Leadership Lessons From Mr. Bates

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. – Matthew 5:5

In the hit television series Downton Abbey – and in the subsequent movie, there is a character by the name of John Bates. He is the valet to Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham.

When Mr. Bates arrives he is not exactly welcomed by all the staff. He’s given the cold shoulder and it proves to be quite challenging at times. The staff does not believe that he is up for the challenges of the job as he has to use a cane due to injuries suffered in the Boer War. These challenges include having to climb stairs, carry luggage, serve trays of food, etc. In addition to all this, the butler – Thomas Carson has hoped to be promoted to valet himself and is offended to lose the job to “Long John Silver”.

To make matters worse, the staff severely mistreat him and looked for opportunities to embarrass him. They were known to kick his cane out from under him causing him to fall, or encouraging him to carry a tray that he can’t carry – causing him to drop it. The staff did all that they could to make his life miserable. Despite these setbacks, Mr. Bates refuses to criticize them or defend himself.

Quite some time goes by before the rest of the staff learn that Bates is an old friend and served Lord Grantham in the war and is where he received his leg injury.

While these antics take place in a television drama, is it too far removed from the dynamics of organizations where the culture is marked by jealousies, rivalries, and turf wars? Does it sound like a place that you are familiar with?

There are a few leadership lessons to be learned from Mr. Bates’ character and I’d like to explore a few of them with you.

You can be confident in the face of adversity

For Mr. Bates, the adversity was relentless and at times cruel. But he didn’t allow the way he was treated to be an excuse for not doing his job or doing his best.

Facing adversity is the price you pay for being a leader and humility is your leadership superpower. Humility is about having the courage to show up and be your best when everyone around you is being their worst. 

When the adversity you face comes from those who ought to be in your corner it can sting, but you can be confident that you will ultimately outlast it.

You can set an example or make excuses

Mr. Bates’ leg injury came about while serving in the Boer War.  While he didn’t let it stop him from performing his duties, it did make it harder. Those around him tried to exploit his condition and did all they could it make his challenges worse.

In your leadership, you will face obstacles, challenges, and even those who will overtly work against you. And it’s in these moments that your leadership metal will be tested. And in these moments you have choices to make. You can be an example or make excuses. You can serve with distinction or be distracted. You can walk in humility or stoop down to their level. As far as it depends on you – be an example of servant leadership.

You can pull rank or pull your weight

A good amount of time went by before the rest of the staff learned that Mr. Bates was indeed an old friend of the Earl of Grantham. It was a knowledge that, if Mr. Bates had shared, could very well have spared him much of the adversity that he endured. But that was not the path he chose in the beginning. Perhaps he wanted to make it known that he was the right person for the job not because of a connection but because of his qualification.

In leadership and especially in times of adversity, it will be tempting to pull rank and “put people in their place”. It’s a quick fix that is beneficial in the moment, but what about how it serves you in the long run?

The longer you hang around in leadership the more you will learn that you take on more responsibilities and lay aside your rights.

It’s not about taking the path of least resistance, it’s about taking the path of responsible leadership.

Final Thoughts

Life in leadership will always be filled with challenges.  Seek to be a leader that is confident in the face of adversity, one that seeks to set an example, and one that pulls your own weight. The world needs this kind of leadership now more than ever.


Doug Dickerson
Doug Dickerson
DOUG has been speaking to audiences in the U.S. and overseas for more than 30 years. Doug knows how to spin a story, make you laugh, and how to challenge your traditional ways of thinking about leadership. Most of all, Doug is committed to helping you grow as a leader. Doug is a graduate of Southeastern University in Lakeland, Florida and studied Clinical Pastoral Education at Palmetto Baptist Medical Center in Columbia, South Carolina. While his leadership expertise has its roots in ministry and teaching. His background also includes public relations and business. Doug understands the necessity of leadership development and why creating a leadership culture in your organization is critical to your success. He is the author of four leadership books including: Leaders Without Borders, 9 Essentials for Everyday Leaders, Great Leaders Wanted, It Only Takes a Minute: Daily Inspiration for Leaders on the Move, and Leadership by the Numbers. As a speaker, Doug delivers practical and applicable leadership insights with a dose of humor and authenticity that endears him to a wide range of audiences. Doug is a John Maxwell Team member.

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