Leadership Lessons from Downton Abbey

This is a guest post by friend and mentor Bruce Rhoades, who retired after having run several companies. He often helps me with strategy. I am delighted that he is a regular contributor.

Lessons from Downton Abbey

After six seasons, the popular PBS series Downton Abbey has ended. As the series unfolded, we watched the characters evolve through many changes in their society and personal lives. As the characters changed and matured, there were numerous lessons and wisdom for life demonstrated in the show.



Each of these characters also demonstrated leadership attributes that can be learned from watching them deal with the various situations that confronted them.

Here are a few of the leadership lessons exhibited by the characters:



Robert Crawley, Lord Grantham

  • No strategy will work forever. Watch for environmental and market changes and adapt.
  • Learn to delegate to those who are more suited to new endeavors. Take their advice, trust them and start small.
  • For long-term viability, a leader needs to groom successors and allow others to exercise their talent.
  • A successful leader needs to attract those with complementary skills to his/her own, then allow them to take action.
  • Often the “best man for the job” is a woman.




Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham

  • Communication, patience and being non-judgmental are necessary to allow others to adapt to change.
  • Sometimes it is most effective to act quietly and consistently in small ways to effect change. Open confrontation elicits defensiveness in others.
  • Open acceptance and acknowledgement of others builds trust and opens communication.
  • Sometimes keeping the peace in the short term provides opportunities for change in the long term.



Mr. Carson, the Butler

  • Giving orders works in the short term but does not create lasting change or personal growth in others.
  • Be respectful of those in your charge, you may need them later to move forward.
  • Failure to acknowledge change weakens your leadership.
  • Expecting perfection limits and stifles the efforts of those around you.
  • Management by intimidation does not create loyalty.





Lady Mary Crawley

  • Wisdom can come from any level in the organization.
  • Arrogance does not foster collaboration, trust or effective leadership.
  • Putting others down does not build you up.
  • For continued success, a leader must acknowledge change and act accordingly.




Lady Edith Crawley

  • Truthfulness will always yield the best, lasting results.
  • Do not overcomplicate the situation and delay action.
  • Measured risk-taking and action builds confidence.
  • Don’t let the future be dictated by the past.



Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess

  • Deal with the situation, not the person. Acceptance of the person creates trust.
  • Ignoring a changing environment does not solve anything.
  • Know when to let others take the lead.
  • Sometimes a leader needs to give stern, unpopular advice.
  • Humor can reduce tension and create a more open atmosphere.


Isobel Crawley

  • Leading by example encourages others.
  • Taking action consistent with communication gets results.
  • Act on your beliefs. Sometimes it takes bold action to make progress and get others “on board.”
  • Even in disagreement, continue communication, engagement and respect.



Tom Branson

  • You can lead from any position in the organization.
  • Genuine listening builds trust and collaboration.
  • Actions speak louder than words.




Mrs. Hughes

  • Compassion creates the atmosphere to lead and helps others to grow.
  • Encourage others to help them do their best.



Mrs. Patmore

  • Listening helps people make decisions on their own.
  • Unselfishly serve others to build trust and open opportunities to lead.
  • Act on your strengths to secure your future.



Joseph Molesley

  • It takes risk to change and make progress.
  • You can lead by helping others and help yourself as a result.
  • Encouragement helps others to take risk and achieve their potential.
  • Taking action builds confidence.
  • Don’t let the past define your capabilities.



Anna Smith, Lady’s Maid

  • Persistence pays off; never give up on what you believe and desire.
  • Look for the good in every situation for strength and perspective.
  • Discretion builds trust and opens communication.


Phyllis Baxter

  • Continued focus on the past blocks new opportunities and limits future potential.
  • Bolstering self-confidence in others encourages their growth.


Thomas Barrow



Denker, Lady’s Maid

  • Backstabbing and manipulation does not get results.
  • Deviousness always backfires and undermines trust.



Daisy Mason

  • Look past first impressions to find a person’s true character and talent.
  • Keep learning to grow, achieve results and stay relevant.




Almost every character in the Downton Abbey series demonstrates certain leadership characteristics and styles. However, there are some consistent themes across all the characters that reinforce several effective leadership principles:

  • Genuine listening builds trust and makes others open to influence.
  • For long-term viability, it is necessary to recognize and adapt to change.
  • To achieve broad results, allow others to use their strengths.
  • Encourage others to help them achieve their best.
  • One can lead from any position in the organization.
  • A leader must attract both complementary and new skills to be successful.
  • Leadership through visible action is always effective.

Downton Abbey is not only an engaging series on English culture, expectations and changing roles in society, but it also demonstrates many effective leadership principles. I am sure that you can add to the list of leadership lessons from each of the characters in this series.




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