Servant Leadership meets Downton Abbey

My name is Josh and I am an aspiring servant leader.

            Stacie invited me here to talk about my philosophy on servant leadership and I am humbled by the opportunity. It is my intention that this philosophy will be broadly applicable to any setting one inhabits, be it personal or professional. However, it should be known that I am not an expert in this area. Most of what I have learned comes from my own experience, coupled with the paltriest research. Indeed, that is why I include the modifier “aspiring” in front of “servant leader.” I don’t accept that my journey is complete, nor do I intend that it ever be complete.

            Besides being an aspiring servant leader, I am also a geek. I enjoy movies and TV shows of most shapes and sizes, but I definitely have those select few about which I geek out. 

As I pored through pop culture icon after pop culture icon, I found that my own life experiences were resonating more and more with what I was watching on screen. Indeed, I was moving into positions of greater leadership and I found it necessary to improve my leadership style. So, I began to study leadership. That is to say, I began to study leaders I admired and emulate them. And, wisely or not, many of those leaders were fictional.

            I began to reconcile the idea of servant leadership with those leaders I saw on screen. In his essay, “The Servant as Leader,” Robert K. Greenleaf has this to say about a servant leader:

The servant-leader is servant first It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. He is sharply different from the person who is leader first For such it will be a later choice to serve after leadership is established The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other peoples highest priority needs are being served. The best testis: do those served grow as persons?


            Thus, the leader not only stands in front or drives from behind. Rather, he or she is responsible for serving those he leads and leaving them better than he found them. It becomes a much more intimate relationship very quickly when the moniker “servant” is added to the label of leader. The servant leader takes great responsibility for the people under his or her care.

There are several people who readily spring to my mind when I think of servant leaders.

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

 What could more aptly sum up the mandate of the servant leader?

Or him, depending on which version you prefer.

Or him, depending on which version you prefer.

“Send your army to protect my people!”

            He is a fantastic example. This man was the emperor of his people in a time when his people believed that his imperial power flowed from divine appointment. Thus, he could have done anything or been anything to his people. But, the moment they were threatened, his people were his first thought.


“Make it so!”

            Here was a man who at first was cold, stand-offish, demanding, and unwavering in his standards. Yet, time and again the people he led demonstrated a willingness to walk through fire for him. Why? Because he cared for them and took care of them. He knew that any power or influence he might wield depending almost exclusively upon the proficiency of the people he led.

Each of these people are excellent models of servant leadership to me, but lately one in particular has stood out above the rest.


I am a custodian my dear, not an owner.”

            Robert, the Earl of Grantham owns the Downton Abbey estate and much of the property in the county surrounding the house itself. He does many things in this capacity, but the two most important things he does stand out above the rest: he serves and he leads. He does this in seven different ways (according to Dr. Kevin Leman and William Pentak in The Way of the Shepherd: 7 Ancient Secrets to Managing Productive People).

 1. He Knows the Condition of His People

These topics will focus particularly on the people who live and work in Downton Abbey itself. In order to be the most effective servant leader he can be, Lord Grantham has to know his people and know about them. His staff is enormous, but he makes it a point to know everyone’s name on sight.

            In addition, he engages his people regularly. He is unsatisfied simply learning their names and moving on with his life. Rather, he can frequently be seen walking about the estate, talking to his employees and asking about details in their lives. Once he learns something about them, he follows up on that fact or detail the next time he encounters them, letting them know he heard them and cares about them.


            That last point may be the key to this endeavor. He doesn’t just know facts about his people; rather, he cares about his people’s well-being. I always think of the cook, Mrs. Patmore, when I think of this feature. Upon learning that Mrs. Patmore’s cataracts were blinding her, Lord Grantham sent her to a surgeon at his own expense to have her eyes corrected. Following this, Mrs. Patmore never again wondered if Lord Grantham cared for those in his employ. He had markedly demonstrated that he did by taking care of her and her needs. And, he definitely asked her how she was doing the next time he saw her.

2. He Pays Attention to their SHAPE

By this, of course, I don’t mean to say that he care what they look like. Rather, he cares about the particular aspects that make each person a unique individual and how that individual can then best contribute to the group as a whole.

            First, he looks at their Strengths; he seeks to discover their particular skills and where those skills already lie. He uses this to determine how quickly and easily he can place someone where they may belong. Next, he looks at their Heart; he discovers their passions and motivations and places people accordingly. He knows that using someone in a role contrary to their passions or motivations will produce substandard results. After that, he looks at their Attitude; specifically, he tries to discern how positive their attitude is. He knows that a positive attitude denotes a teachable spirit and that this can make all the difference. Then, he looks at their Personality; are they naturally a hard worker? And, finally, he looks at their Experiences; what have they encountered or endured throughout their life and how has it influenced who they have become?


            Because of this, Lord Grantham is able to identify that John Bates will be the perfect valet. He knows Bates is meticulous and orderly in his attention to detail (S), is motivated by a sense of duty and an unshakeable sense of ethics (H), always believes the best of others and reserves judgment until he has experienced something for himself (A), works harder than most of the people on his staff (P), and Lord Grantham has shared many of Bates’ experiences with him during the previous war (E).

            Bates turns out to be the most unimpeachable member of his staff and the best hire Lord Grantham makes.

