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Thu, Dec 2, 2010

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Leadership Lessons from The King’s Speech: A Conversation With Director Tom Hooper

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The new film The King’s Speech tells the incredible true story of Prince Albert, known familiarly as ‘Bertie’ but known to history as King George VI (and father of Queen Elizabeth II).  A reluctant leader thrust on the throne after his brother’s abdication, Bertie’s challenges are magnified by a debilitating ‘stammer,’ a speech impediment widely perceived as rendering him unfit to be King.

Now recognized as one of the great monarchs in English history for guiding Britain through the shadows of World War II and the collapse of the Commonwealth, the unlikely ascension of King George offers a profile in leadership whose lessons remain relevant in business today.

Monster sat down with Tom Hooper, the director of The King’s Speech, to discuss the film’s central themes of leadership and communication, and the tectonic impact of technology on both paradigms:

MonsterThinking: Tell us a little about the story behind The King’s Speech.  What interested you about this project?

Tom Hooper: In Bertie (Colin Firth), we have a guy who has no expectation of being king thrust into it, right at the moment where radio’s taking off as a mass medium, and he’s expected to speak not only to England, but to the 58 countries in the Commonwealth, which is a huge audience.  On top of that, the second world war is approaching, he’s expected to lead the country to war, and, of course, that means being connected to his people, and he can’t speak.

Who’d have thought that the guy who got him through this was this wonderful, iconic Australian, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush).  Logue’s a speech therapist, not a doctor, self-taught, a failed Shakespearean actor originally, who’s a total genius at speech therapy.

This guy, this total outsider, this colonial, this Australian, from a totally different class and different lifestyle, penetrated right to the heart of the royal establishment and saves the King, really, through the friendship they developed.

MT: Often times, there seems to be little interaction in business between the C-Suite and the workers on the front lines.  What can leaders learn from Bertie’s experience in moving out of his class and comfort zone?

TH: Here’s the thing: no leader can ever do it alone.  You have to find your own Lionel Logue, the person who can unlock you.  In the case of King George, it’s his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) and Logue who ultimately become the keys to his greatness.

Many people think that being a great leader is about doing things independently, making decisions, and the results may be fine.  By reaching out, listening, seeing who supports you, leaders may well achieve the best version of themselves, one that wouldn’t be possible alone.

This has been the theme of quite a lot of my work.  In my last film, The Damn United, this football manager, Brian Clough, realizes that his greatness comes from placing his full trust in his assistant manager.  Similarly, in [Emmy Winning HBO Mini-Series] John Adams, he really wouldn’t have been much without Abigail.

You can only achieve your best work reaching out and trusting in people.  As a director, I live this every day; you’re only as great as the people you surround yourself with.

MT: How do you think leaders should go about finding their foils, so to speak?  In The King’s Speech, Bertie seems to come to Logue almost by happenstance, brought there under duress by his wife, Elizabeth.  Are these types of relationships luck, or is there more to it than that?

TH: Well, I don’t know if I’d call it happenstance.  Logue was the last card in the box of posh speech therapists, and from the beginning, he and the Queen consistently look for help to overcome his stammer.  So while it ultimately works out, it’s not about luck; rather, there’s a lesson in perseverance and keeping at it, at all your options.

Also, Bertie didn’t pretend he didn’t have a problem.  He was willing to admit it and seek help, and when he found it, it really saved him.  He could have been consumed by being too ego-centric.  I don’t know if there’s a moral for that, but if you have a weak point, you should look for someone whose skills can compliment that hole in your armament.

The one quality, though, I’d say both the Queen and Logue is that they share, for Bertie, a selfless love.  They aren’t coming in with a whole set of complex or selfish motivations; they genuinely are out for his own good and actually want to build him up.  I’d say that’s key: leaders need to find people they’re not only close to, but who are committed to advancing the greater good, rather than their own personal interests.

MT: Your films, from John Adams to The Damn United and now The King’s Speech, seem to also focus on what new leaders must do to establish themselves.  What lessons for new or aspiring leaders do you think are most prevalent in The King’s Speech?

TH: One of the lessons is to not be afraid of showing your frailty or your humanity.  One of the reasons that King George VI was so beloved by his people is that his stammer humanized him; rather than being this infallible monarch, his stammer made him come across as a normal, flawed human being trying to overcome a problem.

And that’s something everyone can respond to, because everyone’s been through that struggle.  In some ways, it almost shows that if you actually share your struggle and show your flaws, you create a much more genuine, much deeper emotional connection than being a superhuman.  George VI did more to humanize the monarchy than anyone else, and essentially became a hero because of his imperfections, not in spite of them.

MT: In the film, you show the emergence of the “wireless radio’ or as one character refers to it, “Pandora’s Box,” which completely changes the expectations and perceptions of the monarchy.  Today’s leaders are experiencing a similar revolution, it seems, with social media.  Why do you think technology plays such a critical role in shaping leadership style and communications?

TH: I think what’s fascinating about the film is that it jots the beginning of the revolution mass media would have when brought out and used by leaders.  The generation before Bertie’s, as King, all you really needed to do the job was look the part.  If you looked good on a horse, knew how to smile and wave, you could fulfill the iconic duty of being a king.

With the coming of radio, suddenly the King needed to speak live not only to his nation, but to a vast global audience of 58 countries.  The question then becomes: can the king connect emotionally with his people and his empire?  I think that’s what it’s really all about: to lead, you need to connect in an emotionally relevant way with the public.

It’s a trend that’s still going on: look at the midterm elections.  People aren’t asking if Obama really cares, or if he’s really, truly connecting emotionally with the public.  What’s important is that, on television, on the internet, he’s perceived as caring, can convey an emotional attachment to people. This anxiety that’s so common now, this whole “Do they care?” expectation, really all starts with the radio and George VI.

What’s interesting now is the infatuation with perception has extended to everyone in America.  With the coming of social media, many of us are deploying this kind of “second version” of ourselves through Facebook and Twitter, so this issue of how we broadcast ourselves and publically present ourselves has stopped being a leadership issue to really become a generational issue: how do we broadcast a version of ourselves?

MT: As a director, what have you learned from studying these great leaders from history that’s changed the way you personally look at communicating with or managing people?

TH: Great question.  I felt this way much more with my earlier films, John Adams and The Damned United; the risk in the film industry is, that when a director gets a lot of success, they tend to think that they’re the only people responsible for it and it’s all them.

I’ve learned that the important thing is that if you’re lucky enough to enjoy success, you’ve got to remember the conditions by which this success happened and replicate it.  That’s why I work with the same people from project to project; I honor their past successes by hiring them again and having the humility to recognize how key these collaborations were not only to my past projects, but my future ones as well.

My view about leadership is simple: don’t be snobbish about what you’ll accept or what you’re willing to do or the level you’re willing to do it at.  There’s no substitute for hands on experience, and you’ve got to roll up your sleeves and really work hard to get where you want to go, even if you’re the King of England, but certainly when you’re a director.

The King’s Speech is now playing in select theaters.

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