It Takes More than Public Speaking: A Leadership Analysis of The King’s Speech

11 min read

Patrice - Andre Prud’homme

In a time of global anxiety, a recent internationally acclaimed film aptly shows the development of a leader who never intended to lead. This leadership analysis of The King’s Speech critically explores transformation shaped by the pressures of war, modernity, and a public figure’s speech impediment in the advent of radio broadcasting. Supportive leadership and followership are examined, as the Duchess of York serves as an exemplar of both. The central catalyst of transformative leadership comes from Lionel Logue, who exercises his role with emotional
intelligence and key strategies that are invaluable to the eventual King finding his voice.The servant leadership role is discussed, as it resonates strongly with an ongoing need for transformative and shrewd servant leaders in an increasingly fragmented and information-based global economy.

The King’s Speech, directed by Tom Hooper, begins with an agonizing scene depicting a dramatic moment in the history of English monarchy at the advent of radio broadcasting. The film brings the viewer directly to the intent of the story, the life of the Duke of York who would become King George VI on May 12, 1937. His attempt to give the closing speech in the Empire Exhibition at Wembley Stadium, London, in 1925, reveals the Duke’s speech impediment to its
full extent, as he is utterly unable to state his words before a large crowd. Soon after the event, which ends in humiliation, the Duke of York and his wife Elizabeth seek conventional treatments to remedy his stammer. Though “speeches were meant to be part of the daily routine of the Duke” (Logue & Conradi, 2010, p. 62), Bertie (as he comes to be known to the viewer) never liked public speaking or broadcasting, but finds himself being thrust into both as a
necessary condition of embodying aristocratic leadership in a mass-mediated world.

Positions of leadership are not always roles that one strives to be in, as is the case with the stammering soon-to-be King. However, his key relationships with characters who embody servant-leadership (Lionel Logue) and followership with foresight (Elizabeth) significantly influence the thoughts, behaviors, and feelings of Bertie, empowering him to become a “developed leader” (Gardner, 1995, pp. 36-38) in a period of extreme uncertainty, anxiety, and impending
disorder. Drawing upon authors with orientations in values-based trait theory (Greenleaf, 2002), cognitive theory (Gardner, 1995) and chaos theory (Wheatley, 2006), this paper will explore how public speaking, while important, was not the panacea of leadership. Rather, the speech act was the vehicle for Bertie to find his voice as a developing leader with strong interpersonal backing from vital servant-leaders and followers who led him to autopoiesis (Wheatley, 2006) and the blinking red light of the microphone.

Overview and Analysis
Disillusioned by his failures with specialists whose methods were similar to those of the ancient Greek orator Demosthenes, Bertie was convinced his chronic stammering lay “in the mind rather than in the body” (Wheeler-Bennett, 1958, p. 212). It was not until October 1926 that theDuke was interviewed by Lionel Logue. On the fateful day depicted in the film, Bertieintroduces himself as Prince Albert Arthur George (Logue & Conradi, 2010, p. 20), and an
unlikely relationship began to sprout, the ground prepared in advance.

Elizabeth, Duchess of York and Bertie’s wife, first met Mr. Logue from her own inquiries,seeking help for her husband’s seemingly insurmountable problem. If one of the arts ofcommunicating (and leading) is to say just enough to facilitate a leap of imagination (Greenleaf, 2002, p. 32), Bertie’s speech deficiency left him desperately lacking not only inverbal traits but in the very crucial art of relating with the people of England and asking them to
take a leap in a time of disorder. Elizabeth, intuiting this, knew that she was recruiting morethan a speech coach.

Lionel Logue, an Australian, had moved to London with his wife Myrtle in 1924. In stark contrast to the credentialed “professionals” of speaking disorders, Logue had no formaleducation; he had learned his specialty in Australia from setting up elocution schools in Adelaide and later in Perth. Logue was not a pedigreed speech therapist, but rather a passionate (albeit unsuccessful) actor who thrived and made more important gains on the situational aspects of serving and the connections between acting, living, and leading. After being rejected from entering World War I for medical reasons, Lionel put his passion and burgeoning knowledge, or “attainment of expertise” (Gardner, 1
995, p. 29) in the domain of the voice in elocution to work, helping servicemen returning from war who were suffering speech disorders from shell shock and gas inhalation.

