Leadership spanning centuries: fundamental lessons from CBC dramas

Leadership styles and lessons from some of the lead and supporting characters from hit CBC shows spanning a few centuries — and settings.

CBC Gem has quite a few shows where we see different leadership styles from different eras develop over a few seasons: from The Tudors to Murdoch Mysteries to Diggstown

Some leaders have it down to an art form, with the ability to pinpoint at a subatomic level of precision exactly which strategy to use and when. However, the majority of us regular folk are making it up as we go along, combining a mix of leadership styles which can include autocratic, democratic, visionary, pacesetting, directive, and many others. 

The use of each style also depends on the structure of the environment in which one needs to apply these skills. Here are a few leadership styles and lessons from some of the lead and supporting characters from hit CBC shows spanning a few centuries — and settings.

Colleen MacDonnell from Diggstown

Colleen MacDonnell played by Natasha Henstridge. (CBC)

Colleen (Natasha Henstridge) is a no-nonsense leader, driven to build a legacy as director of a Halifax Legal Aid firm. Colleen's got a head for politics and a knack for people management, making her style a mix of autocratic, with a focus on results and efficiency, and hands-off leadership, which she is only able to utilize as a result of the trust she's built in her team. When Colleen does weigh in on facts and consequences, it's through a healthy dose of assertiveness and empathy delivering the message without alienating her lawyers in the process. No easy feat.

Colleen expects the declared rules to be followed but deeply cares about her team, listens to what they have to say and values what they contribute. Ultimately, this mix of approaches put her under a democratic and visionary umbrella.

Leadership lessons we can learn from Colleen:

  • Dust yourself off and get back up

Though she's been dealt devastating blows in her personal life, including being betrayed by her ex-wife and law partner, Colleen has never let life's setbacks stop her. One would think that after a trust has been broken in such a big way, there would be difficulty in the trust department. Not for Colleen, she knows that getting back up and always moving forward will get her to achieve her legacy and once more we see her in her element building it back up, this time in a Legal Aid firm. 

  • Employ a diverse team and recognize their strengths

It's no secret that having a diverse team increases performance and better decision making and Colleen has done just that, building a winning team that represents their clients in the best way — through empathy and compassion. They are aware of the inequalities and biases in the justice system and are able to act accordingly to help the most at risk in their community.

As a result we see Marcie Diggs, her star employee/lawyer and a lead character in Diggstown, call for a jury re-selection for a more diverse jury during a trial where a young Indigenous member of the community was going to get a longer-than-fair sentence. You see another lawyer pitch a project to the board for an outreach program designed to prevent the improper incarceration of dozens of members of the Bear River First Nation. He requested a full and fair defence system for those that initially had lawyers read their case files only 15 minutes before trial.

  • Integrity will get you the respect and trust

Colleen's no-nonsense approach and uncompromising commitment to strong ethical and moral principles is why her team trusts her. She rationalizes the situation and supports her team even when they make decisions which might not align with her own. She gives advice but lets them make their own mistakes without judgement. 

This is evident in her conversation with Marcie in mid-season one when she asks her to let go of a case that is going nowhere but downhill and when Marcie refused, Colleen advises her to be careful as the lawyer she is going up against would stop at nothing, not even at using a client as leverage to win a case. And when things do go south for Marcie, Colleen is there for support.

Watch Diggstown on CBC Gem.

Thomas Brackenreid from Murdoch Mysteries

Thomas Brackenreid played by Thomas Craig. (CBC)

Inspector Brackenreid (Thomas Craig) is a by-the-book kind of leader and a skeptic who's not the biggest fan of William Murdoch's unusual methods of detection, but will use them himself when he thinks they might solve a case. Though he has a bit of a situational leadership style, don't think for a second that he's always flexible. He indulges Murdoch only because he has proven his theories time and time again and has no choice but to let Murdoch explore. 

Brackenreid can also be tenacious, and quick to anger. He is a direct communicator with a combo of servant leadership when encouraging his team to take on increasingly difficult but important tasks and supports them throughout it, and affiliative leadership as he fosters a team connection both professionally and personally.

Leadership lessons we can learn from Brackenreid:

  • Encourage and demonstrate resilience

The job of an inspector is enough to make anyone contemplate their choice as they deal with murder, theft and face the worst of humanity. But not Brackenreid, he is out there with his team fighting for justice when things get tough. Even after a brutal attack (at the end of season seven) which put him in the hospital for three months. 

