Quotes And Leadership Lessons From Downton Abbey The Movie

A Reel Leadership Article

Several episodes of the classic Downton Abbey television series provided fascinating examples of leadership and a variety of other management issues.  Now Downton Abbey, the movie, brings a story on an even grander scale – and with some outstanding lessons for today’s world.

Cast of Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey opens with a picturesque scene, a historical reality that offers a thoughtful observation on today’s “tech-driven” world.  Downton Abbey is going to be the site of a royal visit from King George V and Queen Mary. The notice, originating as a hand-written note, travels by mail train, by a mail truck, by a messenger on a bike, and then is hand-delivered to Lord Grantham.  It’s an interesting scene to observe, how a message travels – clearly the opposite of instant communications today driven by just the press of a few keystrokes.

#1 – Think about Communicating

In an almost “Back to the Future” moment, I’ve begun communicating with several coaching clients by mailing printed copies of articles to them.  The first client I started doing this with “loves it.”  He reported very quickly that he’s able to more clearly focus on the key points in the articles, keep track of the articles because they’re not lost in the overload of emails and downloaded files, and that they initially grab his attention when they arrive.

#2 – Communicate Directly with Persistence

No one communicates more directly in the Downton Abbey world than the Dowager Countess Violet Crawley, perhaps the most loved character so brilliantly portrayed by Maggie Smith.

Machiavelli is frequently underrated.  He had many qualities.

I am an expert in every matter.

I never argue, I explain.

While Violet’s sometimes caustic wit may not be appropriate in many organizations today, the honesty contained in many of her messages is worth noting and often acknowledged by her family members.  Her knowledge of family history is obvious as well as her knowledge of the “culture” of living in a world of powerful families, royalty, and the formal structure of the “upstairs-downstairs” working environment.

With some hesitancy, Violet eventually addresses a major family crisis involving the Lady Maud, who is Robert’s first cousin once removed and he is her closest relative. The two families have fallen out over who should inherit Lady Maud’s estate.  This must be noted because Imelda Staunton, who plays Lady Maud, is likely recognized by many as the much-hated “Dolores Umbridge” from the Harry Potter movies.  She’s definitely a different character here although there are a couple of lines and a couple of facial expressions that made her instantly recognizable.

Lady Maud: 

How clever of you to find me.

Violet:

Well, not really.

Lady Maud: (Planning a seemingly clandestine meeting)

We’ll have it out once and for all, but now I must go to Her Majesty.

It’s Violet and Isobel (Lady Merton) who eventually, and directly, confront the issue with Lady Maud.  The confrontation doesn’t start or end well, with Violet stating in her typical style:  “You should be in an asylum.”  Isabel (Lady Merton’s) interjects:

There is no need to argue and argue. I expect you to face it, Violet.”

Isobel: 

You are amazing, Violet. You haven’t won.

Violet: 

You know I didn’t believe in defeat.

Violet clearly doesn’t give up, thinking about how staying connected can help the situation, then seeing how Tom Branson’s blooming relationship with Lady Merton’s daughter (Mary and Tom “have agreed to correspond”) could solve the inheritance issue:

I won’t dislike it.  I’ll lick the stamps!”

This connects back to the communication message earlier.  It’s another reminder to think about how we communicate today versus how communication flowed in the late 1920s.  And to be continually reminded of the classic communication message on “the media is the message” (Marshall McLuhan)

#3 – Loyalty to the Organization (Family)

Tom Branson (Allen Leech) is a displaced Irishman who comes to Downton Abbey as a chauffeur in the television years before marrying into and becoming a valued member of the family.  His political views, including his “opposition” to the monarchy, are well known to the family and to fans of the television series — and clearly introduced in the movie.  He is, early in the film, recruited by an Irish radical who intends to assassinate the King, assuming that Tom is an ally.  Fortunately for the King, Tom quickly becomes suspicious of this man interested in the King’s “security” and foils the attempt.  Tom’s loyalty to the family at Downton Abbey is stronger than his personal opinions.