In the various scenes depicting Lionel helping others overcome their disorders, the viewer ispresented with a dynamic figure who wields chaos into a vision of work as “energy meeting to make something happen” (Wheatley, 2006, p. 72). Logue certainly displays no shortage of energy or ability to see the world anew, traits which serve him well when he takes on Bertie. However, despite his willingness and passion to help others, to gain legitimacy Lionel had to
become part of a discipline, one that “was still in its relative infancy” (Logue & Conradi, 2010,p. 40).

He leased a consulting room at 146 Harley Street–a street where “the quacks of old had given way to modern, properly qualified doctors” (Logue & Conradi, 2010, p. 39). In setting up residence alongside credentialed “professionals,” Logue essentially placed himself in the heartof a culture that revered specialization and symbols of expertise, of which he lacked but more than made up for with his experiential knowledge and servant-nature.

Lionel’s confidence in his role as speech therapist is first portrayed when Duchess of YorkElizabeth visits him on behalf of her husband, introducing herself as Mrs. Johnson. Though Elizabeth eventually refers to her title, prompting perfunctory deference from Logue, he nonetheless maintains his aura—that of man with savoir-faire
and knowledge in English poetry and language (by quoting Shakespeare), yet assertive to his role as therapist. The brief snapshot of the map of Australia on the wall in the waiting room simultaneously brings to light for the viewer his life as an emigrant and his role as a speech therapist.

After Elizabeth’s shrewd persuasion, the Duke and Lionel have their momentous first meeting and begin working together from significant different statuses in society.Nonetheless, Lionel’s emotional intelligence and confidence are further demonstrated as he insists on respect, make small bets and performs other acts to bring the Duke and he to an equal plane. The lifelong friendship that developed between arguably came from the bidding of Elizabeth (in her way an innovative leader as much as a follower), but the result was two strong “great men” 1 with phenomenal qualities, who rose to interpersonal and national relevancy in contextual circumstances, eventually developing a relationship of interdependency, and ultimately sharing “a common value system” (Greenleaf, 2002, p. 5).

The first interview between Bertie and Lionel is depicted as uncertain and uneasy. Though the Duchess prodded her husband to make ‘just one more try’, “the Duke was at first ill-disposedtowards the idea of seeing Mr. Logue” (Wheeler-Bennett, 1958, p. 213). The first encounter with Lionel “was to be a momentous day in the life of the Duke of York” and, despite what Logue wrote about that first meeting with the Duke, “you could see that there was hope once
more in his heart” (Wheeler-Bennett, 1958, p. 212).

Bertie had not intended or expected to become King of England; his older brother David was to be next to the throne. As a boy and left-handed, Bertie was forced to write with his right hand. By the age of eight he had developed a stammer. Juxtaposed to his brother David, who wasgood looking, charming and charismatic (ideal traits for a leader and/or king), Bertie “sufferedfrom poor digestion and had to wear splints on his legs for many hours of the day
and while he slept” (Logue & Conradi, 2010, p. 51). Though the sons’ relationship with their parents was, it did not help Bertie that “there was no secret the couple would have liked a daughter”(Logue & Conradi,2010,p. 48) after the birth of their first son. To make matters worse, Queen Victoria recorded in her diary at Bertie’s birth her regret that he had been born on a day of mourning traditionally held sacred in the family as ‘Mausoleum Day’ (Bradford, 1989, p.1).

The royal family traditions brought strictness and rigidity to parent-child relations, especially between King George V and his sons. Beside his idiosyncratic move to set the clocks half anhour early for punctuality, King George V “believed in inculcating a sense of discipline fromearly age”(Logue & Conradi, 2010, p. 49). King George V did not seem to empathize with Bertie’s speech impediment whatsoever, shouting at him with anger, “Get it out boy!” as Bertie
attempted to read the Christmas address his father had dictated, broadcast by the BBC. As hebecame older, Bertie knew he would need to face the reality of the “devilish device”—radio— which his father argued would “change everything if [the Duke] won’t” (Seidler, 2010, p. 27).

