5 leadership lessons we can learn from Queen Elizabeth II

On September 9, after more than 23,200 days on the throne, Queen Elizabeth II overtook Queen Victoria to become Britain’s longest-reigning monarch. More than 63 years after she succeeded her father — who, to millennials, was George VI of The King’s Speech — she remains celebrated as a “a rock of stability in a world of constant change,” as noted by Prime Minister David Cameron.

She has reigned over 12 prime ministers, from Winston Churchill to David Cameron, through decolonization and the diversification of British society. And she has managed a number of hardships within the royal family itself, from the wave of divorces and family strife in 1992 to the traumatic death of Diana. Through ups and downs, she has persisted.

So what do we have to learn from her? Perhaps because I’m an American, or perhaps because I’m trained as a business academic, or maybe it’s quite simply that my parents grew up in British India, I see the Queen as a manager. In addition to its many symbolic roles, it’s a job like any other — and an incredibly tough one at that. And anyone that’s survived in a challenging job as long as Liz can teach us a thing or two.

Here are five lessons we can learn from the Queen:

You never know when you’re going to be thrust into a position of responsibility, so get ready for the top job.

Prep for the top job… you could end up Queen. It’s not the craziest thing in the world that Elizabeth ended up the monarch of England, but it also wasn’t entirely expected. When she was born, she was third in line for the throne. But less than a year after her uncle Edward VIII succeeded King George, he unexpectedly abdicated the throne in pursuit of love. So when her father succeeded his brother as king in 1936, she was next in line. Few in top positions predicted years earlier where they’d end up. Always prep for a job above you — someone important might fall in love, and you could find yourself in charge.

Embrace technology. Even at the very beginning of her career, Elizabeth was on the cutting edge and incorporated new media into the spectacle of her accession. For her 1953 coronation, she insisted — against the advice of Prime Minister Winston Churchill — to have the ceremony televised. It was a huge hit. She also embraced email, becoming one of the first heads of state to send an electronic message in 1976! In a role steeped in tradition, Elizabeth defied conservative forces and was open-minded enough to experiment. As luck would have it, media would go on to enhance, rather than diminish, the importance of the monarchy.

Reach out in person. Communication at a distance isn’t the only way for one to stay in touch. Early in her career, Elizabeth gained popularity by actually visiting Australia. She was the first sitting queen or king to do so, and has made more than a dozen subsequent visits. Not surprisingly, this personal touch has helped assure support despite episodic Australian opposition to the monarchy. Lesson for us: sometimes an email or phone call isn’t enough. Actually go see people. The sacrifice of travel is often seen as a gesture of respect.

Keep calm and carry on. Since Liz got the top job at the age of 26, Britain has become a diverse, multicultural society and the nation’s role in the world has shrunk as it decolonized. Rather than rail against such changes (as other monarchs have), she presided over them with dignity and grace. The record of Britain under Elizabeth reminds us to be thrilled by change rather than fear it. She also remained calm throughout a series of violent encounters, including the 1960s riots by Quebec separatists, getting shot at in the early 1980s and braving a bedroom intruder around the same time. Cultivating poise in the face of chaos is crucial for those in positions of responsibility and leadership.

Stay above the fray. It’s the duty of British monarchs not to express political opinions but rather to encourage, warn and provide counsel. Elizabeth has been so good at balancing this role of advising without an opinion that when news broke of her candid opinion of the Scottish referendum, it generated lots of attention. The lesson for us seems clear: not every matter merits our attention. And further, sometimes it’s important to keep our opinion to ourselves, despite what our egos tell us.