3. He Helps His People Identify With Him

As soon as he adds people to his staff, he makes sure they are aware of his values and beliefs. From then on, he regularly communicates same and follows through on demonstrating them. By being the same man of unimpeachable integrity in private as well as in public – one-on-one with any member of his staff or in front of the group at large – he earns their trust quickly and solidly.


            Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than with Carson, the butler. Carson is to the staff what Lord Grantham is to the house: he is the team leader, manager, and values-setter. Everything Carson says or does comes almost verbatim from Lord Grantham’s own playbook of values and beliefs. Carson also implicitly trusts Lord Grantham because, in all his years of service, he has never seen Lord Grantham once waver from the man of integrity he is. Carson knows he is secure in enacting these same values and beliefs with the staff because he has seen Lord Grantham preach and demonstrate them over and over.

4. He Makes Downton Abbey a Safe Place For Them

This particular facet of Lord Grantham’s approach to servant leadership extends beyond simply cataract surgery. Rather, it refers to (among other things) rumor control. Lord Grantham knows that rumors can be pernicious and pervasive, so wherever possible, he makes sure his staff hears things either through Carson or directly from him. He never lets them wonder if he will tell them what is going on.

            He also infuses each position and the person who occupies it with vital importance. He knows that Downton would collapse without the myriad employees who maintain it, and makes sure he communicates this worth to his staff regularly. He does this by being visible about the house and even occasionally in the servants’ areas. And, when problems arise, he addresses them promptly. He knows that issues which are left unattended could be just as damaging as rumors.

            This always makes me think of Thomas, the footman and later under-butler. Thomas is a snake and one of the villains of the piece. However, if I had been living in 1920s England and been homosexual, I might have a chip on my shoulder, too. At any rate, Thomas misinterprets another man’s attention and tries to physically seduce that man. That man threatens scandal and legal action, preparing to throw Thomas in prison and paint Downton Abbey with humiliation. Lord Grantham promptly steps in and persuades the man to abandon his endeavors. Lord Grantham knows that, even though Thomas is not his best performer, Thomas will perform better if he feels like he works in a safe environment.


5. He Guides Them Towards Being Better

Lord Grantham’s people mess up and make mistakes all the time. In the rare occasions that he is made of aware of them, he addresses them in a very particular way.

            First, he uses their mistakes as teaching opportunities. He unquestionably demonstrates to his people that failure isn’t fatal. He seeks to guide them to the correct course of action with gentle nudges instead of harsh shoves.

            He also leads from the front by example. And, part of knowing his people is knowing where they are and when they are in trouble. If they do get into trouble, he goes and gets them out of trouble.


            Even though Lady Mary is his daughter, Lord Grantham still makes himself a servant leader to her. In her early years, Lady Mary is a catty bitch and Lord Grantham knows it. Yet, he always believes that his daughter can grow to be someone better and makes gentle nudges to push her in that direction. As she gets older and he gets intentional, her empathy and compassion become her dominant traits instead of her jealousy and competitiveness. And, Lord Grantham is always keen to lead Lady Mary by example.


6. He Protects Them

Once he has made Downton Abbey a safe place for his employees – as described above – by taking care of internal issues, Lord Grantham also makes sure that his people are safe from external harm. He stands in the gap for them and never lets them wonder if he will. He speaks up for them and advocates for them. He checks in on them frequently so that he can anticipate issues and follow up on them after the fact.


            The examples of this are numerous, but the one that most readily springs to my mind is the white feather incident. Young footman William had not yet gone off to fight in The Great War like most other men his age. One night, at a posh concert given as a benefit in Downton, a pair of women start handing out white feathers of cowardice to any young men in attendance not in uniform. They hand one to William and Lord Grantham – for want of a better phrase – loses his shit.

            Lord Grantham stands up, interrupts the concert, and shouts for the women to stop what they are doing. He then, in no uncertain terms, expels them from Downton Abbey. It is clear from the look on William’s face that of all the emotions he is experiencing following the incident, gratitude is not the smallest. Lord Grantham knows that his employees have placed their trust in him, have allowed him to care for them, and have grown because of his efforts. He also knows that all of this is irrelevant if he is unwilling to stand up for them to external aggressors.

7. He Has a Heart For His People

Lord Grantham knows that being a servant leader is not easy. It comes with a cost. All of the best servant leaders give huge portions of their time, their energy, and even their soul to the people they are serving and leading. And, Lord Grantham strives to be among the best because he knows his people deserve only the best.

            Every day he wakes up in Downton Abbey, he choose to lead. In so doing, he chooses to serve. He knows that many leaders will not invest what is necessary in leading those they serve not because the cost is too high, but because the value they place on the people they are leading is too low. This is why Lord Grantham places the kind of value he does on his employees. He knows that if he values them highly, his investment in them will be high and will result in a high return.



In the final analysis, these are the kinds of things I seek to apply in my daily life. I am the supervisor of three professional employees and nineteen part-time, student employees and I manage a residence hall filled with six hundred eager freshmen. Though I have been placed in a position of leadership by virtue having applied for this job and been hired into it, I am choosing to lead every day I wake up in this place. In doing so, I am choosing to serve.

            Please understand that I am not perfect in any way, let alone in my execution of this philosophy. But, neither is Lord Grantham. He is always in a quest to better himself and so am I. I hope one day to be the kind of servant leader I have read about and seen on TV or in the movies. Until then, I will continue to choose to serve those I lead.