Article: A man (of HR) for all seasons

Leadership Development

A man (of HR) for all seasons

In the careers of most HR leaders there come occasions when they are asked to do things that go against their professional code or omit actions the code enjoins. Can a medieval martyr teach us how to face these?
A man (of HR) for all seasons

It happened decades ago but the scenes are still vivid in my memory. Industrial Relations in our large, beautifully laid out factory had taken a very ugly turn. There had been violence and supervisors and workers favourably inclined to the management had been at the receiving end. The Grand Panjandrum of Personnel (GPOP for short), recently imported from a sister plant, felt it was time to go on the offensive with some toughies of our own. I was then not in Industrial Relations but handling recruitment and four appointment letters for workmen landed on my table for signature. The usual examination of the supporting documents (no 'e' anything then) could trace no interview reports, trade test results or reference checks, which were the Trimurti of our process. Enquiries revealed that the appointment letters had been inserted in my in-tray by an IR dogsbody and had the backing of GPOP. Callow as I was and younger than most people in my team, I refused. The Dunning-Kruger of memory ennobles my refusal solely as a matter of principle though perhaps the irritation of having a process I owned being subverted without consulting me also had a part to play in it. The instruction and the veto went back and forth a few times before GPOP impatiently called for the papers and signed the appointment letters himself. There is a good chance he would have signed a dismissal letter too but for the fact that yours truly belonged to a cadre where exits would have had to be reported to the Group Chairman. I was lucky to survive though I could hardly hope for career advancement while GPOP remained in place. There were other times in my career when my luck ran out – and I, out of the organisation, with it. In no instance, however, did I suffer the consequences Sir Thomas More did. The play dramatising the penalty he paid with his head in standing up for his beliefs is the basis of this column’s title and the practical consequences for HR professionals remaining true to some fundamental principles are its content.1 

We are inundated with heart-warming tales of HR leaders as beaming, business partners to benevolent, people-oriented CEOs.2  This may be true – sometimes. At the other end we also have CEOs (or other senior business customers) making demands that would transgress the core principles that should be the conscience-keepers of any self-respecting CHRO.3  We shall enter that darker territory now. Fortunately, we have the light cast by the torch of Thomas More’s life to illumine our path.  

More choices

Surely there are other responses than sacrificing one’s life (or tenure) to cope with demands prejudicial to principle. I am aware of at least two other ways: the Nuremberg Defence and the Luther Stand. They are worth reviewing before leaping to imitate the foolishness of More. I took the liberty of punning with More’s name in the footsteps of his no less towering contemporary and friend, Desiderius Erasmus, who, while dedicating his lastingly famous Moriae Encomium (In Praise of Folly), to More, wrote: "First of all, there was your family name of More, which is as close to the Greek word for folly as you are far from the meaning of the word... Although you have, to be sure, a singular perspicacity that makes you accustomed to dissent sharply from the crowd, still, because of your incredibly affable and likeable ways, you can always get on well with all men, and enjoy doing it."4

The great majority of executives (not just those in HR) conform to the demands of authority with an alacrity directly proportional to the awe and fear that the Voice of Authority commands. Here too, there are gradations depending on the seriousness of the principle at stake. Some acquiescence we can smile at. "One wry anecdote tells of a pedantic argument in the second century CE between the emperor Hadrian and a notable scholar about the correct usage of a particular Latin word… The scholar gave in to the emperor, and was criticised by his friends for not standing his ground when he knew that the emperor’s view was wrong. 'A man who commands thirty legions always knows best', was his apt reply."5 Others are matters of life and death. As Bates put it in 'Henry V': "[W]e know enough, if we know we are the king's subjects: if his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us."6  We hope Bates was not among those who carried out the King’s order that "every soldier kill his prisoners".7  Whatever extenuation we grant Bates and his fellow soldiers acting in the heat of battle evaporates when we hear a just-following-orders justification from Adolf Eichmann for far more serious and unforgivable crimes. The latter "… left no doubt that he would have killed his own father if he had received an order to that effect… [After all,] he had always been a law-abiding citizen, because Hitler’s orders, which he had certainly executed to the best of his ability, had possessed 'the force of law' in the Third Reich."8  However, the excuse of following the orders of a superior in doing something wrong, also known as the Nuremberg Defense, clearly doesn’t provide a justification for serious transgressions. Most of the accused pleading such an extenuation were hung at Nuremberg. I seek the reader’s indulgence for choosing such extreme examples but I believe they are needed for shaking HR practioners out of the sleepwalking fashion in which they justify and execute extreme policy measures like emplocide.9   

