The King’s Speech: Lessons for Leaders and Those Who Inspire Them

The King’s Speech is one of the finest films of the year, if not the best. On the surface, the film would appear to bore, but audiences are delighted from the moment the film begins with its humor, its powerful story, and the masterful acting by Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and Helena Bonham Carter. The film tells the story of the rise of King George VI, the father of the current Queen Elizabeth of England. Though we are removed from the history by less than a century, it is a story that few of us know. And for that reason, we are surprised and intrigued as we learn that one of the great monarchs of England, the one who led England through World War II, could not speak without a stammer when he took the throne. The film tells the story of how the King sought help and overcame his speech impediment to lead England through the dark days of war to victory.

The King’s Speech touches on many enduring themes, but among the most salient are leadership and the behaviors of those who mentor and enable leaders. The film’s director, Tom Hooper, also directed another wonderful series on leadership, HBO’s John Adams. The themes that emerge about effective leaders from both projects are similar, but here are my take-aways on leadership from The King’s Speech.

1. Great leaders are taught, not caught.

“Bertie” the King had desire, integrity and intelligence to lead England. But like most great leaders, he still had noticeable flaws and areas for improvement to master before he could be King. Rather than view his flaw as a hopeless impediment to leadership, he bravely admitted it, addressed it, and improved it until he could be comfortable in who he was as a human being and what he had to offer as  a leader. We all do have flaws, and some quite noticeable. Great leaders seek out help to overcome or manage the flaw; they don’t ignore it or let it control their destiny.

2. Flaws in leaders are not impediments to leadership but rather enablers of it.

How many celebrities, political leaders and CEOs fail to understand this principle? Publicists and PR managers are hired to cover over the humanity of these leaders, and they operate under a veneer of perfection. Until something happens like an affair, a corporate scandal or a major crisis. Leaders who have papered over their shortcoming and flaws don’t survive such eruptions. But those leaders who have been authentic and honest about their weaknesses often do survive, and not only survive, but they win our loyalty at an even deeper level. So rather than hide flaws, shine a light on them. We’re all human, and we’re drawn to others who share their humanity with us.

3. Leaders need to surround themselves with others who unlock their potential.

John Adams would not have been an effective leader without Abigail. King George needed his speech therapist Logue to inspire and unleash his greatness. Bertie found himself in a position which exceeded his inner esteem of himself and his abilities. Logue’s best contributions to Bertie were not merely the speech therapy. The speech therapy was just a vehicle for unlocking the potential that was in Bertie but that he could not see or believe himself. Logue was an unexpected savior. He was an Australian, an outsider, of a different economic class, self-taught. But his clarity about himself and his gifts allowed him to come alongside others, and even a king, to bring out their best. It is a rare gift to find someone who will mentor us without self-interest and only for our growth. They are God’s gift, and we are foolish to ignore them, no matter their background. Help often comes from unexpected places.

4. Those who enable and mentor leaders must be willing to walk away.

King George, then only a prince, grew frustrated with the meaningless exercises that Logue insisted of him, and he grew discouraged with his lack of progress. It all seemed ridiculous to him, so he quit his therapy. Rather than beg him to stay, or badger him for his decision, Logue let him go. Though it hurt Logue to see him go, and to lose such a noteworthy client, he was confident in himself, in his work, and that the prince would come to his senses and return. And he did. Those we attempt to lead sometimes need space and time, and we need the confidence in God and in ourselves just to back off, be patient, and let time work its magic. Parents would do well to remember Logue’s lesson too.

5. Hear the music, curse a little, and the words will follow.

In his first visit with Bertie, Logue turned on music and told Bertie to read a speech out loud to the rhythms of the music. Bertie did so reluctantly. As the sweeping symphony played in the background, Bertie began to read aloud. And when he did, his stammer disappeared and he read the speech perfectly. Logue also noticed that when Bertie cussed, he spoke the curse words perfectly and without hesitation. What was the association between cursing, music and perfection? Letting go. Bertie stammered when he thought too much and tried too hard. But when he let go, and he heard the language of the heart, rather than the words in his head, he could read perfectly. That’s also how great leaders lead — from the heart. Too much effort and too much carefulness often can inhibit the best in a leader until the leader finally “gets over himself,” lets go, and speaks with the language that is already within.

So, what flaws are you trying to hide as a leader? Why not let them shine a bit more?

So who is your guide, mentor and teacher? Who has your back? Who are you entrusting with your future?

Who are you leading and mentoring without any self-interest of your own and with only their good in mind?

Those are the questions of The King’s Speech.

3 Responses to “The King’s Speech: Lessons for Leaders and Those Who Inspire Them”
  1. Neil Christy says:

    Thanks, Todd. We are so anxious to see this film but have not taken the opportunity yet. This encourages me to do so sooner rather than later. Thanks again for your thought-provoking essay/blog.

  2. Katie says:

    Loved this!! Thanks for posting. One of the classes I am taking this semster at Melbourne Uni is on ethical leadership! Glad to read this on my first day!

  3. toddbouldin says:

    Thank you Katie! So proud you’re there, and I can’t think of any student that I knew who better embodies this. Enjoy Melbourne. Yes, I’m jealous.

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