Cordelia in the corporate world: "To speak and purpose not"

Written by
Gilmar Wendt, Principal, GW+Co

16 Feb 2021

16 Feb 2021 • by Gilmar Wendt, Principal, GW+Co

Though King Lear is a play riddled with inauthentic characters bent on selfish ends, it can teach us something about corporate responsibility to society.

Principled and pure, the character of Cordelia has long fascinated readers of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Today, the play’s symbolism and character dynamics can illuminate issues of corporate purpose, and a provide a new way of looking at responsibility, authenticity and the relationship between business and society.

The play opens with Lear offering to divide his kingdom between his three daughters, and asking them (in quite a Trump-like way) to say how much they love him, in order to decide who will get the lion’s share of the riches. The two older daughters, Goneril and Regan, try to outdo each other with protestations of devotion, in order to get their hands on the wealth. Cordelia is more measured and says that she loves her father “according to my bond, no more nor less”. 

Performative devotion to 'purpose'

Lear reacts badly and banishes her. Cordelia says that her sisters’ claims are obviously fake news, referring to their speeches as “that glib and oily art, to speak and purpose not” – calling them out for ‘purpose washing’. Cordelia understands her relationship with her father to be a bond of mutual responsibility, while Goneril and Regan are only focused on profit. In other words, Cordelia represents stakeholder capitalism, as opposed to Goneril and Regan’s shareholder value model.

What distinguishes Cordelia’s approach to purpose from Goneril and Regan’s is intention. What is a business truly seeking to achieve by articulating a ‘purpose’? Is it trying to appear to be a force for good in the world, while carrying on with the same old damaging activities? Or is it genuinely operating, like Cordelia, “according to my bond”? 

Philosopher and media theorist Marshall McLuhan analysed Lear in his classic work The Gutenberg Galaxy. He showed how the early modern period was one of social and economic shifts, from nature to technology, separateness to interdependence and, via the emergence of “competitive individualism”, from roles to jobs. This, said McLuhan, was the shift that Cordelia failed to grasp, messing up her chances of winning her father’s approval.

Segmentation and specialisation were massively accelerated by the industrial revolution, but the shift from mechanical to electronic machines, particularly computers, in the 20th century saw a renewed focus on ‘soft’ skills like problem solving, communication and interpersonal relations. This brought back the value of roles in the workplace, and the importance of bonds between roles, like Cordelia's with King Lear. Now, AI is developing at such a rate that many of the human soft skills are likely to be replaced too. The challenge for organisations therefore is to integrate human, machine and AI in the workplace. How meaningful will categories like ‘job’ and ‘role’ be in five to ten years? 

The pitfalls of authenticity

Acting according to our bonds with others requires a holistic approach that recognises the interconnectedness of people, departments, companies, society and the environment. A company’s actions need to be aligned to its authentic purpose. There is broad agreement that companies using corporate PR to ‘speak and purpose not’ need to be held to account. But businesses must also heed the downfall of Cordelia. She was principled and authentic, but failed to articulate her intentions in a way that convinced her father. If Cordelia is the progressive face of stakeholder capitalism, the risk is that society – in the shape of the powerful but confused and easily misled Lear – will kill it off under the influence of diverse interest groups, from populists to lobbyists, who are themselves struggling to come to terms with the complexities of modern life.

Skilfully demonstrating authentic intention can powerfully engage an organisation’s people and customers and drive positive change. As well as ‘speaking’ of purpose, companies need to enact it in a way that truly resonates with all stakeholders. This requires the integration of strategic priorities with cultural principles, to support better execution of plans and foster understanding of why they need to happen. To speak and purpose positively is what is needed.

At the end of King Lear, reconciled but facing death together, Cordelia tells Lear “O dear father, it is thy business that I go about”. In other words, the purpose of business is to serve society, not the other way round, and both have an obligation to respond accordingly. King Lear ends a tragedy. But corporate purpose with true intentions and genuine action can help us write a happier story.

Gilmar Wendt is principal of GW+Co, a London-based creative consultancy. Their international team of creatives and strategists work with associates from the fields of management consultancy, anthropology and leadership development. Gilmar founded the company in 2010 after a 15-year career in design and strategy, working with blue chips and privately owned international businesses. GW+Co has won numerous creative and design effectiveness awards.

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