In the film, as he looks back at his childhood and well-established family rituals, Bertie relates stories of crushing embarrassment when the boys were required to recite poems in English, French and German, only adding to his difficulty speaking. The internalization of humiliation and inadequacy is inferred as one of the main causes of the Duke’s fiery temper. These outbursts are well depicted in the movie, and only his wife Elizabeth seems to soften his behavior, “Temper, Bertie darling, temper” (Seidler, 2010, p. 6). He depends greatly on her, and Elizabeth is not to be understated as anything less than a crucial exemplar of followership; her moral support, presence, and persuasive ability enable Bertie to more easily accept the role he never intended to take. As Greenleaf (2002) notes, “servants as followers are as important as servant-leaders, and everyone, from time to time, may be in both roles” (p. 18, original emphasis).

However, before Bertie was even considered as next for the head of the English monarchy, King George V was becoming concerned for eldest son David’s “dislike of royal protocol and tradition” (Logue & Conradi, 2010, p. 57). It did not take long for the two to clash, where “…their very different personalities and temperaments became more evident to both” (James,1998, p. 92). By contrast, Bertie was becoming his father’s favorite despite his “certain lack of
confidence in [the Duke’s] capacity to meet the responsibilities of a Royal Tour” (Wheeler-Bennett, 1958, 212). Bertie confessed his hurt to Lionel that his father’s last words about Bertie having “more guts than the rest of his brothers put together” were never spoken directly to him (Seidler, 2010, p. 42).

Interestingly, before he became king, Bertie exemplified in his position as Duke of York the “guts” and traits of a mindful and capable leader. Not only did he acquire the nickname “Industrial Prince” as he was visiting “coal mines, factories, and rail yards, developing an interest in working conditions”; he also instituted an interesting social experiment: a series of annual summer camps on the Kent coast and in Suffolk to bring boys together from different
backgrounds (Logue & Conradi, 2010, p. 58).It is asserted that the “Duke of York possessed a social conscience and awareness that his elder brother did not” (James, 1998, p. 93). He would exercise these qualities later before his constituents and the microphone, demonstrating a strong sense of integrity and emotional awareness to the causes he defended in the mobilization of Britons before World War II.

Similar to Greenleaf’s (2002) statement that “people who do not live by their conscience will not experience internal integrity and peace of mind”(p. 10), Michael Ray Hopkin, a noted leadership and product management blogger, advances integrity to be “one of the top attributes of a great leader” (para. 1). Bertie’s conscience could not tolerate such indignity in terms of his brother David pursuing a marriage that the royal family deemed illegitimate. He had a “deep
interest in the constitution, the monarchy and its symbolic significance” (Bradford, 1989, p.143). Although his brother David became king for a short period, there was a prevailing sense among the royal court and Britons that it would not last long.

King Edward VIII abdicated after 326 days on December 11, 1936 and immediately Bertie became king. Already being aware of the “dignified, dutiful and domestic life” his father had established as the pattern for the British Empire, which was at its apogee then and would be into his reign (Bradford, 1989), now King George VI was “more than ever conscious of his own physical disability and of what he believed to be his inferiority in comparison
with his brother” (Wheeler-Bennett, 1958, p. 293).

Bertie never intended to be king, and all at once he is handed the role in 1936: with his father’s death, his brother’s short tenure, abdication, and his accession to the throne. His feeling of unpreparedness for his duties as king is captured well in the film, particularly when he meets with British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin to hear his resignation at the advent of the war, thus presenting the king with an even greater challenge — leading in the face
of adversity,uncertainty, and global anxiety. Luckily, Lionel demonstrated unconditional commitment to be
on board with Bertie through thick and thin, even as others were abandoning ship.

  • Quote of the Day

    “Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way.”

    — General George Patton

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