Learning from King Lear

Erik de Haan
Karnac Books, London / New York, 2003

This book gives a summary of key issues in management consulting, in a step by step chronological way. However, it is directed mainly at those consultants, who know from experience that consulting does not work as smoothly as the manuals suggest, and who have learned through trials and tribulations to take a tragic outlook on the art of consulting.
In a consulting situation, the client shares a story with the consultant. If this story deals with important themes and if there are problems as well, it quickly embodies the elements of a dramatic situation and may even assume the proportions of a drama. Having an eye for the dramatic in a client's situation can be advantageous for a consultant. In this book I try to shed light upon these issues with the help of a drama that is highly relevant to gaining an understanding of consulting, leadership and management: Shakespeare's King Lear. The central theme of King Lear, I will argue, is responsibility.
Responsibility is also one of the cornerstones of a successful consulting process, together with empathy and trust. Responsibility differentiates itself from the other two cornerstones in that 'more' is not always 'better'. The assumption of too much responsibility by the consultant may, for instance, lead to a loss of autonomy on the part of the client. The objective is to achieve a delicate balance of shared responsibility.
The consulting process is frequently divided into five phases. These five phases bear a striking resemblance to the five phases of a classical tragedy. The five phases in the consulting process are:
1. Contacting and contracting
2. Diagnosis
3. Implementation
4. Consolidation
5. Evaluation
The five phases of a classical tragedy are usually described as:
1. Exposition
2. Development
3. Crisis and peripeteia
4. Denouement
5. Catastrophe and exodus
These five phases are not always rigidly adhered to either in management consulting or in drama. However, there is already something tragic in the unavoidability of these most basic phases, as every process has a definite beginning, middle and end. Although many modern dramatists, beginning with Beckett, have tried to break free from classical phasing, they still find themselves with a beginning, some sort of development, and an end, if only for the fact that the public will want to know when to arrive at the theatre, and that the programme will end before the onset of night. The same applies to management consulting: in spite of heroic attempts to put the end at the beginning or to conceive of a circular process, by means of approaches such as simulations and action research cycles, a consulting intervention remains a time-bounded collaborative relationship with a beginning, middle and end.
I will discuss beginning, middle and end in terms of the five classical phases summarised above, with reference to:
a)     Key issues in the art of consulting;
b)     The tragedy King Lear as a case-study;
c)      Lear, his advisors and the theme of responsibility;
d)     A tragic or at least dramatic perspective on consulting.
Each chapter of the book is composed in this way, such that it reads as a general introduction to some key issues in consulting (a), followed by a dramatic intermezzo in the reading of King Lear (b-c), and finally a deepening into the more dramatic aspects of the art of consulting (d). The four essays that result from this division may also be read independently of each other. An introduction precedes each of the four.
What may the reader expect to find in the book? At the very least, a great deal of drama and tension, on the one hand in a tragedy in which eight of the twelve main characters die of unnatural causes, and, on the other hand, in a sound and well-structured consulting process. It will become clear that, perhaps surprisingly, there are many positive lessons to be learned from the tragedy of King Lear, both for the manager and for the management consultant. However tragically the play ends, King Lear can be viewed as a very successful consulting intervention: the King undergoes a profound change, which enables him to better understand his own situation, to accept it and to improve upon it.

Table of contents


a.      Consulting: key issues
b.      Introduction King Lear
c.      The rebirth of tragedy
d.      Who’s got the monkey?
1.      Exposition
a.      Consulting: key issues in making an entry
b.      King Lear I.1 – I.2
c.      Confrontation with the irresponsible
d.      The contacting and contracting phase
2.      Development
a.      Consulting: key issues in stating the problem
b.      King Lear I.3 – II.4
c.      The inescapable consequences
d.      The diagnosis phase
3.      Crisis and peripeteia
a.      Consulting: key issues in making a difference
b.      King Lear III.1 – III.7
c.      The session on the heath
d.      The implementation phase
4.      Denouement
a.      Consulting: key issues in making it last
b.      King Lear IV.1 – IV.7
c.      Catharsis
d.      The consolidation phase
5.      Catastrophe and exodus
a.      Consulting: key issues in letting go
b.      King Lear V.1 – V.3
c.      Saevis tranquillus in undis
d.      The evaluation phase


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