Last year, I decided to start watching a TV series called The Royals – a fictional drama, starring Elizabeth Hurley as the Queen, that re-imagines the British Royal family as a modern, edgy and dysfunctional bunch of characters, whose lives seem to be perpetually rife with scandal.
The series begins with the King mired in a deep and troubled contemplation. He was seriously considering abolishing the British monarchy, because the the rising discontent among the people. Many citizens (who were quite vocal in their protestations) felt that the institution was now completely irrelevant and was a financial drain on the taxpayer. In the second episode, the royal family is preparing to host a garden party at the palace, to which many heads of stare have been invited. Despite the festive surroundings, the King is not enjoying himself; this issue still weighs heavily on his mind.
The camera then turns to the kitchen, where the King and a member of his staff, Prudence (whom he knows by name), are both placing tiny Union Jack flags on a tray of desserts which will be served to the garden party guests. As they decorate the food, he makes small talk by asking her about her life outside the palace walls, and trying to get to know a bit about her as a person. He also asked her what she thought of the monarchy itself, presumably a prelude to the question: does she think that should the monarchy be abolished? Although he requested a completely honest answer, Prudence replied (most prudently) “I am happy to be employed in your Majesty’s home”. While her response may not have been a “big picture” view that the King was hoping for, I can understand that job security and the continuation of her livelihood would be Prudence’s primary and immediate concern.
When I first saw this scene, my initial reaction was “Who wrote this script? This is the King of England, who has hundreds of full-time staff members all ready to do his bidding. Why would be spend his time in the staff kitchen, doing the work of a servant, when he surely has more important things to attend to?”.
A couple of weeks later, I thought about this scene again and realized that I was completely wrong. This was actually an teachable moment moment and a stellar example of leadership. Here’s why:
I’m a member of Toastmasters, and this organization promotes what’s known as a “servant leader philosophy”. That is, the higher one rises in an organization, the more s/he is required to serve others. As members become more experienced and gain new skills, they will be called upon to mentor newer members, assist in club contests, be guest speakers at other clubs, as well as serve as an executive at the Area, District or Division level. It’s a good philosophy that not only keeps us grounded, but ensures that our new skills are used for the benefit of all, and not just ourselves.
Years ago, when I worked in the financial district, there was a story going around the street that Matthew Barrett, who had recently been named as Chairman of the Bank of Montreal, called a meeting of the head office employees. After he introduced himself, he told the audience that everyone naturally assumes that the Chairman is the top job at the bank, but he disagrees. He then displayed a large image of an inverted corporate pyramid and explained that this is how he views himself in the corporate hierarchy – right at the bottom. His job is to serve the bank, its customers and its employees.
I also saw something on my Facebook wall that encapsulated everything. This diagram:
I now realized that the King was actually displaying outstanding leadership skills:
- He did not feel that any work was beneath him, and gladly volunteered to help out in the kitchen alongside his staff, performing what is certainly a menial task.
- He set a good example through his actions, rather than just his words.
- He made an effort to know his staff members by name.
- He asked his staff about their personal lives and got to know them as people, rather than just servants.
- He even appeared to be soliciting their advice on matters for which only the heads of state might be consulted – the abolition of the monarchy. I would imagine that such an inquiry from the King must be immensely flattering to someone working in the palace kitchen.
Above all, the King remained humble. He internalized the advice of Saint Augustine, who said “Do you wish to be great? Think first about the foundations of humility. The higher your structure is to be, the deeper must be its foundation“.
Although his character is fictionalized, he offers a real leadership lesson for all of us.