters who understood that sometimes in order to exercise power, you gotta get your hands dirty and maybe manipulate things.

Eliot Cohen: Yeah, I would say if you look at Julius Caesar and if you look at the plotters against Caesar, the character who actually I have the most sympathy for as Cassius. You’ll see on, Cassius has a lean and hungry look, then people probably remember that line from high school, that really, Caesar doesn’t trust him. Cassius needs to get Brutus to lead the plot against Caesar, and he orchestrates it, and he knows what needs to be done, but he knows he’s an not inspiring enough figure to bring other people along. For that, he needs Brutus, who is flawed, because Brutus himself is a kind of a self-righteous sort of up kind of character, but there’s something about his integrity and about his family’s history that causes other people to fall in with him, Cassius orchestrates the conspiracy pretty well, and if Brutus weren’t such a dummy, they would have done the thing that would have enabled them to succeed, which is To Kill Mark Antony, Cassius, he says, We cannot leave Mark Antony alive, he’s just too dangerous. And in retrospect he’s completely right. And Brutus who thinks it’s possible to, in ways, a little bit like MacBeth thinks, Okay, we’ll just do one murder, we won’t even call it a murder, we say we’re not going to.

It’s not that, we’re gonna kill him, we’re gonna carve him up like a sacrifice to the gods, which is self-delusion and it’s a murder, and Cassius understands and now if you kill Caesar, you got to kill Mark Antony too. So he’s the political Manager, I think par Excellence, but he’s not the guy who’s gonna inspire people.

Brett McKay: And you highlight a modern character who understood that exercising power often requires manipulation. Lyndon B. Johnson, how did he display Shakespearean manipulation to wield the power?

Eliot Cohen: Oh, well, I mean, I, they’re, I would refer everybody to the, truly incredible Robert Caro biography of him, which I think is now four volumes, which gives it all in chapter and verse, and it involved outrageous flattery. It involved a certain degree even of physical intimidation. Johnson used his body. He was a big guy. And there are these famous pictures where he is arguing with the publisher of the New York Times, I think ’cause he wants better publicity. And if you see the time sequence, he’s leaning further and further over this poor publisher who’s leaning further and further backwards to get away from him. He used his techniques depending on who he was dealing with. He was a manipulator, but he was also a phenomenal listener. And that’s actually how he learned how to, what buttons to press with somebody is, what did they respond to?

What did they need? What are they afraid of? And he would play to both people’s strengths and their weaknesses to their vanity, but also to the values that they had. There’s a great novel, one of the Great American political novels, All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren, I think has a picture of a very similar character who is a sort of loosely modeled on Huey Long, but who was also a fantastic manipulator of people. You have to have a certain kind of thorough going understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of human nature and be willing to suppress your own ego enough to figure out what’s going on with the other guy and then to work with it.

Brett McKay: Yeah. It takes certain instinct, I think part of it’s innate and then you can develop it. But yeah, some people have it more than others, for sure.

Eliot Cohen: And I think, by the way, I think the great authoritarians, and I mean great in the sense of successful, not great in any moral sense, usually have, if you look at it closely, an almost feral instinct for people’s weaknesses, not for their strengths, that they know how to appeal to the things that people are afraid of or intimidated by or worried about. And they can often just sense that in a way that it’s almost like an kind of an animal sense.

Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about how leaders can lose power. I mean, you talk about one of the ways that Shakespeare explores that leaders lose power is through just arrogance or being naive. Any plays or characters that stand out the most for that way.