Luther’s Stand is at the other extreme from the pusillanimity of the Nuremberg Defence and is intrinsically more appealing. "On an April evening over 400 years ago a simple monk faced the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. His words, heard by only a roomful of people, have echoed through the centuries: My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant any thing – for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand." 10 Inspiring as these words are, their pugnacity presaged and delivered Germany as well much of Europe to the ravages of the Wars of Religion that devastated many countries and blighted millions of lives. In the corporate context this would be equivalent to going public with one’s grievances or pursuing legal remedies against the management. While not ruling it out entirely, such steps must be undertaken only after a careful consideration of the consequences for other employees and stakeholders. A comparison with More is instructive. "More obeyed and maintained all the precepts of the law; Luther wished to expel law altogether from the spiritual life." 11 Within the corporate environment, More’s method usually offers a less disruptive option while being no less steadfast in following the dictates of conscience. 

More’s method

A few points from the preface Bolt wrote to his play about Thomas More should help focus our attention on the lessons I wish to derive from his life. "Thomas More… knew where he began and left off, what area of himself he could yield to the encroachments of his enemies, and what to the encroachments of those he loved. It was a substantial area in both cases for he had a proper sense of fear and was a busy lover. Since he was a clever man and a great lawyer he was able to retire from those areas in wonderfully good order, but at length he was asked to retreat from that final area where he located his self. And there this supple, humorous, unassuming and sophisticated person set like metal, was overtaken by an absolutely primitive rigour, and could no more be budged than a cliff… [He] was a person who could not be accused of any incapacity for life, who indeed seized life in great variety and almost greedy quantities, who nevertheless found something in himself without which life was valueless and when that was denied him was able to grasp his death." 12

The cause for which More gave up his life (his refusal to give public approval to Henry the Eighth’s marriage with Anne Boleyn and to swear an oath condoning "the effective schism of the Church in England" )13, might appear to us trivial. His commitment to the pre-reformation church and his willingness to sacrifice so much on its behalf, seem preposterous anachronisms to our secular eyes. The point, however, is different. By whatever lights his intellect provided him in those days, he had dedicated himself to some core beliefs. These were central to his image of himself and on them he would not compromise by word or deed. The beliefs a modern professional has are very different from More’s. However, to the extent such beliefs are central to what that profession (particularly a people-helping one like HR) represents, compromising on them beyond a point should not be an option. The rest of this column will tease out the implications of our following the More method (rather than the ones adopted by the defendants at Nuremberg or by Luther at the Diet of Worms) though, as mentioned earlier, the consequences for us are far less fatal.

More is Less

Though More died for his beliefs (and Luther didn’t!) we are not looking at an example of rebellion leading to martyrdom. The process is far more nuanced and it need not always end in the cutting short of life (or of corporate tenure). In fact, there are several happy careers that end without facing such a conflict of principles and I hope those of my readers who have never had to face these in the past have an equally tranquil future. For them, the rest of this column is of distant or academic interest. 

The prime requirement before putting a mulish refusal plan into action is that there has to be a genuine issue on which compromise might be fatal to the values of the organisation or of the profession.14  Or the core of the function and its potency might be hollowed out, making it a shell. Having determined the issue is weighty, it may still be possible to reach an acceptable adjustment provided the demands are not malicious or venal in origin. For instance, they may just be born out of the need of newly appointed CEOs to prove themselves. In such cases a third way may be possible without sacrificing a core belief. For More, "[t]here were occasions when he came close to the limit of his master’s tolerance…[but] he was still so good a servant that he could speak out where others remained silent – although it is likely that he did so in the guise of impersonal or theoretical counsel, in which his own feelings were not involved." 15 For some time More seemed to convince the King that "[i]t is no inconsiderable part of wisdom, to know how much of an evil ought to be tolerated; lest, by attempting a degree of purity impracticable in degenerate times and manners, instead of cutting off the subsisting ill-practices, new corruptions might be produced for the concealment and security of the old."16  The respite was temporary.

