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Thomas More and Henry VIII: What Leaders Cannot Expect from Their Team

Author: Samuel B. Bacharach

Last night had the occasion to take my 12-year-old son to see a Broadway production of A Man for All Seasons starring Frank Langella.  It’s been years since I saw the original movie, and I had forgotten much of the detail.  To refresh your memory, Henry VIII wanted to divorce Katherine of Aragon and More did not offer his support to the king’s decision.  Later on, More refused to attend the coronation of Katherine’s successor, Anne Boleyn.

In 1534, More was accused of complicity with Elizabeth Barton, the Nun of Kent, who opposed the king’s break with Rome.  In the same year, More refused to swear to the Act of Succession and the Oath of Supremacy. He was charged with treason and beheaded in 1535, his final words being, “The king’s good servant, but God’s first.”

What does this have to do with Proactive Leadership?  Everything.  Smart leaders do not ask their team to leave their conscience at home.  While much can be said of More, his religiosity and stubbornness, what is projected in the play is an advisor (or in today’s terms, a cabinet member) whose personal sense of morality prevents him from publicly supporting his leader.  This raises for us fascinating and interesting issues for today’s leadership and governance.  Great leaders not only put in place bright people with their own opinions, but they also listen to their opinions.  They may not act on the opinions of others, but they are open to them.  Great leaders do not ask their advisors to go against their personal conscience or belief, but rather respect the conscience and belief of their advisors and have the capacity and strength to agree to disagree.  The challenge to advisors of leaders is how to give appropriate advice while not abandoning the core of their belief.  The relationship between great leaders and great advisors is often an intricate dance, seeking a delicate balance between the beliefs of each.  It is easy for this dance to become an ego game, where each tries to wrestle the other to the ground.  This ego game must be avoided at all costs. The lesson of A Man for All Seasons is that there comes a time for leaders and their advisors to part; and proactive leaders know when it is time to say goodbye, and advisors know when not to overstay their welcome.  The flaws of Henry VIII and Thomas More as projected in this play are interesting for all leaders to contemplate.  That set aside, it’s a great play to take your kids to.



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