By Micah Jenkins
The Crown is a Sony-produced Netlix series portraying the reign of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. The series uses a television drama format to present the never-ending series of decisions and challenges confronting the monarch of a world power. Traditional documentaries often treat their subjects as two-dimensional figures with the implicit understanding that their decisions and actions just had to happen exactly the way that things did. The documentary format uses a limited amount of creative license to portray the characters as fully-formed individuals. Obviously, creative license can undermine or alter an understanding of events, but the producers of the Crown take care to present Elizabeth and her supporting cast in a manner that mostly conforms to historian’s’ understanding of the people and events. Because of this, the Crown portrays Elizabeth and several other key figures in a way allows the series to be used as good layman’s introduction to leadership theory.
Leadership, Management, & Followership in context
Leadership, broadly speaking, refers to the behaviors and systems used to influence a desired outcome in a group setting. Leadership in the scholarly sense refers to the systematic examination of how leaders influence a desired outcome. Organizational theorists contrast this with management, which refers to the practice of controlling or directing a desired context in an organizational setting.
The obvious next question to ask is “how exactly are leadership and management different, because they sound the same to me?”. To clarify, leadership can take place in any group setting, formal or informal, while management only happens in a defined organization. Also, leadership focuses on the act of persuading action, while management focuses on the acts and processes of forcing change. Most organizational scholars agree that leadership and management are overlapping concepts, and that the leaders (and managers) of most organizations engage in both leadership and management behaviors and some point or another in the course of their duties. The distinctions between leadership and management are somewhat arbitrary, but scholars need these distinctions in order to think about these subjects in a systemic way, in order to gain insight into how people work in a group environment.
The topic of followership is a little trickier, because studying how people behave as subordinates only recently became a topic for Western scholars. Intuitively, people understand followership as the behavior of cooperation and subordination to a collective goal, but no one spent the time looking at followership in a systematic way. Robert Kelley delved into an analuss of the common traits for effective members of organizations in his 1988 in his 1988 Harvard Business Review article, In Praise of Followers. Kelley argued that the common traits of effective followers were self-management, alignment between the follower’s goals and the goals of the organization, a continual process of self-improvement, and a commitment to “courageous, honest, and credible” behavior.
Leadership as Calling
The Crown portrays nobility as being first and foremost a divine calling. An early episode features Elizabeth’s mother (the wife of the late King George VI, who carries the title of Queen Mother after the passing of her husband and the coronation of her daughter) explaining to her soon-to-be crowned daughter that the crown is above all else an obligation of service. The Queen Mother says, “the monarchy is God’s sacred mission to grace and dignify the earth.” The Queen Mother’s asserts that the positions of responsibility individuals are thrust should be treated as an individual calling and one’s Christian duty.
Elizabeth’s accepting the call to serve contrasts with her uncle’s shirking of responsibility. Her Uncle Edward (his family called him David) was the former King Edward VIII and later Duke of Windsor. Edward abdicated as king months after his coronation in order to marry an American divorcée. A royal’s marriage to a divorcee started a constitutional crisis throughout the Commonwealth that could have disrupted British unity on the eve of WWII. The Crown portrays Edward as a self-absorbed dilettante whose only concern was the wealth and fame that he could obtain from his titles. Edward’s abdication is the action which made Elizabeth’s father King, and ultimately forced the monarchy onto Elizabeth herself.
A running theme throughout the series is responsibility of the monarch to act in the best interests of the people, even when that conflicts with popular desires of the populace. Elizabeth learns of her father’s passing and her obligation to assume the throne while Elizabeth and her husband made a global tour of Commonwealth territories, a tour meant to show the presence of the monarchy and their concern for crown subjects throughout the Commonwealth. Elizabeth’s father tells Prime Minister Winston Churchill that the trip is meant to prepare Elizabeth for her future role as queen by requiring her to learn the needs of her subjects.
Education of Royal Family members emphasizes the role of servant leadership in British society. Elizabeth was personally tutored by an Eaton College professor as to the importance of service by the aristocracy to their nation. And the education that both Phillip and his son Charles receive is seen as a preparation for future public leaders
These subplots present the idea of servant leadership. Servant leadership is a leadership theory that leaders are effective when they put the needs of their subordinates first. Elizabeth’s service to her subjects is an example of a leader affecting change by putting the wellbeing of their subordinates first. Conversely, Edward is portrayed as the opposite of servant leadership, always putting his need for self-aggrandizement as the first priority for his actions.
