Did you ever read or see A Man for All Seasons, the play by Robert Bolt about the life of Sir Thomas More? In case you’ve forgotten this bit of history, 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 whom King Henry could not persuade to condone his (the king’s) divorce from his barren wife, Catherine of Aragon. More was eventually imprisoned and later executed for refusing to agree that the king, and not the pope, should be the head of the church and should, therefore, 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.
The play is a topic in an unusual business book, Questions of Character: Illuminating the Heart of Leadership Through Literature by Joseph Badaracco, Jr. In it, Mr. Badaracco explores aspects of leadership as they are revealed by characters in literature. I’ve read dozens of business leadership books. It’s a hugely popular topic in business because (1) it’s hard to do well and (2) it’s badly needed. Most of these leadership books describe the rather obvious and now commonly-agreed-on characteristics of leadership—authenticity, the ability to articulate a vision, keep promises, lead a balanced life and so on. To become a better leader (or to become a leader at all), many of these books recommend 10-step programs, quick-fix methods, week-long retreat agendas and even daily disciplines to adopt—things like “Every morning, write down your interpersonal relationship goals for the day.” Really. No kidding. As if any of those methods were likely to develop leadership.
Badaracco’s book, instead, examines the nuances of leadership, how the traits of leadership are revealed by characters in great works of fiction, and why the characters who embody them effect change and make a lasting impression.
Sir Thomas More, whom Mr. Badaracco examines at length, navigates dangerous territory as he tries to reconcile principles and pragmatism. But it isn’t the simple case that principles trump pragmatism, as you might expect. More demonstrates the leadership of nuance, not stark contrast, and therefore both principles and pragmatism prevail. 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 is one of many who agree with the king that the church should grant the divorce. He asks More why he won’t join them in agreement simply out of “fellowship.” More replies that, at the gates of heaven when Norfolk heads for paradise because he held to his convictions, while More is damned for not following his, will Norfolk then join More out of “fellowship”?
What a subtle but masterful way to share the difficulty of his situation! If only business leaders today demonstrated as much integrity. If only they could hold to their convictions with as much tenacity.
Questions of Character is based on the premise that great literature a rich source of examples for leaders and future leaders to follow. Good fiction offers up characters who ponder and sometimes answer great questions, who slog through complexity, live with ambiguity and unravel—or are overcome by—human behavior. These are the essential elements, and despite the dozens of leadership books on the market, literature reminds us there is no add-water-and-stir, top 10 list of surefire things to do, one-minute-a-day, weekend-workshop approach to becoming a leader.