As someone who writes about leadership and is admittedly smitten with the period drama “Downton Abbey” on PBS, I’ve become particularly interested in the characters of Lord Robert Crawley, the generous and forgiving steward of the Downton estate, and that of Carson, the rigid butler whose careful management of old ways and social orders keeps the place operating as smoothly as possible. Both have effective, if differing, leadership styles, which endear both the fictional people in their charge and the viewers of the wildly popular show, which aired the finale of its second season Sunday night.
Sure, social customs and class divisions have a lot to do with how Carson keeps a handle on his staff and how Crawley can be such a beneficent master of the house. But from Crawley’s mostly respectful one-on-one conversations with those in his employ to Carson’s firm but discreet discipline with his staff, both men demonstrate leadership styles that—fiction or not—would likely be effective in the real world.
So when I spotted the headline on the cover of New York Times’ Sunday Magazine, “Management Tips from ‘Downton Abbey’” , I was intrigued. But instead of offering helpful ideas for managers from the show, the writer, Carina Chocano, instead questions the depiction of Crawley, asking whether a “fictional aristocrat” as “magnanimous, solicitous and totally ludicrous as the Earl of Grantham ever graced the screen?” She mocks the “feudal overlord as a corporate manager, a devotee of Tom Peters, subscriber to the method of management by walking around and listening,” and acknowledges that “this fantasy of enlightened management is comforting, especially in its portrayal of a system in which knowing your place was pretty much all it took to remain in your place.”
Perhaps Chocano is right about Crawley’s friendly interactions with his staff. He’s more amiable with the valets who work for him or lenient with the nearly blind cook responsible for feeding his family than might be expected given the time and its norms. The same goes for his wife, Lady Cora Crawley, who, after responding to a tip that food is being stolen from her home by her servants, steps right in and rolls up her sleeves to help her servants, rather than admonishing them, when she discovers they are only trying to feed wounded veterans.
Series creator Julian Fellowes doesn’t, however, think the portrayal of an artistocrat who respects those who work for him is an illusion. Rather, he seems to believe it is not only how things were, but how things should return to being. “If you want people in your factory to work well … if you’re polite and you give them some value, they will work better,” he says in a video interview on the show’s Web site. “People who treat people who work for them very badly get much less out of them. I wish if it was only for self interest that we could again become a more courteous world.”
Such leaders may seem rare in today’s world, especially when the economy has given employers the upper hand and when the demands on most managers’ time gives them little room for so-called “walking around.” But they are not a fantasy. It’s true that most people want to make a contribution to the success of the place they work, even if there are societal factors that keep them there. It’s no joke that enlightened management can and does create loyal employees. ‘Downton Abbey’ is a work of fiction, to be sure, but the dedication of Bates, the valet, to the Crawley family somehow comes off as understandable, rather than disingenuous. Leaders who respect the people who work for them, who know what’s affecting their staff in their personal lives, and who respond quickly to problems and concerns are not only very real, but are also very effective leaders.
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