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In Focus: Celebrating 70 years of Elizabeth II

Our In Focus series of articles originally appeared in The Leadership Bulletin, a free weekly bulletin for leaders and managers. You can subscribe here.

This week is a very short working week for most of us in the UK as we come together to celebrate Her Majesty the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. In 1952 Princess Elizabeth, at the time visiting Kenya, became Queen Elizabeth II when just 26 years of age. Seven decades on she remains one of the most respected and admired people in the UK, Commonwealth and the world. How has she managed it?

In this Bulletin, I want to highlight three lessons from the Queen’s unique and long reign that I think can apply to anyone in a leadership role.

1. Know what you are there to do.

It is, in some ways, very difficult to be a 20th/21st Century Queen. History books are full of your ancestors and predecessors exercising enormous power, but the modern constitutional settlement means that there is little to no politics left for the Sovereign to do. It must be tempting for the Queen to express an opinion on a political topic or seek to intervene when she disagrees with something, but she has resisted this temptation time and time again. Instead, she has focused on what she is there to do: bestowing honours, supporting charities, promoting the Commonwealth and leading the nation at times of national mourning, celebration or trial.

This is something many leaders could learn from: know what you are there to do and know, explicitly, what you are not there to do. It’s not a case of the Queen, or any leader, being a jobsworth and sticking to their job description; instead, it’s about knowing where you can add real value to the lives of those around you. That’s what we should all be seeking to achieve.

2. Stick to core principles.

One of the most striking things about the Queen’s reign, in my view, is that she has stuck to some core principles throughout that have guided her judgement. Some of these are deeply personal to her, such as her Christian faith. Others are principles determined by decades of experience about what works. It is claimed, for example, that the Queen once said “I have to be seen to be believed” and this principle has defined much of her work as Queen, undertaking dozens of official and state visits overseas and thousands of events around the four nations of the UK, the 15 other Commonwealth realms and the 54 countries of the Commonwealth. She has arguably been seen in the flesh by more people than anybody else in history.

This core principle, applied consistently over a long period of time, has achieved its aim: the Queen is known, recognised and admired. Leaders in other contexts could learn from this, too. You need to know what you stand for and the principles that guide how you will act. This means your team largely know what to expect of you, how you will treat them, and what your big goals are. It doesn’t mean there isn’t room for new and innovative thinking, but that clear principles guide the way you and your organisation works. Over the long-term, it pays off as you achieve big goals through small, consistent actions.

3. Control change - don’t be controlled by it.

Finally, it’s striking how the Queen has, to a large degree, controlled the change around her rather than being controlled by it. There are few things more threatening for a monarchy than to stand still as chaos is swirling all around you. Early in the last century, it happened to many of Queen Victoria’s grandchildren as they were forced to abdicate (German Emperor Wilhelm II) or murdered (Russian Emperor Nicholas II). Here in Britain, things were different not least because our WWI monarch, George V, was better able to adapt to events.

I think the Queen has largely been able to do the same, changing the way court works and how the Royal Family engages with the world in a controlled way. But just as importantly, the Queen has generally known what not to change. After all, embracing every new fad or shift in public mood isn’t leadership at all. So as the Queen has changed the way the Royal Family works, there is still much that feels familiar and constant.

This can apply irrespective of whether you lead a modern Royal Family or a modern institution: you need to be conscious of what changes are happening and know which ones to embrace and which ones to resist. That way, people always know what you stand for and what you are trying to achieve even as you move with the times.

We are, as a country and a Commonwealth, so very fortunate to have had a great example of leadership, service and devotion in Elizabeth II for so many years. So congratulations on 70 years, ma’am, and thank you for being our nation’s finest example of leadership. I hope you all have a very happy Jubilee weekend.