Othello and Iago, illustration from Charles and Mary Lamb, Tales from Shakespeare (Philadelphia: Henry Altemus Company, 1901) (Souce: Wikimedia Commons)
Ideas for Leaders #315

Is Othello Boss Syndrome Affecting Your Organization?

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Key Concept

What can be learnt about leadership from Shakespeare’s Othello? According to this Idea, the characteristics and personality changes experienced by Othello may not be so different from what many executives experience in the business world. Jealousy, in particular, can be extremely damaging not just for the executives themselves, but for their organization as a whole. Read on to find out how to spot, correct and avoid the ‘Othello Syndrome’.

Idea Summary

In Shakespeare’s Othello, the eponymous lead’s passionate jealousy motivates all of his actions, including ultimately the murder of his own wife. Similarly, in the corporate world, there exist executives whose quest for power or professional success can generate jealousy that consciously or unconsciously affects their decisions. In an article published in the European Business Review, IESE Business School’s José Ramón Pin and Guido Stein suggest that ‘Othello managers’ spawn other Othello managers and eventually imbue the culture of a company with a climate of mutual distrust.

They describe the Othello Syndrome spreading through companies in a similar way to the way Shakespeare depicted many centuries ago: take the example of a boss naming a subordinate for a job and when that person triumphs, the boss begins to fear for his/her own position. Another employee then ‘opens the boss’s eyes’ regarding the apparently valuable subordinate (much like Iago in Shakespeare’s play, insinuates that Othello’s wife Desdemona is having an affair with his lieutenant Cassio, who is eventually dismissed). If the boss fails to exercise caution, he/she may be swayed by the insinuations, much like Othello was, and take fundamental decisions based on them.

According to Pin and Stein, there are three challenges to consider here: 1) discovering this symptom in an executive; 2) doing something to neutralize or correct it; and 3) preventing the emergence of this syndrome in oneself.

It is best to discover the existence of the Othello Syndrome as early as possible to prevent the pain and unpleasantness that comes with the expanding nature of jealousy. However, Pin and Stein also acknowledge that such actions are not only difficult to recognize, but also to address, as the jealous executive can react even more aggressively if confronted.

Similarly, subordinates who find themselves at the receiving end of an executive’s jealousy should also conduct a self-analysis of their own behaviour and ask others to give their opinion; they may discover they were consciously or unconsciously the cause of the jealousy and should therefore take the appropriate steps to prevent it in the future.

Business Application

The second and third challenges Pin and Stein outline are correcting and preventing the future emergence of the Othello Syndrome in oneself. In terms of the former, the opinion of a third party with experience and affection for the person suffering the situation can be helpful (such as a good mentor or coach). To simply inform the Othello boss’s superiors of the jealous behaviour might not be the best idea and could lead escalation or an aggressive reaction.

In terms of preventing the emergence of the Othello Syndrome in one’s own personality, humility is an essential characteristic that should be developed. Humble executives feel proud of the success of their employees and are immune to jealousy. A competent and humble leader, who is focused on promoting  his or her people’s talent, can endow realism in all members of the company.

Similarly, generosity also encourages the professional development of subordinate employees; it enables leaders to go beyond the formal exercise of their power, and leads to the sacrificed delivery of setting a good example.

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Idea conceived

  • January 2014

Idea posted

  • February 2014

DOI number



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