Lady Mary spots Tom coming out of a pub with the intended assassin.  She engages her sister Edith in a conversation:

Edith: 

Do you think Tom would ever try to make trouble?

Mary:

Why do you say that?

Edith: 

He says there’s some army type who has him under surveillance.

Mary: 

Tom likes to shock. That’s all. He’d never be disloyal to his family. Never.

Tom’s position is clear, recognized even by Princess Mary:

Something Mr. Branson said about deciding what matters: “to me, the crown matters more than any of us.”

It continues with another interaction with Tom Branson and Lucy, whom he doesn’t know at the time, is the heir to the family’s fortune.

Tom: 

You could love people you disagree with.

Lucy:

And you love them?

Tom: 

They’re decent.

Enough said, definitely seeing how Tom is integrated into the family and contributes to its success.

Political differences are nothing new, in the Downton Abbey era, in today’s world, and in today’s organizations.  There’s a constant undertow of tension among families, within families, and within the broader world of early 20th century Europe.  Within the Downton Abbey family and relatives extending beyond the estate, there is, for the most part, a unity driven by family.  As organizations today, not just in the United States, struggle with a variety of challenges, how does the leadership of an organization maintain a clear focus?

#4 – Leadership Style

There are a lot of different leaders portrayed in Downton Abbey:  a King and Queen, multiple leaders within the Crawley family:  Robert (Lord Grantham), Lady Mary, the Dowager Countess, multiple staff leaders:  current and retired butlers Barrow and Carson, kitchen head Mrs. Hughes, head cook Mrs. Patmore.  A common element observing these leadership styles is the dominance, defined by the culture of the era, of carefully defined roles and an authoritarian style.  Yet there are noticeable differences.

It would be easy to refer back to examples of Lord Grantham and his wife, Cora, Countess of Grantham and their leadership struggles and successes during the television series.  Here both their involvement is limited, more observing and commenting.  Lord Grantham shows an appropriate fatherly head of the house leadership style, with a friendly sense of control, a quiet in-charge personality that’s matured over the years as he’s grown in understand his spouse, his daughters, his sons-in-law, and his grandchildren.   He often expresses his view’s in a calm, hopeful manner:

Robert: 

Tom, you’re keeping your enthusiasm under control.  Is this the Irish patriot making a reappearance?

Tom: 

I know you find my opinions highly entertaining.

There’s a much stronger sense of “role clarity,” particularly among the “downstairs” staff:  butlers, footmen, kitchen staff, ladies’ maids.  They’re a team – and it shows – but each member of the team has a tightly defined job to perform.  And the leaders, typically, express their leadership clearly.  Current butler, Barrow, who’s replaced for the King and Queen’s visit by retired butler Carson are both no-nonsense leaders who are quick to point out that they’re in charge:

Carson: 

I will play no part in this.  Suppose his majesty finds out and is displeased?

I chose that example because it’s an interesting prelude to Carson’s role is one of the most important plotlines of the story – one which shows Carson’s leadership style in a different light from what most viewers would be familiar with.  He becomes an active participant in what I’ll call the “engagement plot.”

#5 – Engaged Employees Take Risks

When the King and Queen’s staff take over all the roles of the downstairs staff, Mr. and Mrs. Bates (John and Anna) encourage the staff to take back the house to save their pride.  It starts with a simple challenge that energizes the staff – and shows how much the different members of the “downstairs” staff come together.  While it’s a somewhat unbelievable plot, it’s an entertaining look at an engaged workforce.

Anna:

Mr. Bates and I want to defend Downton’s honor. We would like your opinions on how you were treated at luncheon.

Over Carson’s temporary objectives, they concoct an elaborate plot to eliminate the King and Queen’s staff (sleeping pills for the cook, locking the butler in the deserted sleeping wing of the house, getting the footmen sent off-site).  It works, and there are several minutes of great teamwork.  The King and Queen are delighted when they find out that the Downton Abbey staff prepared and served their meal.

