Mark Rylance has eyebrows like licorice loo brushes or tumbleweeds freshly tarred. Beneath his brows, his eyes are watchful and his face impassive. The actor is playing Thomas Cromwell in the BBC/PBS adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. His performance should be studied by anyone who seeks to improve their political savvy. Thomas Cromwell, right-hand man of England’s Tudor king Henry VIII, is someone who has learned to watch and listen. When he is stung by someone who incorrectly reads his motives, he doesn’t open his mouth to put them right. Nothing deflects him from his purpose. People can think and say what they like, but Cromwell is focused, a man who gets things done. In the mini-series, we see Thomas More executed. Once he, like Cromwell, was a court insider. But he stands in the King’s way. First he will not help Henry secure an annulment for his marriage to his first bride, he does not attend the coronation of the second, and he thwarts Henry’s attempts to have Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Princess Elizabeth declared his heir. Cromwell tries to nudge him towards compliance and compromise, but More sticks to his principles. By a shake of his head, still, firmly attached, Cromwell shows us that he believes that agendas are best advanced by stealth, not grandstanding. What use are you to your fight if you are dead?
Of course, Cromwell got his own come uppance, a couple of wives further down the line. Plus, while More’s motivation was clear up until the axe fell, it is harder to work out what was really important to Cromwell: loyalty to the King? The advance of Protestantism? Or simply saving his own skin? I wonder did Rylance ask “What’s my motivation?” in rehearsal. It is a question that would be hard to answer.
Cromwell’s ability to control his emotions, read his environment, pick his moment and hold his tongue are great leadership skills–and ones I struggle with daily. Facing execution, I am sure I would have caved, unlike Thomas More. Keep these men in mind when you think about your own leadership strengths and skills gaps. What could the Tudors teach you?
Take a look at those eyebrows in action here.