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Learn How to Be an Effective Leader from King Henry VIII Himself

There's more than meets the eye when it comes to 16th century leadership in England...
Learn How to Be an Effective Leader from King Henry VIII Himself

A portrait of King Henry VIII of England.

Image credit: Wynnter | Getty Images
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United. Uber. Wells Fargo. CEOs of well-known brands are constantly under a microscope—every mistake or fault criticized, analyzed, and publicized.  

  • After a passenger was forcibly removed from his seat and dragged off a plane, the United CEO’s initial response (“I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers…”) was widely seen as callous and tone-deaf.
  • Uber’s CEO was caught on video berating one of his own drivers after the driver told him that Uber’s changing prices were hurting his business.
  • Rather than acknowledge a systemic problem, Wells Fargo CEO blamed rogue employees for creating fake accounts in customers’ names.

We’re in the midst of a leadership crisis. According to the 2016 Ketchum Leadership Communication Monitor: just 23 percent of people believe leaders are effective, while 65 percent say they’ve purchased less from a company due to negative leadership behavior. In essence, poor leadership hurts the bottom line. And these numbers show it’s not just the scandal-ridden companies that feel the pain. We’re all caught in their shadow.

For an admittedly out-of-left-field take on the subject, I asked for some insight from an expert on one of history’s most famous morally questionable partnerships: England’s King Henry VIII and his No. 2 (at least until Henry had him killed), Thomas Cromwell.

Janet Wertman is a lawyer, a development consultant for nonprofits, and an author of historical fiction. Her book, “Jane the Quene” is the story of Henry VIII’s rejection of Anne Boleyn to marry Jane Seymour, and Jane’s short time on the throne. It’s also the story of the Tudor court, where office politics had lethal consequences. The following is a brief discussion I had with regarding ethical leadership in a historical context.

Glenn Llopis (GL): Put the story [of King Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell] in context for those of us not familiar with it.

Janet Wertman (JW):  Thomas Cromwell was the son of a blacksmith and rose to become Chief Minister to England’s King Henry VIII. Cromwell was methodical, calculating and brilliant. He was an accountant: understanding the financial aspects of the realm was the source of much of his power.

He’s considered a villain because he manufactured the charges that led to Anne Boleyn’s execution. But by his own standards, he considered himself moral: true to himself and true to his goals. He was a reformist, dedicated to creating and protecting the new Church of England.

GL: Is there anything leaders today can learn from Cromwell?

JW: First, diversity of thought leads to new ideas.

Cromwell was a commoner. He was also a religious reformist. These two factors gave him a different viewpoint from other leaders of the day. Henry VIII needed a son: after 20 years with his first wife, he had only a daughter. Cromwell first rose to power because he was the one who figured out how to get Henry divorced. For seven years, Henry’s advisors tried to convince the Pope to let Henry divorce his first wife. Cromwell created the Church of England to make the Pope’s opinion irrelevant. Then he solidified his power when Henry needed money, by dissolving the monastic houses and claiming that wealth for the crown.

Second lesson: when it comes to your boss or your business partners, choose well. Every job requires you to fall on your sword a bit to protect your boss. Corporate lawyers experience this in almost every negotiation, taking the blame for their clients’ “unreasonable” positions. That was Cromwell – blamed for everything even when much of it stemmed from Henry. Consider what kind of leader you follow. Cromwell chose someone evil and ended up doing evil things.

GL: These recent scandals [cited above] were made much worse by poor leadership communication. Are there any lessons there from the Cromwell/Henry VIII partnership?

JW: Both were masters of public perception.

Henry cloaked his actions in altruism. If you asked him, he would say that he left Catherine because he needed a son (not because he had fallen in love with Anne Boleyn); he closed the abbeys because of the corruption (not because he would gain the wealth); he left Anne because she had committed treason (not because he was tired of her). That didn’t always fool the people around him – but it was more convincing from afar.

Cromwell’s strategies satisfied the King’s desires without appearing to offend the morality of the day. He went to great lengths to keep to the letter of the law with Anne’s execution – even giving her a trial presided over by her uncle – so that no one would notice it was a house of cards.

Obviously, these are not virtuous qualities to aspire to. But to your point about our current scandals, perception matters.

That’s the perfect note to end on, because it brings us to what we need more of from leaders: authenticity. I’m actually encouraged by how loudly we make our voices heard today when we see the opposite from our leaders.

Keep demanding authenticity and the courage that goes with it.

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