What Coaches (and that means you) Can Learn from “The King’s Speech”

Posted 01.03.2011

Kingspeech1 There are a lot of great things about the holidays. One is that email traffic slows to a trickle. Another is taking in some of the new movies that are released at the end of the year. My viewing card this season included a Jeff Bridges double feature, Tron (visually compelling and fun) and True Grit (fantastic script, acting and cinematography.  See it even if you don’t like Westerns.  It’s more than that.)  Also saw the focus of this post, The King’s Speech, with Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter. 

You probably know the back story of the film. In the England of the late 1930’s, Prince Albert has to become King when his older brother decides he’d rather marry Wallis Simpson than be King of England. The problem for Albert (or as his family calls him, Bertie) is that he has a severe stammer when he speaks in public. The rise of Hitler in Germany and the growing importance of communicating well over radio has Bertie at his wit’s end. Enter speech therapist Lionel Logue who, to say the least, is unconventional in his approach and demeanor. To put it bluntly, Lionel doesn’t do the whole sucking up to power thing. (For a terrific synopsis of the entire story and film, see this article  by Stephen Holden of the New York Times and, for a taste of the dialogue between Bertie and Lionel, this script excerpt which also ran in the Times.)

It’s probably every leadership coach’s fantasy to coach a world leader during momentous times.  Based on all of the posts, tweets and notes I’ve seen from coaches on The King’s Speech, I feel pretty safe in that assessment. In any case, there’s a lot that coaches can learn from watching the way that Lionel works with Bertie. And, even if you don’t think of yourself as a coach, there are some good lessons for anyone who has to influence someone with more formal power and authority. If you haven’t seen the movie, I hope you will and that my write up on some of the things I noticed will serve as a viewer’s guide. If you have seen the movie, I’m sure you have your own points you want to make so feel free to add them in the Comments.

Herewith, the coach’s viewers guide to The King’s Speech:

Know Your Stuff:   Lionel had over twenty years of experience in working with the speech impaired before he started coaching Bertie. That base of experience gave him the confidence to put himself out there because he had a strong grounding in what worked and what didn’t in different situations.  Before you start coaching and trying to influence your version of the King of England, it’s a good idea to have practiced a lot with less visible leaders.

Be Willing to Risk It  All:  One of the most interesting aspects of The King’s Speech is how clear Lionel was in establishing boundaries that enabled him to break through Bertie’s reflexive defenses. By insisting that they would address each other by first names, Lionel established a relationship of equals in the domain of speech therapy. Their sessions were held on Lionel’s turf in his somewhat ratty office.  That enabled him to say, “My castle, my rules.”  Did Lionel risk losing the King as a client by doing things like this?  Absolutely and he almost did several times. Did taking those risks enable him to help Bertie? Clearly.

Have a Plan:  For their first meeting together, Lionel knew that he had to demonstrate to Bertie that progress was possible. I won’t give away how he did this but he clearly had a plan and followed through on it.  When you’re trying to coach or influence a senior leader, you have to demonstrate your bona fides in a way that matters to them. It’s what change management experts call a quick win. The likelihood of a quick win increases if you have an initial plan.

Stay Flexible and Open:  At the same time, you’ve got to stay flexible and open to what comes up.  As the noted philosopher Mike Tyson once said, “Everybody’s got a plan until they get hit.”  Whether you’re coaching the King of England or other senior leaders, you’re likely to get hit with the unexpected.  When that happened to Lionel, he stayed focused on the big picture of what he was trying to accomplish but was flexible and open enough to work with what was given to him in determining how to get to there.

Believe in Yourself:  It certainly wasn’t all sunshine and roses for Lionel as he was coaching the King.  There were times when it got brutally personal. A lesser coach might have packed it in at those points.  Lionel hung in. He knew he could help Bertie and didn’t let the slings and arrows keep him from doing that. He took the longer view. It’s easier to do that when you believe in yourself and what you have to offer.

Give a Damn:  Bertie wasn’t just a very cool client for Lionel; he was a human being with his own pain and fears. Lionel saw that and allowed himself to empathize with what the King was going through.  He gave a damn and demonstrated that through a combination of tough love and compassion.  Somehow he was able to understand how very lonely at the top it was for Bertie. He established himself as someone Bertie could trust no matter what and, together, they accomplished a lot.

So, if you’ve seen The King’s Speech, what were your takeaways? Even if you haven’t, what are your lessons learned about coaching and influencing highly senior leaders?