Leadership advice through the centuries: Inspire and seize opportunities

Kings and queens have come and gone, yet suitable leadership lessons are repeated over the centuries. For example, I was pleased that at the recent British coronation, the first oath that Charles III stated was, “I come not to be served, but to serve.” This is an excellent summary of the “servant leadership” concept, similar to a quote from Mahatma Gandhi, who said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

Crowning a king or queen marks a new beginning and the start of a new royal era. When succession happens and royal leaders are crowned, it’s a moment that (if done well) inspires hope, optimism and a sense of purpose. And so it was for the recent British coronation.

Lessons from Shakespeare

Continuing the British theme, let’s look at a key learning moment in one of Shakespeare’s plays, Hamlet. Trust me on this—embedded in the flowery prose is a wonderful lesson about the critical leadership skill of coaching and development, with the bonus of an example of using a strong closing thought when you share your leadership lessons.

In Act 1, Scene 3, there is a famous coaching and mentorship moment, a conversation between Polonius, the elder, and his son Laertes, a younger and more innocent character. In this scene, Polonius coaches his son, but instead of delivering a clear and concise lesson, he rambles through a confusing mix of overlapping and conflicting advice about the world—an example of well-intentioned but lousy coaching.

In the monologue, Polonius gives Laertes a series of conflicting practical advice on behaving in society. He warns him to avoid getting into fights, but if he fights, he should beat the other person up so they won’t consider fighting him again. He tells him to dress well but not too extravagantly. To be friendly with everyone, but not too nice. He advises Laertes to be true to himself but be careful with what is said to others. To speak wisely, but only a little.

Tough Talks D

Consistent coaching

As a coaching example, the advice from Polonius is an example of needing to be more consistent in your message and having a well-reasoned plan for your advice. The monologue must be clarified between statements reflecting Polonius’s inability to offer clear and concise coaching. His words convey the impression of a man more concerned with sounding wise than giving practical guidance to his son.

But not all is lost. At the end of this jumbled mess of passion and wisdom, Polonius delivers the critical point that breaks through the fog of all the conflicting advice. He tells his son, “This above all: to thine own self be true.” Polonius also encourages his son to be bold and to seize opportunities when they arise. Finally, powerful closing thoughts give the son the tools needed to decode and prioritize the jumbled messages he received.

These two pieces of crucial advice—being true to oneself and seizing opportunities—are essential for effective management.

To become a successful leader

  • Be true to yourself and your values. You must be honest, authentic and transparent in your dealings with others. This means setting clear expectations, communicating openly and being accountable for your actions.
  • Seize opportunities when they arise. As a leader, you must be proactive, agile and adaptable. Think creatively and take calculated risks. Be open to new ideas and embrace change and innovation.
  • As a leader, you must also be aware of the company you keep. Surround yourself with people who share your vision, values and work ethic. You must build a team that is diverse, talented and committed to achieving your goals.

In conclusion, the recent coronation and Shakespeare’s Hamlet include lessons for effective leadership. Be true to yourself, seize opportunities and surround yourself with the right people. Following these principles can inspire your team, achieve your goals and positively impact your world.