Have you ever completed a task at work and then looked back and thought “I know we always do that but actually I am not sure why” or “I don’t see the point of that but its probably just easier to do it than ask why we bother”? It can feel far more comfortable to be controlled by our habitual patterns of behaviour than to break out from them, or even just to be conscious enough to question them.

And so it was that I found myself asking: “What is this?” as I recently watched the reburial of King Richard III of England and listened to commentators using a variety of words, particularly ‘honour’ to explain what was happening.

If anyone of you doesn’t know the backstory to this it is relatively simple. Richard III died in battle at Bosworth Field in 1485, effectively ending the War of the Roses and signalling the start of the Tudor period. He was buried in a tomb that was later destroyed. Fast forward to 2012 when his bones were discovered beneath a council car park in Leicester. After a couple of years of proving it was him and some wrangling over where he should be reburied, Richard III’s bones were finally placed in a tomb in Leicester Cathedral on 26th March after 5 days of services, processions and general pomp and ceremony. The streets were lined with thousands of people for the procession, the cathedral had to turn many away who wanted to view the coffin, and the service itself was an extraordinary celebrity fest. City mayor Peter Soulsby explained the reason for all this by saying ”in 1485 Richard III was buried without honour; now in 2015 we can put that right and bury him with honour and dignity”.

Forgive me but I just don’t get it. The man died 530 years ago so I am not sure what honour he would be in receipt of. And I can’t believe the lives of his descendants had been previously blighted by lack of honour caused by his earlier burial. The more I read about all this the more suspicious I became about some of the motivations. There was lots of talk of reverence, duty and of course honour, and the feeling I got was of a society clinging on to the status quo in terms of the importance of the Church of England, The Royal Family, the media and politics. If I was kind I would say it was a sort of nostalgic sentimentality but, given that I was not feeling kind about this, I would say it smacked of hegemonic control.

This story reminded me of one of Shakespeare’s most famous characters, the redoubtable Falstaff, raging against the concept of honour before the battle of Shrewsbury in Henry IV (part 1):

"Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I come on? How then? Can honour set-to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? No. What is honour? A word. What is in that word “honour”? What is that “honour”? Air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ’Tis insensible then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon. And so ends my catechism."

Shakespeare, who I would regard as writer for all ages and a challenger in many ways, uses Falstaff to point out the danger of honour as a symbol (scutcheon) used to rally young men to fight and die needlessly. Because the word ‘honour’ is deployed, there is no allowance for challenging the unconscious habit of young men dying in vain. To do so would be somehow be dishonourable, as presumably would be the act of questioning the recent fuss and bother in Leicester.

So what do we actually honour when we honour Richard III? I’m no historian but I believe he is most famous for usurping the throne by allegedly killing the rightful heir, who happened to be his nephew. Having reined for all of two years, and surviving one attempt to overthrow him, Richard was killed in battle himself and buried ignominiously as a traitor to England.

All of which could be seen a pleasant diversion into ancient history; but what might we, in 21st century Britain PLC, learn from my random ramblings on honour? Well it seems to me that we might see honour as one of the ‘rules of the game’ for maintaining the status quo. Other ‘rules’ could include tradition, ritual, custom, and perhaps even policy, procedure, working practice. If these things exist only to keep us wedded to a past that no longer exists, then how well do they serve us? I’m not advocating change purely for the sake of it, merely a mindset that wants to learn from the past rather than merely repeat it. I believe that in business, indeed most everywhere, we are better served by conscious curiosity than by unconscious habit.

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