The story of Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII as told by Hilary Mantel in her Booker Prize winning books has lessons for anyone in politics or business. I saw Wolf Hall last week in a brilliant stage adaptation at The Aldwych and can't wait to see the second part Bring Up The Bodies next month.
Ben Miles excels in what must be a career defining role as the tough but tender, honourable but ruthless fixer, at the King's shoulder but always looking over his own shoulder, ingratiating himself with jokes and honest advice, bowing as low as etiquette requires but never bowing inside his head, scurrying from court to home ever at the King's will. Watching him, I couldn't help thinking of the occasions I've been in Cromwell's situation.
To survive in those times as a politician, you were entirely dependent on the King, just as employees are today on the autocratic bosses who run many of our companies. Cromwell succeeds by keeping close to the King and by offering good advice. The problem for him is that the King likes to blame his advisors for his poor decisions.
I remember once working for a boss to whom I became right-hand man. He liked me because I gave him solutions not problems, just as Cromwell finds King Henry a solution to his problem with his first wife. But, as time went on, I made the mistake of just getting on with the problem solving without involving him. This gave others the opportunity to get close to him and undermine my position.
It was then I found, as Cromwell will in the third book, that loyalty counts for a lot less than you might hope, in business as in politics. This particular chief exec always made great play of the company being like a family. This meant very little when he was faced with a choice between pursuing self interest or the interests of the business. It turned out that if the company was a family, it was more Borgias than Waltons.
My loyalty to him which had been unquestioning was repaid with a push through the door. It was a harsh lesson for me. I still believe that you won't get loyalty in business unless you show it but I am also much more aware since then that most people will not put loyalty above survival. Still, at least I didn't have my head chopped off.