#6 – Awareness Is a Critical Skill

I have always believed that awareness, of surroundings, and what’s going on in situations, is a valuable skill for leaders.  In Downton Abbey, there’s an interesting plotline that develops, involving two key characters, Lady Mary and her maid Anna.  First, there is Lady Mary’s awareness of what’s going on with Tom Branson, to the extent that she ends up being part of Tom’s final actions to stop the assassination attempt. Then there is the start of a different plotline involving Lady Mary asking Anna:

Have you seen the silver box from the table by the fire in the drawing-room?  My grandmother used to keep playing cards in it.

As a number of items begin to disappear, it is obvious that Anna goes on the alert, retaining, and connecting information from different places/sources.  Items are missing from upstairs and downstairs.  When she spots one of the Queen’s staff members in a room where she doesn’t belong, her suspicions eventually bring her to the clear conclusion and action where she confronts the thief.  It provides an additional lesson where Anna clearly states her principles to a person who believes it’s “OK” to steal from the wealthy family.  And a reality lesson, some people’s attitudes, and behaviors don’t change even when confronted by a principled challenge.

Anna: 

Why did you do it, Miss Lawton?

Miss Lawton: 

Doesn’t it ever worry you that on each table in this house there’s an ornament that you couldn’t buy with a year’s wages.?

Anna: 

And what’s your answer?  Because everyone can’t have them, no one should have them.

Miss Lawton: 

No. My answer is why can’t I have it?  Don’t worry on the one I take, there’s not more than one in a hundred who would notice they’re gone.

Anna: 

But they’re not yours Miss Lawton, and they never will be.

Miss Lawton is unmoved by Anna’s challenge, even when she asks:

What would her Majesty think?”

Lawton’s response: 

Keep your advice for someone who’s interested, Mrs. Bates.

Both Lady Mary and Anna demonstrate the key elements of situational awareness, the perception of things in their environment, the comprehension of the significance, and the projection identifying the actions they each take.

#7 — Honor the Past – Hope for the Future

The very appropriate, final lesson from Downton Abbey, is perfect for today’s organizations.  In 1927 (as seen in both the movie and the television series set 5+ years earlier), the world is changing fast.  The organizational style of their world is changing, the roles of staff are changing (shrinking), their businesses are changing, and technology is rapidly evolving.  Sounds like today!

While Mary ruminates over the changing times, the thought of leaving Downton Abbey, her thoughts about leaving are discouraged while her role in leading the future are encouraged by the Dowager Countess (Violet).

Mary: 

I have such doubts, Granny.  I’ll be right to keep it all going but the world it was built for is fading with every day that passes.  Will George and Caroline still be living that life?

Violet: 

They’re living it now.  Our ancestors lived different lives from us, our descendants will have different lives, but Downton will be part of it.  You are the future of Downton.

Leadership today can successfully build on its history, the stories of its origins, and must create specific inspiring visions of the future.

Conclusion

With a story that follows six television seasons, 52 episodes, and a time span of 12+ years, there are many, many stories of leadership, teamwork, conflict, and communication that connected with references in the film.  There’s the dynamic of four different generations at Downton Abbey, how everyone from Granny to the little children adjust.  It’s momentary but certainly sparks thoughts for the multi-generational challenges of today.  There’s a direct address of Barrow’s sexuality – raised in the television series but explored here for both the negative and then the positive of his accepting the understanding of a gay relationship.  For those looking for observations on a variety of issues in today’s world, there are plenty of opportunities to nod or to contemplate the observations from the film.

Beyond the glamour, the costumes (and the constant need to change clothes), the scenery, the music and pageantry of the parade and closing ball, and the food, there are a lot of interesting observations to be taken from Downton Abbey, the movie.

This was a guest article from James W. Schreier, Ph.D., SPHR.  Jim is a management consultant with interests in leadership, management, hiring, retention, and organizational culture. He also works extensively with strategic exploration and career issues. He can be found at http://www.farcliffs.com

His articles on hiring lessons from the Downton Abbey television series can be found at http://www.212-careers.com

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