Once he got out of the hospital, despite being tempted to kill the perpetrator, he ultimately abided by the law he has served for so many years and demonstrated not only mental resilience but that his moral compass is pointing in the right direction. 

  • Loyalty and trust are core of any tight relationship

Brackenreid runs a tight ship bonded by loyalty and trust. Not only does he trust his team to do the job they do best, unconventional ideas and all (mostly from Murdoch), he goes out of his way to protect them in times of adversity. 

When Murdoch and Ogden were accused of being accomplices to Terence Meyers who was facing charges of treason, Brackenreid trusted that they were innocent and was right there in the trenches with them trying to find evidence to disprove the claims. In return he gets the same from his team when the tables are turned.

  • Be willing to learn

Despite his perceived objections,  Brackenreid constantly absorbs Murdoch's outlandish methods. And during his time in hospital, Brackenreid taught himself to become a painter, with all the time he had on his hands. He demonstrates that a leader should always be ready to expand their horizons and learn something new.

Watch Murdoch Mysteries on CBC Gem now.

Henry VIII from The Tudors

Henry VIII played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers. (CBC)

The best known of the Tudor monarchs, he has four seasons of The Tudors on CBC Gem, recounting the story of his tyranny, brutality, selfishness but also leadership.

Henry VIII's (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) leadership style is a double-edged sword. His success came from his strategic mind and keen skill for leading others through influence, and his loyal subjects loved him for his "do-as-I-do" pacesetting leadership and his charisma. At the same time, his directive "do-what-I-say" leadership approach resulted in fear. 

We can provide instructive lessons of what not to do from Henry's leadership including irrational anger, indecision, over hastiness and excessiveness, even at times overreliance on one person. We won't ignore his selfishly tyrannical acts but will simply look into the finer details of his nearly 40-year reign (between 1509 and 1547) as the King of England, and try to find lessons that transfer in a modern-day setting. 

While the negative consequences of his rule outweigh the positive, it's hard to deny that King Henry VIII was a transformational leader. And there are lessons to learn from both his triumphs and failures.

Leadership lessons we can learn from Henry:

  • Gather brilliant people around you and listen to advice

Henry built a strong team of influential and strategic leaders, figures such as Thomas Cromwell, Cardinal Wolsey, Sir Thomas More and many others, whose counsel literally helped him change the course of history, and remain in control until his last breath. However, the methods used were beyond horrific and a lesson in what not to do.

He did manage to achieve many of his goals at every turn though, like divorce his brother's widow Queen Katherine because Anne Boleyn caught his eye — something that was unheard of during a time when the church intervened in marriage disputes. In the process, he reformed the church and expanded the royal military and political power to new heights. His bold moves came with the advice of trusted counsel, and he conquered because of it.

  • Think outside the box and embrace change

Through the strength of his ideas and vision for the future along with his belief of the possibility of the impossible, Henry achieved the unimaginable. His education and ambition helped him build an empire by radically changing the constitution of England. 

Henry built a chain of coastal fortresses to defend England and became "the father of the English navy" as he started to use cannons and ships in battles. Prior to that, these ships were used solely to transfer troops. For that only he is now known as the founder of the Royal Navy.

The fact that his strategies persist centuries later, is interesting and shows that he was of malleable mind.

  • Create a fun environment and lead by example

Henry VIII's court was fun, affluent, brimming with beauty and song… and food, of course. The who's who of his court got to enjoy this and he used his undeniable charisma and people skills to make everyone feel special, even those he couldn't stomach. He instilled confidence in them and people felt important.  

He was deeply engaged in sport — excelling in tennis and jousting — and led by example in war, going into battle with his troops. In return, many people in his court followed him blindly. 

While Henry is considered to be one of the most charismatic leaders to sit on the English throne, he relished excess, and had to pay the bills. So, taxes were raised for regular citizens who were already suffering immensely and struggling to put food on their tables. The court was satisfied but the rest of the country was not. There was no balance for the majority of the people he led.

Watch The Tudors on CBC Gem now.

If we can learn anything from these leaders, it's that there is no one-size-fits-all formula to leadership. It can evolve, improve and change based on the situation and environment, or era, you're in.

Watch these and other interesting series on CBC Gem.

About the Author

Vanja is a producer and writer who is passionate about influencing positive change and ensuring that all voices are equally elevated. She is a perpetual optimist “unfolding her own myth,” who breathes music, writes poetry, and loves dabbling in tech and innovative ways of storytelling, including through XR/VR/AR/MR. Follow Vanja on Twitter: @neptunes_blues.