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A Leadership Lesson from The King's Speech

The 2010 movie The King’s Speech won multiple awards as well as the hearts of moviegoers everywhere. On a basic level, the film presents a compelling personal story of the England’s Duke of York’s triumph over a debilitating stammer. However, it is also an inspirational example of what it takes to rise above obstacles and step up to leadership in the service of a cause greater than oneself.

The Duke (called Bertie by his family), was second in line to the British throne. He suddenly found himself in his country’s top leadership role when his father, King George V, passed away and his brother, the Duke of Windsor, abdicated the throne to marry the American divorcée Wallis Simpson. As king, the Duke would have to face his most dreaded fear: public speaking.

The newly crowned King George VI worked tirelessly to overcome his stammer and lead and reassure a nation on the brink of World War II. How did George VI literally find his voice to speak to his people? By reluctantly asking for and accepting the help of someone lower in social status than he—a “commoner” voice coach named Lionel Logue. Although he worked hard to overcome his stammer, he could not do it alone; he needed expert advice and support—the very support that as a monarch, he felt he should not need.

If you’re like most leaders, you, too, struggle with asking for and accepting the help you might need to perform to your highest potential. You may think that you should be able to go it alone—that asking for help will be seen as a sign of weakness. Yet, in failing to receive support, odds are, you are depriving yourself—and your organization—of your true greatness.

Believe this: Accepting support isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of courage and strength. Only strong, self-aware leaders can size up a situation and see, realistically, what they can or cannot face alone. What’s more, only then can they embrace, as King George VI ultimately did, their own “human-ness.”

Like Bertie, you may have some instinctive reactions to the idea of approaching others for support. In our own work with leaders, we find that there are at least three common barriers to their asking for and getting the input they need.

Based on our own work with leaders, we have identified the following four common arguments against asking for help (each one confronted by the King George VI himself), along with suggestions on how to deal with each:

1. “I’m the leader here—I can’t let on that I need help.”
Your people want and need you to lead. So, if asking for and accepting help will enable you to be a better leader, it’d be a smart move on your part to do it. What’s more, by example, you’d be letting others in the organization know it’s okay to ask for help—to acknowledge their “human-ness” and accept assistance. As a result, relationships would deepen, trust and respect would grow, and people would be better able to give their very best to the business.

2. “I don’t want to open myself up to being vulnerable.”
If playing it close to the vest is your default, then first seek to understand your immediate world. Ask questions to learn who the people around you really are, where they’re coming from, and what their true intentions might be. The more you know, the less vulnerable you’ll feel. Ultimately, you’ll open yourself up to the trusting, supportive relationships you need to succeed.

3. “I don’t know who I can trust.”
Feeling uncertain about whom you can really trust and depend on is normal, even legitimate. So, at first, select just one or two people and start slowly with small, safe steps. Set clear expectations. Lay out the ground rules. And make specific agreements to help you stay on track. Give people a chance to earn your trust and, odds are, you’ll reap valuable rewards.

4. “I want to be a strong leader, but that has nothing to do with my personal life.”
You’re a whole person, and your success comes from the sum of all your experiences. Additionally, as a leader, your ability to build and rebuild trust with others has a lot to do with how you’ve dealt with situations of broken trust in your own life. If you don’t want to “go there” with people within your organization, look for someone on the outside—your own Lionel Logue.

Do you struggle with public speaking or giving presentations? Give a speech worthy of a King with the help of this AMA Webinar.

About the Author(s)

Dennis Reina, Ph.D. and Michelle Reina, Ph.D. Dennis S. Reina, Ph.D., and Michelle L. Reina, Ph.D., are experts on workplace trust and coauthors of Rebuilding Trust in the Workplace (Berrett-Koehler) and Trust and Betrayal in the Workplace (Berrett-Koehler). They are cofounders of the Reina Trust Building Institute, a global enterprise specializing in measuring, developing, and restoring workplace trust. Contact them at reinatrustbuilding.com