Trait Theory of Leadership
The trait theory of leadership is one of the oldest and least respected leadership theories. Critics deride it as “the great man theory” of leadership, pointing out that great men rarely appear in history. Furthermore, there is little incentive to dwell on traits which may be at least somewhat innate. After all, what good is a theory of leadership that focuses on things that one may not be able to change?
Nonetheless, a revised trait theory does have value when one examines traits that may be influenced, as well the processes that go into identifying informal leaders. Stodgill asserts a number of common leadership traits common across most environments that he studied, including a personal sense of responsibility, a commitment to excellence, and concern for the wellbeing of subordinates. One insight of trait theory is informal group leaders emerge when someone is seen as the prototypical example of what is expected for a particular organization. In that sense, leaders should first strive for excellence in their professional competency and ethical conduct.
In the Crown we see Prince Phillip, Queen Elizabeth’s husband, as a man raised since his early teens to be the prototype of what an old pattern British aristocrat was meant to be; a smart, capable man who possesses both social grace, and the ability to command troops at war. The series presents in detail the importance of Prince Phillip’s role as a personal representative of the Crown as royal emissary to a number of now-independent Commonwealth states, as well as the importance of his role as ceremonial head of the Royal Navy and Airforce. The series focuses on Phillip’s experience at public school, and the role of his alma mater in teaching him the values of duty, public service, and the need to be the best version of himself that he could be.
As stated above, deals with the subject of how people collaborative work to achieve a group’s goals. While followership is a fairly new topic from the perspective of organizational theory, it is one of the oldest topics from the perspective of classical European and Christian ethics. Medieval Christian ethics codified a series of mutual obligations that tied lords and vassals together.
In the Power of Followership, Kelley delivered one of the first modern examinations of the subject. Kelley divided followers into 4 types, the first are “effective followers”, defined by their need of little management oversight and their willingness to use their judgement in the service of their organization and leaders. The second “yes people”, defined by both a sycophantic compliance with the letter of managerial decisions and a lack of judgment and initiative that prevents them from fulfilling the intent of their leaders’ decisions. The third type of followers are “sheep”, defined by their need of detailed instructions and lack of individual judgement. The final type is “alienated followers”, defined by their hostility to their leadership.
The series presents Peter Townsend as the epitome of an effective follower. Townsend is a Royal Airforce colonel who served as King George’s aide de camp. Viewers see him as the man managing the daily minutiae of the Crown’s affairs. Townsend functions much like a chief of staff for a contemporary general officer or business executive, managing the torrential flow of information that comes into any executive’s office. The King trusted Townsend to act on his behalf, allowing him to decide who would have direct access to him, allowing Townsend to prioritize the public events requested of the King, and trusting Colonel Townsend to write many of the draft speeches and official communications on behalf of the King. When the King passes, Townsend is portrayed as the one official in the government most concerned that Elizabeth receives accurate information when she makes decisions. Peter Townsend’s behavior contrasts with that of most advisors that Elizabeth inherits at the start of her reign.
Alan (Tommy) Lascelles is the archetype of alienated follower. Tommy was the former personal secretary to King George who served as Elizabeth’s advisor during the early years of her reign. Tommy uses his competency and initiative to manipulate Elizabeth into pursuing his interests. Tommy’s primary interest was preserving what he saw as the appropriate solemnity concerning the British monarchy. One could argue as to whether or not that is an appropriate concern, but the series clearly Tommy as an adversarial follower who uses his competency and initiative to undermine his organization and leadership.
It is noteworthy that few if any characters in the series are portrayed as sheep or yes people. In his various publications, Kelley points out that most new members of organizations behave as sheep in the beginning. An individual might have the potential to become an effective follower, but until they develop the competency and understanding of their organizational mission, they require a great deal of supervision and individual development. The series displays numerous circumstances where Queen Elizabeth, her father the late King, or Prince Phillip put the time and energy into developing the abilities of their children and their subordinates. Similarly, the show presents Elizabeth’s challenge as a leader to identify and remove subordinates who behave as sycophants.
The Crown provides a surprisingly deep examination into the topics of leadership and followership from Christian perspective. The series portrays Elizabeth as a Christian leader pursing her calling as head of state of the United Kingdom, with a great deal of attention placed on how human relationships influence politics. The topics discussed above are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of examining one woman’s life as a demonstration of leadership theory.
Micah Jenkins is a former US military officer and freelance writer. His work primarily deals with leadership, organizational theory, and its applications.