What is it like leading at the top? Professor Andrew George, consultant and coach, tells the story of the lonely king.
Leadership, in universities and other institutions, is something that is challenging, and until one has ‘done it’ it can be difficult to understand the pressures and difficulties inherent in being ‘at the top’. Invisible Grail asked me to write a short piece on what it meant to be a leader, and I decided that the best way of doing this was as a story, trusting that the reader will be able to draw their own insights and conclusions from this.
King Philip was frustrated and angry with himself, and the problem was that he did not know why. Things seemed to be going okay. The border dispute with the Kingdom of Salvania was simmering away but at a low level. The harvest had been gathered, and there looked to be enough food in the barns for winter. The barons were bickering and jostling for position, but that was normal. So what was wrong?
He looked out of the window of his tower into the evening light. He could see the guards pacing up and down the walls of the castle, the weather still warm enough that they were not tempted to huddle by the braziers. He could hear the sounds of the town beyond the walls; vendors shouting for business. He smiled at the young couple in the grove of trees who thought that their dalliance could not be seen from the castle. All seemed normal, and yet….and yet..
He smiled at himself, at the naivety of youth.
Stomping back to his chair he swallowed glass of rough red wine and stared at his portrait that hung above the fireplace. It was more than 20 years since that had been painted, and he looked at the fresh-faced youth staring back at him with a bold and confident gaze. He smiled at himself, at the naivety of youth. He remembered how it had been back then.
There were three of them; he had just inherited the kingdom from his uncle. Agatha, whom he had married just a year before his rather unexpected succession, and James his childhood friend. They had such dreams, such ambitions, such a vision of what how they wanted to rule and to transform Mantava. They would bring prosperity to the people. They would make Mantava a beacon of good and benign government, a place where religion would bring succour to the poor, a place where the arts would flourish, a place that would attract the best scholars from around the world.
The three of them used to spend long into the night talking and planning. Queen Agatha had a burning passion for the poor, pushing them to remember their duty to the less fortunate, to make sure that they were fed and kept warm. Sir James would argue that the way the kingdom was run must change, that the power should move away from the hands of a few barons, whose only qualification was that their distant ancestors had fought in some long-forgotten battle, and towards the merchants and craftsmen – the people who made the wealth of the country. King Philip would love to listen to the two of them, to get excited as they expounded their ideas long into the night. He would go to bed dreaming of what they could accomplish, thinking of how he would be known as King Philip the Great; the King of Mantava who made a difference.
These pipe dreams were all very good for youth, but those with responsibility for government had bigger and more important concerns.
Philip poured himself another glass of wine from the pitcher and smiled. How much time had they wasted as young people on such discussions? These pipe dreams were all very good for youth, but those with responsibility for government had bigger and more important concerns. They had to make things work, they had to ensure that the kingdom was safe from invasion and that peace was kept. They had to maintain balance amongst the barons, make sure that they were not tempted to revolt. They had an important job to do, and dreaming was a waste of time.
Still, something was missing. He could not put his finger on it. He was busy and active all the time, and hardly had a moment for riding out or hunting. He was always seeing people, today the Archbishop had come fussing around, wanting to find money to build a spire on his cathedral. He had seen a delegation of basket weavers concerned that cheap imports from neighbouring Pavada were threatening their business. Philip liked these problems, they were important issues and he enjoyed finding solutions to them and making sure that his people were happy. But something was missing.
He toyed with his glass, thought about shouting out for some musicians to play for him, and then realised that they would bore him still more. His mind turned back to the early days, so full of purpose and meaning when would work late into the night, and rise before the birds, and yet never be tired.
Where had they lost the vision?
Where had they lost the vision? Philip knew the moment that he had lost James. They had been working long on a plan to form a parliament of the merchant class, which would have direct access to the King and would be responsible for raising taxes. The barons hated the idea, it was a threat to their authority and power. But Philip and James had worked hard and were forcing the plan through. Then the King of Salvania had led his first foray into the north of Mantava, burning some villages and stealing sheep. King Philip had to retaliate, had to respond to this threat to the country. He turned to the barons, and they made clear what the conditions were for their help. Philip never forgot the look in James eyes when he told him that the plans for the parliament had to be shelved ‘for the time being’. Sir James rarely visited court nowadays, preferring to stay on his estates in the country. When he did come there was a stiffness and a coldness that Philip did not know how to overcome.
With Queen Agatha the process had been slower. The birth of their son, followed by a daughter just 18 months later, had taken up her time. Philip and Agatha were united in their love of Prince Edward and Princess Caroline, now both teetering on the brink of adulthood. But the Queen had concerned herself less and less with the affairs of State. She preferred to make a practical difference and spent most days in the orphanage that she had founded just down the road from the palace, returning in the evening with her eyes shining and full of the stories of what her little charges had done that day. She would occasionally ask Philip to contribute to the work, they might need a new set of uniforms for the children or musical instruments for their choir. Philip was happy to pay, aware that this made Agatha happy and vaguely guilty that he had not lived up to her expectations.
King Philip had never felt so alone.
Philip looked back at the picture. He knew that he had grown as a ruler, and he was a good King. But he also knew that he was not a great King. The young face looked at him over the intervening years, and Philip thought that he could discern just the faintest hint of disappointment in the young features. King Philip had never felt so alone. He realised that he had lost contact not just with those close to him, but also his young self.
Leadership can be a lonely path and many leaders feel cut off from colleagues. They need to remain connected to themselves, and to be aware of their values that are needed to make difficult choices and compromises. King Philip has been facing some of these issues and has started to think about what is going wrong – both for him as a person and for his kingdom. That is the first stage, and maybe in future stories we can explore how Philip responds to his situation and whether he can move from being a good King to a great King.
Andrew George has held senior roles at Imperial College London and Brunel University London. He has worked closely with the NHS, especially on research ethics (for which he was appointed MBE) and innovation. He is a coach and consultant in education, health sciences and research ethics (see www.ajtg.co.uk).
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