Submitted anonymously, October 10, 2012.
“The Great Leader is Servant First”
Masterpiece Theater’s Downton Abbey chronicles the lives of those who live and work at the great British estate of Downton Abbey, from the scullery maid, Daisy, to the Earl of Grantham, Robert Crawley. The story throws the differences between Edwardian life “upstairs” and “downstairs” into sharp relief, but also points out the similarities that cross both spheres and explores what happens when these worlds come in contact with each other. Lord Grantham’s leadership of the family and estate is an interesting study of one who is born into a position of authority and yet uses his power very conscientiously. Without going into the specifics of the plot or characters, I’ll try to briefly summarize Grantham’s leadership style with examples from the story.
Grantham is undoubtedly the head of Downton Abbey, yet he by no means tries to make himself the center of it. He sees his role more as custodian than commander; a good imagery for the servant as leader. From such humility stems his continually solicitous behavior towards his family of women, his staff, and all guests and outsiders. In the first season, when he finds he must take on a socially inferior stranger as heir—leaving his own daughter out in the cold—he accepts the inevitability and moves to embrace the young man and guide him in his new role. He gives everyone in his charge room to grow and live their own lives, while always making himself available to them to listen and help however possible. This can be seen in his support of Bates, in personally interviewing Branson and allowing him use of the library, in arranging first-rate medical care for Mrs. Patmore, and even in allowing Gwen, a simple housemaid, to use the library for a job interview as a typist. He has a clear idea of who he is and his purpose in life, and this allows him to be equally accepting of others and see their value, too.
The second season brings the Great War and its upheaval of tradition and the aristocracy. Lord Grantham questions his value even as head of Downton in the face of such massive, senseless destruction, especially when he seems to be of no use to the war effort. Whereas he once knew his own significance, being custodian of a grand house seems absurd. Grantham’s house is commandeered, his family is in tumult, his male staff sent to war, and his heir grievously incapacitated. He loses the vision for his life, yet continues to try and build up those around him. Adrift and heading into the darkness of despair, Grantham stumbles badly in his principles but manages to hold on to the attitude that whatever little he can do, he can and must do with honor. The small, and to him trivial, job he has now of keeping up morale, he tries to do well. He perseveres in fostering community around him. He allows his wife and daughters to grow, learning new things and breaking out of their social shells. He continues to have respect for all people, taking on Lang and Jane, who have been hurt by the war, and personally seeking Bates out, apologizing, and ultimately providing his own legal counsel for Bates’ defense. He keeps supporting others in their search for fulfillment by allowing Branson and Sybil’s marriage, encouraging Mary to follow her heart in the face of scandal, and by even being willing to give up Carson, who ponders leaving Downton. In recognizing his own faults, he forgives others’ theirs: Mary and Pamuk, Cora and her selfishness, Thomas and his thievery. Grantham will still have to search for a renewed sense of purpose in this brave new world, but if he prevails in acting as servant first, he need not despair the task.
Among Grantham’s many superb leadership qualities, three stand out as exemplary of the servant leader. First, Grantham has a great capacity for recognizing the worth of others and their right to find purpose and dignity. This is evident in his behavior towards everyone, whether it’s Matthew’s butler, Mosley, or his own daughter, Edith. It is also apparent in his thoughtfulness—he is constantly thinking of others’ welfare, be it the 3rd class passengers on the Titanic or Sybil, preparing for her social debut. It guides Grantham to let his daughters pursue occupations of real value for the war effort; to appoint Isobel as chairwoman of the board at the hospital so she can feel satisfaction in being useful; to keep Bates on when everyone else has given him up as incompetent, and later, a criminal. Though he feels himself useless and without value, he still works to give others a chance, as with Jane’s son in the Ripon school. Even Thomas, once caught stealing, is given another chance because of Grantham’s recognition that he may be trying to better himself. Such an affirmative view of others stems from a well-rounded view of oneself, which leads to another of Grantham’s remarkable attributes: his ability to see the big picture and where he stands in it. The clarity with which Grantham accomplishes this is due to a humble appreciation of both his part to play and his faults that make success in such a part difficult. Grantham is wonderfully unassuming; he knows he is no great figure to go down in history, but he also knows that he has been given a specific job to do and that such a job has worth: to continue the dynasty of Downton Abbey, forwarding the hard work of his forebears. While Grantham changes the things he can, such humility also helps him acknowledge the things that are out of his control—another valuable aspect of good conceptualizing—and he realizes the importance of stepping aside and supporting Matthew, a lowly stranger, as heir when Grantham sees the entailment is inevitable. With Grantham’s mentoring, Matthew grows to acknowledge the value of his own part at Downton and the dignity of those who really make Downton Abbey what it is—the servants. With a mutual respect for both himself and others, Grantham exhibits his most extraordinary leadership attribute—the talent of building a community where everyone can thrive. Grantham makes sure there is both ritual and celebration in the lives of those around him: letting the staff go to the fair; making sure the flower show is enjoyable for everyone, not only the redoubtable Dowager Countess; instructing that the servants be allowed to grieve upon the death of Mr. Pamuk; marking the end of the War with an assembly and moment of silence; giving time off to all personnel at Christmas; and of course, the annual Servants’ Ball; these among numerous examples. In supporting work and play, fairness and mercy, Grantham builds a cohesion in his staff and family that seems almost implausible, given the range of discordant characters. Overarching all the individual squabbles, however, is a unity which, in the family’s case, binds them against outside forces, and in the servants’, led by Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson, center around the honor and duty of serving at Downton. In building a community that looks after its own and encourages them to succeed, Grantham has passed Greenleaf’s “best test” of a servant leader: that his/her followers become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servant leaders. Mrs. Hughes, Mr. Carson, Sybil, Matthew, Anna—all are servant leaders fostered in Grantham’s community. The future of Downton Abbey may be in doubt, but Grantham has ensured the continuance of servant leadership—a tradition that will always have value.