I admit it; I’m a sucker for period dramas on the big or small screen. So it should be of no surprise that Iast winter, I got hooked on the PBS series Downton Abbey. For those who aren’t period drama buffs, the show chronicles the lives of the aristocratic Grantham family and their servants in the turn of 20th century England. An integral part of the smooth operations of Downton Abbey is Mr. Carson, the butler and leader of the male servants, who possesses exacting standards and unerring commitment to tradition.
In season 2, while all the able bodied men are away fighting in WWI, Mr. Carson is left with a scant few male servants on staff to keep the household running. Rather than use the available female servants in the house to fill the gap, Mr. Carson instead takes on much of the duties of his absent team, leaving himself spread too thin with a lot of unfinished work. Things come to head when Mr. Carson collapses in the midst of serving at a formal dinner party and ultimately is put on bed rest in order to recuperate.
As a trained Organizational Psychologist and project leader at Forum, I couldn’t help but think about the tried and true lessons a fictional British butler can remind 21st century first-line leaders:
Let go of perfection. Mr. Carson had exacting standards which were ultimately a part in his undoing when short staffed. His obsession with perfection slowed him down in both making decisions and getting the work done, which left him accomplishing far less than he could have. In today’s fast paced world of change there isn’t time for perfection before acting. In fact, unless you are in the business of saving lives, I would suggest adhering to standards of perfection is not even necessary. Don’t be caught in “perfection paralysis”, make the best decision you can with the data available at the time, take action, and, of course, correct as you go.
Embrace Change. Mr. Carson refused to delegate to other members of the team because he could not embrace the changing times and allow women to fill in for the male servants during dinner service. . Do what Mr. Carson could not, recognize that in tough times you need to discover new and innovate ways to utilize your team to get the work done.
Trust your team. Could it be that behind Mr. Carson’s disapproval of women serving dinner also lurked a lack of trust in members of the larger team? You’ve heard it before: as a first-line leader, you need delegate to the appropriate members of your team and trust that your direct reports are up to the job. Otherwise, you’re setting yourself up to waste time on activities that do not advance the goals and strategies of your organization.
While the lessons from Mr. Carson may seem simple, they may not be the easiest to implement. Share your thoughts: What are some new and innovate ways you are utilizing your team in the face of today’s business climate?