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Kevin J. O'Toole, the chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is a former New Jersey State Senator. (Photo: Kevin J. O'Toole.)

The O’Toole Chronicles: Uneasy Lies the Head

By Kevin O'Toole, July 27 2021 12:01 am

Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude
And, in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

Henry IV
William Shakespeare

In politics, the buck stops with the boss, and despite the best efforts of some to push that unshakable responsibility on to others, the rest of us are keenly aware that the boss is the decision maker. And, so, the boss takes the credit or the blame for decisions made.

I’m not a Shakespearean scholar, but I remember reading Henry IV in college. And the line “uneasy lies the head” has stuck with me since 1985.

Whether as a parent, corporate head, political leader, or chair of anything, we need to constantly remember the theme that resonates through that story, written over 400 years ago. Leaders lead, and with that comes heavy obligations.

While poor King Henry was worrying about an assassination attempt or some other calamity, he suffered from sleepless nights as his worry and anxiety grew. Perhaps, the king allowed his angst to seep into his thinking, clouding his rational thought.

The lesson to be learned: never forget that, as a leader, people will rely on you to make clear and objective decisions that further the mission or purpose of the organization you lead.

Another lesson is to learn to compartmentalize different trains of thoughts and keep unrelated actions separate from one another.

Staff should not see you sweat or agonize over daily decisions.  We all feel calmer when the leader takes control and acts with confidence and assured self-control. A child or a subordinate should not see the machinations that go into a heart-ripping decision. Review, seek input, and decide—then move on.

We all worked for that political boss who twisted like Hamlet as the struggle with the unknown continued. And we have all witnessed that hapless and weak leader who solicits advice from everyone, all the while bemoaning the upcoming decision. Get on with it.

Leading isn’t always popular, and sometimes tough decisions require inner strength and steadiness. Some politicians don’t want to make the tough decisions, and some are guided by polling data. That is not true leadership.

Learn a lesson from King Henry—be decisive, compartmentalize, and move on.

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