Eliot Cohen: Yeah. Well, actually in all of the plays I’ve talked about, where somebody’s deposed, whether it’s Julius Caesar or Duncan or Richard II, they all have deep flaws that cause them to lose power. With Duncan, it’s a kind of innocence, which might be charming if he weren’t king, where he is just very, very naive about the people he’s working with. With Richard II, it’s his intoxication with his own position with Julius Caesar. It’s arrogance. It just is, unbelievable arrogance. He comes in first. He’s talking about himself in the third person, which is usually a sign that you got a problem. But then he says that I’m as constant as the Northern star. I’m not like the rest of you who change. I am unchanging. And I am not afraid. And fear is afraid of me. I mean it’s over the top. And he pays for it. And I have to say, the longer, the more experience I have of life, and I’m seeing political and military leaders in various headings, it’s arrogance. I think that does people in most.

Brett McKay: How does that play out? Are they just, they, they’re so high on their own supply that they’re ignoring the things going on behind the scenes, like people starting to resent them, and those resentful people start thinking, let’s get this guy outta here.

Eliot Cohen: Yeah, they lose a sense of their own fallibility. They have excessive confidence in their ability to master any kind of difficult situation. They forget that you need allies and friends. They forget that they too can be surprised.

Brett McKay: So leaders tend to, if they’re not careful, they can start deceiving themselves and thinking they’re.

Eliot Cohen: Absolutely.

Brett McKay: They’re almost magical.

Eliot Cohen: Yes. And I have a chapter as, as you’ll recall about magic and self deception. And so one of the characters I talk about there is in Henry VI part one. And I really encourage people to read the Henry VI plays. They’re wonderful. I talk about Joan of Arc, she’s shown as being very successful. But the thing that’s so striking about it, if you look closely at her successes, Shakespeare gives you everything to understand that her successes are because she’s smart, or because she persuades people. This is the right thing to do. Or she uses a certain kind of military ruse of one sort or another, that brings her success. It’s when she begins to believe in her own magic. When she begins conjuring up spirits, that’s the point where actually she fails and she ends up being burned at the stake.

Nobody has real magical powers. And even in Shakespeare, there are witches and ghosts and stuff like that. But if you look closely at how he describes them, all they’re doing is they’re playing to your weaknesses. They’re playing to what you want to believe about yourself. So like Macbeth confronts their, the people say three witches, they’re actually the three Weird sisters, which is an interesting term. And all they do is they say things that are completely true, but are easy for Macbeth to interpret in such a way that it reinforces what he wants to believe and they turned out to be wrong.

Brett McKay: Are there any Shakespearean leaders who just walk away from power gracefully? Most of the ones we’ve been talking about they were deposed. They had their power taken away from them, against their will. Anyones who just said, I’m done, I’m passing the torch.

Eliot Cohen: So the one who, I think is most moving is Prospero in the Tempest. So in the Tempest Prospero had been the Duke of Milan, but he’s deposed by his brother ’cause he’s spent too much time in his library. He’s a magician. And he has been marooned on this, desert island with his daughter. And finally his enemies all kind of are within his grasp. And he causes the storm. There’s a shipwreck, various things, and there’s sort of a reconciliation at the end. But Prospero, who has undoubted magical powers, he can call up storms and spirits and stuff like that. At the very end of the play, he says that I’m going to break my staff, my magic wand and bury it several fathoms, deep and deeper than did Plummet Ever Sound drown My book, his book of magic spells.

And it’s interesting. Why is he gonna do that? He’s been restored as Duke of Milan. Why should he give up his magical powers? And I think the answer that Shakespeare gives us is that Prospero has grown. And there’s a hint that he already sort of has begun to understand this at the beginning, very beginning of the play, he’s going to explain to his daughter, how do we end up here? And he says, help me take off my magic robe. Which means that he understands two things. One, if he’s going to talk to his daughter as a father, talks to a daughter, rather than as a magician with superpowers, talks to somebody he’s responsible for, he’s got to take off the magic robe. And he needs help actually. He can’t just take it off on his own. And I think that’s what happens to him at the end.

