Can Leaders Structure Decisions to Avoid Shakespeare’s Irrevocable Choices?

Chuck Wilcox, a Shakespearean actor and teacher for over 40 years, helps us understand how William Shakespeare’s plays shed light on fatal leader blind spots.

Watch his video to understand what is Chuck saying about Shakespeare’s tragic leaders.

Irrevocable decisions lead to tragic failures. What is an irrevocable choice?

Like a present day leader who fires the wrong person, Macbeth kills King Duncan and many others who were unfortunate enough to get in his way. But then he cannot reverse this choice later when he realizes the trauma of those murders is driving him mad.

The Earl of Gloucester was an old Lord in King Lear’s court. Blind to the high respect given him by his legitimate son Gloucester realizes his leader blind spot only after others take his own sight, along with his political office, through the hateful schemes of his illegitimate other son. His irrevocable choice begins with fathering an illegitimate son out-of-wedlock. Later he banishes his good son and puts a price on his head. Finally, he promises to leave all of his earthly property to his bad son.

King Lear’s irrevocable choice, sometimes called Lear’s folly, is his decision to disinherit the only one of his children who loved him–his youngest daughter. She loved him but did not heap false praise on him. On the other hand, his oldest daughter flattered him, but actually hated him as he stood in the way of her desire for the pleasures of wealth. His youngest daughter spoke her mind, saying what he needed to hear, not what he wanted to hear, and he punished her for it.

How often has a leader made the mistake of killing off loyal followers who speak a truth the powerful leader does not want to hear?

BP’s Tragic Decision

BP leaders seem to have made an irrevocable choice. In the aftermath of a disastrous crude oil leak at their Deep Water Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, they agreed to pay all claims for damages and business interruptions. The insurance claims contract BP signed left them exposed to many fraudulent claims, so-called “false positives.” Consequently, the cost of their claims settlements spiraled out of sight. But thus far, no court will declare their choice an invalid contract. BP is now embroiled in quite complex litigation to slow down the claims payment process and cut their financial costs. The stockholders were not happy before, and many of them are still not happy now.

Is BP to Suffer With Their Irrevocable Choice?

Despite BP’s good intentions to make amends for a horrible oil spill, they have not been able to stop the unwanted consequences of their decisions. Even after being warned by an in-house claims administrator, BP’s leaders’ approved a wide-open contract. They did not engineer their decisions to put limits on any unexpected consequences. For example, during the first three years of claims payments, they paid many false claims with little provision for claimants to prove legitimate loss before they could receive a settlement. The upshot is the cost of their losses skyrocketed.

How to Engineer Your Choices for Later Revision: Learning from Could-a, Would-a, and Should-a

BP could have engineered their contract to allow for later revision and to reduce fraud. They could have incorporated contract terms placing more burdens for legitimate proof on those who file claims. They could have limited what they would pay for the claims of the Deep Water Horizon disaster. They could have limited the amount of time that they would pay claims.

Leaders in all types of organizations can engineer their decisions and agreements. With such a safeguard in place, they can change them later, if need be. For example, change-order processes are a routine provision in construction, software design, and computer conversion contracts. Leaders in other industries and projects could adapt this practice for their own organizations.

  1. Leaders start by contracting with their people for a project, product introduction, and new work process. In this way, the leader can represent the changing needs of their customers in a new initiative.
  2. They set up a change order process for anyone who wishes to add or drop work from their project contract’s original terms. The recognized need for unanticipated design changes, for substitutions, to cope with unforeseen conditions, and so on; all can trigger a change order
  3. If agreed to, the change order alters the original contract resources, dollar amounts, schedules, and/or completion date. In this way, the leaders do not lose track of costs, or the amount they are investing in a new initiative. They can disapprove of a change before it becomes part of the project contract.
  4. Granted, some change orders can drive up total project costs. But what use is a new building, new software, or IT project outcome built to meet the original specifications but at the end will not satisfy the needs of its customers and users? And who is able to foresee all the benefits and features they want to realize from a new project before they start it?
  5. Open, above-board, and inclusive change order conversations allow all involved parties to manage their costs, even if it is only to reduce others’ unexpected pain and suffering.

This change order perspective is useful for re-engineering decisions in almost all projects in almost any industry. It is a practice for leaders who want to do what is best and most effective when working through changing conditions and unforeseen obstacles to manage an uncertain future.

In addition, leaders can learn a lot by revisiting and updating their decisions as they discover more about the actual results, compared to the intended results. Revisiting and revising a project’s specifications, goals, and completion requirements is a means for leaders to carry out their decisions so they are able to adapt to new conditions as they occur.

Question for Reflection

  • What choices have you made in your life that left you feeling trapped and reduced your ability to innovate; to change your choice later on?
  • How have you or your leaders engineered decisions so they will be open to revision as you better understand the consequences?

About Gene Morton

OD Consultant and Author of the two-time award winning book, Leaders First: Six Bold Steps to Sustain Breakthroughs in Construction. See excerpts at Leader development and team development through coaching, consulting, and presenting on topics related to the structure of leadership in groups and organizations. Through his years of experience implementing mergers, reorganization, culture change, and organization transformation, Gene learned how an effective structure of leadership compensates for, and balances, leader blind spots, improving performance overall, and making innovation and change possible. He enjoys working in the construction industry, heath care, governmental, as well as the non-profit world.
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4 Responses to Can Leaders Structure Decisions to Avoid Shakespeare’s Irrevocable Choices?

  1. Kit Tennis says:

    Nearly 40 years ago, I entered a municipal government where the newly installed leader (City Manager) had, with great good intent, promised that salaries would be determined by the assessed value of the job duties, so that the workforce could feel confident that they were being paid fairly in comparison to others. An extensive job analysis process ensued, generating a very impressive and well-grounded jobs matrix. Only then, shortly after I arrived, did we come to realize that the City Charter dictated, with zero flexibility, that salaries would be based on the “going rate” of similar governments in the region, as determined by an annual assessment. It turned out that the market rate for jobs had very little to do with the analyzed value of those jobs (particularly if the job holders were primarily women). The workforce, who had signed on to the entire enterprise and participated in many, many hours of job analysis, was told, “Oops! We can’t do what we promised”. The city administration’s rapid decline into a mistrusting and adversarial relationship with employees was dizzying. Like BP, good intentions led to intensely expensive repercussions, though in this case, the costs were in organizational trust and daily functioning, rather than cash outlay. “If only, if only….”


  2. beandlive says:

    Nice use of past and present leadership stories.


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