Disagreeing with King Henry VIII

            Do you remember A Man for All Seasons, the play by Robert Bolt about the life of Sir Thomas More?  More was a prominent English statesman and religious leader in the Catholic Church during the time of Henry VIII.  He was also the one man King Henry could not persuade to condone his divorce from his barren wife, Catherine of Aragon.  More was eventually imprisoned and executed for refusing to agree that the king, not the pope, should be the head of the church and, therefore, should be allowed to alter church tenets to suit the preferences of the current monarch.  In this case, the monarch’s preference was divorce which, up until this time, the church had forbidden under all circumstances.

            I was reminded of the play by Joseph Badaracco, Jr., whose unusual book Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership Through Literature, explores aspects of leadership as they show up in literary characters.  I read the book this past weekend (between baking, wrapping, unwrapping, cleaning up—it was Christmas, after all).  I’ve read dozens of leadership books, and most of them attempt to articulate the rather obvious “how to’s” of leadership—be authentic, articulate your vision, keep your promises, lead a balanced life, and so on.  Badaracco’s book, instead, is about the nuances of leadership, how they are revealed and why they are effective.

            Sir Thomas More tries to reconcile principles and pragmatism, according to Badaracco, thereby navigating dangerous territory.  It isn’t the case, however, that principles trump pragmatism, as you might expect.  This is the leadership of nuance, not stark contrast, and therefore both (principles and pragmatism) prevail.  Yes, ultimately More dies for his beliefs, but not before he manages to sustain relationships with people who disagree with him.  He does this, Badaracco points out, in one case by inviting others to share his level of conviction—not his opinion, just his level of commitment to it.  The Duke of Norfolk asks why More won’t join them (those who agree with the king) out of “fellowship.” More replies that, at the gates of heaven when Norfolk heads for paradise because he held to his convictions, and More is damned for not following his, will Norfolk then join More out of “fellowship”?—a subtle way to share the difficulty of his situation.

            I didn’t mean this to be a book review, exactly, simply to point out there are many examples of leadership within Questions of Character, examples drawn from works by Joseph Conrad, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Sophocles, among others.  While I really enjoyed Mr. Badaracco’s explorations of great characters in the context of leadership, I’m not convinced that teaching literature to business leaders is as effective as teaching business practices to people who’ve been reading and taking in the lessons of great books for some time.  Retrofitting business people with the lessons of literature is a very tall order, not something most businesses are likely to set aside time for.

            I closed the last page on Questions of Character more convinced than ever that great literature equips great leaders with examples to follow, questions to ponder, ambiguity to live with, and complexity to unravel.  These are the essential elements, and despite the dozens of leadership books on the market, Mr. Badaracco demonstrates yet again there is no add-water-and-stir , “top 10,” “one minute,” weekend-workshop approach to becoming a leader.

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