He understands power has not been good for him. And if you look at how he even treats Caliban, who’s this sort of semi human slave that he has, who at the beginning he’s quite brutal towards, at the end, he said, he acknowledges to the king, who’s one of the people who’s been shipwrecked. He says, yeah, this guy belongs to me and I’m responsible for him. And he humanizes himself. And it’s not that he’s happy ’cause he says, I’m gonna go back and every third thought is gonna be of death. But he has become a human figure and he’s a more likable, more reasonable kind of figure. And then in the book, what I then do is I talk about other people who walk off the stage of whom the most impressive is George Washington, who really does it twice.

Once as commander in chief, after the, when he hands his makes a big point of handing his commission back to the Continental Congress, which he didn’t have to do. And then when he steps down as president, and George III, who didn’t have any particular reason to love George Washington said, if he does that, he’ll be the greatest man at the age. Which he was, and like Prospero, it’s not that he was happy at the end of his presidency. It had been a really difficult time, but he did the right thing and he left with a certain kind of contentment and wholeness, which can only happen, I think, if you voluntarily relinquish power.

Brett McKay: Any advice you have for people about walking away from power, right? This could be, your executive position at a business or maybe a nonprofit, or you could be a dean at a university or whatever. ‘Cause you’ve seen this firsthand with really powerful people. And they’re in that position where their power is waning, their influence is waning, and they’re just really graspy. Like, they just want to hold onto it. It just seems like it’s miserable. It seems kind of pitiful.

Eliot Cohen: It often is quite pitiful.

Brett McKay: So people who are successful at, just kind of walking away with some dignity and the like, what do they do differently?

Eliot Cohen: Well, it comes from the inside obviously and some ability to be introspective. I think for those people who are not towering figures, one thing that helps is if you have a very strong relationship with somebody who will be honest with you. And Churchill had that with his wife, Clementine, people don’t always have that person. But that’s one thing. But the other thing is to remind yourself that you are not indispensable. Somebody once said the, I think it was Charles de Gaulle said, the cemeteries are filled with indispensable men. And you gotta keep on telling yourself that, the ancients of course, were there before us and all this, the famously when the Great General had a triumph in Rome, they’d have a slave riding in the chariot with him whispering sick transit, Gloria Monday.

This is the way that the glories of the world pass. So I think that is another part of it. But I think it’s, maybe it just comes from understanding that this is part of your job too. Your job, whatever your job is, whatever your leadership job is, it has many components. It includes inspiring people. It may be building something, it may be eliminating something or destroying something and ending it well is also part of your job. And if you can’t find somebody else to tell you that, you need to tell yourself that.

Brett McKay: Yeah. You need to read some Shakespeare.

Eliot Cohen: Yeah. Well, it’s always good to read Shakespeare.

Brett McKay: Well, Eliot, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book in your work?

Eliot Cohen: Hopefully they’ll want to buy the book and it’s for sale, on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and hopefully in any decent bookstore, for other things that I’ve written. Again, what I would do is just look at some of my books. I’m retiring from Johns Hopkins University. I’ve moved over to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. But I think if people are particularly interested in this question of leadership, they may want to look at a book of mine called Supreme Command Soldiers Statesmen and Leadership in Wartime. And it’s built around a study of four greats, civilian wartime leaders, Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, George Clements, the premier of France during World War I, Winston Churchill, obviously Britain and World War II. And David Ben-Gurion, the founding Prime Minister of Israel. And it asks, what is it that they did? What was the nature of the leadership that they exerted? And I think people might be interested in delving into that. ‘Cause I do talk more about leadership there.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Eliot Cohen, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Eliot Cohen: Well, thank you. It’s been a real pleasure for me too.

Brett McKay: My guest here is Eliot Cohen. He’s the author of the book, the Hollow Crown. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. Check out our show notes at where you can find links to resources. We delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Make sure to check out our website where you can find our podcast archives. And while you’re there, sign up for a newsletter. We got a daily option, a weekly option. They’re both free. It’s the best way to keep on top of what’s going on at AOM. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to get us reviewed off of podcast or Spotify. It helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member. You would think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay. Reminding you to not only listen to AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.


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