Some Business and Leadership Lessons from Downton Abbey

I really enjoy Downton Abbey and I’m super excited about the new season. A friend turned me on to it this Fall and my wife and I quickly watched the first two seasons. I really shouldn’t be able to relate to it – after all, it’s a period drama (soap opera?) about British aristocracy and their servants in the early 1900s.

Except it’s not. It’s about humans dealing with the inevitable change of FutureNow. The tried and true traditions of the 19th Century have been blown up and burned down in the onslaught of change in the early 20th Century. Industrialization, automobiles, air travel, women’s rights, democracy, revolutionaries, class systems (and duties and obligations), a world fighting a new kind of war and the horrors it brings all get thrown in the societal blender. The characters, rich or poor, weak or powerful, are just humans trying to find their way and make sense of it all as what was battles what is and what should be.

Kinda like business and leadership today.

Any strength pushed too far becomes a weakness and the best ideas become frightful distortions and caricatures at their limits. Taylorism and scientific management brought much needed consistency and efficiency to manufacturing. But it was pushed to the point of removing all thinking and judgement  Design out the need for critical thought, problem solving, and creativity from the workers and (surprise!) we end up with workers who can’t innovate, who are comfortable with micromanagement, who push responsibility for their results higher in the organization.

Command and control is a self-serving, self-justifying cycle. Create an organization structure and leadership approach that fosters a lack thought, creativity, or innovation and you end up needing an organization structure and leadership approach to manage people who lack thought, creativity, and innovation. And it works. Until it doesn’t.

Right now it really doesn’t. We can argue it does because we’ve never seen an alternative or because we prefer to stick with the devil we know. Doing different is scary, it’s uncertain, we don’t know how it will work out. But ask yourself this: how successful would you be in 1920 trying to lead and live in the world that existed in 1870? How successful will you be in 2013 trying to lead and live in the world the existed in 1963?

Here’s my challenge to the world: name one person, one team, one company that has gained a successful advantage doing things the way they’ve always been done, doing things the way everyone else does them, and gets ahead by running with the herd. Should it be telling that there are no awards for doing sameness better than everyone else?

So why then do we insist on trying to stand out by blending in?


Some Lessons From Downton Abbey:

What are some of the lessons we can take from Downton Abbey as we face our own FutureNow? Some thoughts, in no particular order:

1. Just because it worked in the past doesn’t mean it will work in the future, or even now.

2. Just because it seems to work now doesn’t mean it’s the best solution.

3. Resist it, complain about it, long for the good old days all you want. Change is inevitable and happening regardless of our opinion of it.

4. The changes we resist today will be the traditions the next generation fights to keep. The world we resist and resent today will be someone else’s good ol’ days tomorrow.

5. We’re all just humans trying to figure out how to be happy and successful (however we define happiness and success).

6. No single group of people, gender, generation, race, profession, social class, etc. has a monopoly on all the good ideas. Or all the bad ones.

7. Traditions for the sake of traditions are silly and useless. Traditions that still serve a purpose provide continuity and community. Just because we’ve always done it doesn’t make it useful; just because it’s never been done doesn’t make it useless. AND just because we’ve always done it that way doesn’t make it useless; just because it’s never been done doesn’t make it useful.

8. Experience is important, but you’ll never win by preparing to fight the previous war. We need to learn from the past but in a way that recognizes that even small changes will make a big difference.

Your thoughts?




  1. Reblogged this on The Presenters' Blog and commented:
    Following on from our recent Downton Abbey article, here is a guest-post from Broc Edwards over at the Fool With A Plan leadership blog. Broc puts forward eight topics to keep in mind as like the inhabitants of Downton Abbey, we all continue to face a changing world around us.


Your thoughts? Please leave a reply.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s