The King’s Coach

To be sure, The King’s Speech is an engaging film worth seeing.  It’s well written, brilliantly acted and – historicity aside – compelling and uplifting.  Watching it, I smiled as I noticed another, probably unintended, achievement: it’s an outstanding example of a thriving CXO executive coaching engagement.

The film begins in 1925 and follows Prince Albert’s quest to overcome a debilitating stammer.  He works with multiple specialists before engaging Lionel Logue, an unrealized actor turned speech therapist-cum-coach. They develop a tight working relationship through and beyond Albert’s ascending the throne as King George VI in 1936.

The Free Choice:

There’s a riddle we coaches have appropriated from the shrinks: how many coaches does it take to change a light bulb?  Answer: just one, but the bulb has to want to change.

First comes the coachee’s free choice and commitment to the development process.   Not unlike Prince Albert (“Bertie”), any CXO looking for professional development support is in a precarious spot.  He may fret his constituents (e.g., Board, leadership team, analysts, business press) expect a senior executive “fully formed” upon arrival at the top.  Of course, top performing artists and world-class athletes know from experience that coaches are essential to challenge tired assumptions, improve technique, and speak truth to power when others won’t.  This is not in spite of the scrutiny from onlooking constituents, but rather because of it.  So, to make the work stick, the CXO has to be bought in.  Bertie understands that his duty to inspire the people of Britain requires him to confront his shortcoming, and that this will take outside help.  Period.

The Safe Space:

Logue is deliberate in creating a safe space for the work.  As the master coach, he knows that as Bertie works on technique, he will also need to cognitively explore his presenting problem to untangle it and problem-solve alternatives for action.  So, Logue purposefully creates the conditions for Bertie to acquire self-awareness and loosen up enough to embrace the self-consciously awkward muscle and breath-control techniques.

Like Logue, the CXO coach understands that this isn’t psychotherapy or worse, new age squish.  It’s a confidential context for the exec to make honest disclosures and discuss real topics.  The coach must toggle roles to elicit and engage the exec’s specific moments of insight.  Always the confidante, the coach is also at various times catalyst, facilitator, devil’s advocate, cajoler, midwife or refuge.  This is where coaching as an art is practiced.

The Chemistry:

Foundational to a successful CXO-Coach partnership is relationship chemistry.  When they first meet, Logue addresses Prince Albert by his familial nickname, Bertie.  The Prince bristles at the profound protocol breach but Logue persists in order to connect as equals, undefined by status or station.  It needn’t approach the professional equivalent of “love at first sight,” but a promising coaching relationship develops quickly from respect and mutuality to genuine affection.  The two look forward to time together.

With Bertie’s free choice, Logue’s created safe space and their shared chemistry flourishing, the film culminates dramatically.  Bertie (now, King George VI) delivers a three-page speech declaring war with Germany from Buckingham Palace live over the radio.  With Logue’s coaching, he might just perform at his peak.

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