Craven as it may appear, even if perfect congruity is not possible on a substantive issue, it may be possible to deliver on other recipes for the job’s success without including that particular hot potato among the ingredients. This may sometimes involve sacrificing prized schemes and processes. It is for the individual to judge whether these aborts are so central to the job and function’s mission that their abandonment leaves a husk not worth holding any further. More’s ability to work on other parts of the Chancellor’s role with even greater fervour while adjusting to the ever-changing situation, prompted Erasmus to write (giving Bolt’s play and this column their titles): "More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning. I know not his fellow. For where is the man of that gentleness, lowliness, and affability? …A man for all seasons."17  In More’s most widely read book, Utopia, "[t]he character of More, [stresses] the necessity of practical philosophy and pragmatic guidance as an arbiter of public good."18  When things went too far for providing guidance to the king on his 'great matter', More chose discreet silence not just over open rebellion but even refrained from any covert expression of disagreement to friends. Right up to and including the moment he was about to be executed he maintained: "I die the King’s servant" – adding without pause, "but God’s first". Perhaps no HR leader can hope for a better encomium than that s/he had steadfast dedication to raising long-term shareholder value – but not at the cost of the people and values of the organisation.19 

Some more

While I have picked on More as a model for facing up to authoritarian coercion, I am under no illusion that he was a saint in all respects. His treatment of those he considered heretics against the Catholic faith was cruel, callous and condemnable. There are also several who fault More for the changeability (they call it inconstancy) implied in the omni-seasonal 'omnium horarum' description used for him by Erasmus. These are critics, I conjecture, who have never experienced the razor’s edge a courtier (CXO) walks in the presence of an unpredictable monarch (out-of-box thinking CEO). Be that as it may, there were many fine qualities More possessed, apart from his gentle firmness, that redressed the balance. I would like to mention three.

More stood up for the common man at a time when it was unusual to do so. The title of his book, Utopia, has become synonymous with impractical dreams and is filled with ambiguity, but More’s hopes for the deprived shine through: "[In Utopia], where everything belongs to everybody, no one need fear that, so long as the public warehouses are filled, anyone will ever lack for anything for his own use. For the distribution of goods is not niggardly; no one is poor there, there are no beggars, and though no one owns anything, everyone is rich." 20

Another notable priority, very rare for his time, was his focus on educating women – exemplified through the learning opportunities he gave to his daughters. "More was aware that in giving his daughters the same education as their brother he was making a new departure, which would be criticised."21  More wanted his eldest daughter, Margaret, "… to pursue her studies in philosophy and classical literature."22 She gained a reputation in her time as the cleverest woman in England.

The third quality, which might have a more restricted admiration circle than the other two, was More’s ability to give as good as he got – invective included. The nature of this journal will not permit me to quote directly but those as mischievously minded as I, are welcome pursue the reference. 23


  1. Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons, Vintage International, 1990.
  2. Visty Banaji, Partner People First, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 119-126, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
  3.  Visty Banaji, A Hippocratic Oath for HR, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 497-502, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
  4.  Desiderius Erasmus, The Essential Erasmus, Mentor-Omega, 1964. 
  5. Mary Beard, Emperor of Rome: Ruling the Ancient Roman World, Profile Books, 2023. 
  6.  William Shakespeare, King Henry V, The Arden Shakespeare, 1995.
  7.  William Shakespeare, King Henry V, The Arden Shakespeare, 1995.
  8. Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Penguin Classics, 2006.
  9.  Visty Banaji, Countering the merchants of emplocide, People Matters, 10 February 2023, (
  10. Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, Abingdon Press; Reprint edition, 2013,
  11. Peter Ackroyd, The Life of Thomas More, Vintage, 1999.
  12. Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons, Vintage International, 1990.
  13.  Peter Ackroyd, The Life of Thomas More, Vintage, 1999..
  14. Visty Banaji, A Hippocratic Oath for HR, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 497-502, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
  15. Peter Ackroyd, The Life of Thomas More, Vintage, 1999.
  16. Edmund Burke, Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, Forgotten Books, 2018.
  17. R W Chambers, Thomas More, The Harvester Press, 1982.
  18.  Peter Ackroyd, The Life of Thomas More, Vintage, 1999.
  19. Visty Banaji, HR’s Business Should Be Happiness Raising, Angry Birds, Angrier Bees – Reflections on the Feats, Failures and Future of HR, Pages 488-496, AuthorsUpfront, 2023.
  20. Thomas More, Utopia, Cambridge University Press, 2016.
  21.  R W Chambers, Thomas More, The Harvester Press, 1982.
  22. Peter Ackroyd, The Life of Thomas More,Vintage, 1999.
  23.  Peter Ackroyd, The Life of Thomas More, Vintage, 1999
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Topics: Leadership Development, Employee Relations, #Work Culture

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