Learning About Strategy From King Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell

08/09/2013 05:09 pm ET Updated Oct 09, 2013

I recently read a great book about the legendary English King Henry VIII, and I was impressed at how skilled a leader he was. Henry really knew how to get things done, and he knew how to pick the right person to advise him. Thomas Cromwell was the king's chief strategist during a critical decade of his reign and was the key to many of Henry's most significant achievements. I believe that today's strategists can learn a lot from Cromwell's approach to getting what the King wanted and what Cromwell thought was best for England.

Here are some of those strategy lessons:

Choose employees based on their good sense and strategic abilities, not their upbringings or backgrounds. Cromwell came from a working-class family, and his father was an alcoholic who abused the boy mercilessly. In the days of Henry, it was extremely unusual to choose such an important advisor from a lowly background. In fact, Cromwell suffered throughout his life from the enmity of the nobility, but Henry did not care about his lack of noble blood.

Be clear about your goals, and be flexible and creative about how you achieve them. Henry was married for 20 years to his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, who bore him no sons who lived to adulthood. Henry was very concerned about having a male heir, because before he ascended the throne the country had suffered a long period of dynastic civil wars, and he wanted to prevent any ambiguity around his own succession. Finally, he decided that he must put Katherine aside. This was impossible, because the pope would not allow an annulment of his marriage.

Henry consulted with members of the House of Common, which was hostile to the Roman Catholic Church. Cromwell, a lawyer and member of the Commons, was one of these and quickly became an indispensable advisor to the King. Over a period of several years, Cromwell tried different approaches to making the break with the pope acceptable to the members of Parliament and the English people. He strong armed Parliament into enacting multiple pieces of legislation designed to solidify the break and thereby ensure the legality of Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn. And he was ultimately successful, although many issues remained unresolved until much, much later.

Raise revenue from places that have lots of money, even if you haven't thought of them as sources before. One of the many reasons Cromwell disliked the Roman Catholic Church was that it owned about a third of all the land in England. The wealth of the convents and monasteries was legendary, and the King did not control it. The English government desperately needed revenue. Henry put Cromwell in charge of all the religious institutions in the country, and Cromwell's men performed an inventory so that the properties could be taxed more and more effectively. And of course, eventually, all of the monasteries were destroyed and their goods confiscated.

Make more friends than enemies so you have a chance to enact all the changes your boss wants you to do. Cromwell made lots of enemies for many reasons. He was of common birth but rose to great heights. He championed the cause of the Reformation when many people in England would have been happy to remain Roman Catholic. He helped his master divorce a popular queen (Katherine) to marry an unpopular mistress (Anne). And eventually, his enemies convinced the King that Cromwell should go. Ironically, Cromwell's downfall was linked to yet another wife of the King, Anne of Cleves, whom Cromwell urged Henry to marry after the death of Jane Seymour, wife number three. Anne was reported to be a great beauty, and the famous painter Hans Holbein delivered a portrait of her to the King before he would consent to the marriage. When Anne arrived in England, it became clear that she was plain, not beautiful. And the King blamed Cromwell.

Of course, the environment in which organizations and governments operate today is different than the one in which Cromwell and Henry lived. In the U.S., one does not lose one's head for advising someone to marry. But since Cromwell and Henry achieved so much together, it is instructive to contemplate what made them such a great strategic team.