The Queen

28 September 2022

The sad passing of Queen Elizabeth II on Thursday 8 September was momentous. She reigned for an extraordinary 70 years and 214 days, 7 years more than Queen Victoria, and for so many of us in the United Kingdom has been the very embodiment of constancy.

Many tributes have been paid and her resonance to her subjects was writ large in the 5 mile queue which formed to pass her while she lay in State and the lining of the route of her funeral procession.

And yet, the paradox is that the Queen was not loved by her subjects for demonstrating traditional leadership characteristics - regular communication, shaping opinion, charismatic advocacy - she commanded such respect in the nation and indeed around the world precisely because:

  • we only heard from her at big moments (Covid, Christmas),
  • she had no publicly expressed views that anyone could be offended by, and
  • she had a calm, unruffled and soothing presentational style

What then, as we reflect on her passing and the transition to King Charles, are the lessons for us as individuals and business folk? Here are a few thoughts:

1. Succession planning is key. The Royal Family have, of course, had many years to plan the succession from Queen Elizabeth to King Charles. But the apparent suddenness of the Queen’s passing must have presented challenges which were coped with well. The address to the nation by King Charles on the evening after the Queen’s passing was (perhaps surprisingly) eloquent and personal and gave the impression that the transfer of the Crown to Charles was gripped.

Whilst there have been missteps since, such as the pen incidents, and some might have grown tired of wall to wall coverage, the cadence of the period of mourning responded sensitively to the emotions of the nation. And the funeral was a tour de force of organisation and ceremony.

Succession is a delicate topic for all of us, at home and in the office, as our natural instinct is to live in the moment. The benefits of pro-active planning evident in the Royal succession, however, are a timely reminder that:

  • we should organise our private affairs (wills, powers of attorney, investments) so that we minimise the stress for our successors; and
  • in the business world, leaders need the confident humility to lean into the process of ensuring that when they leave the business does not miss a beat and actively develop potential successors rather than just plan to do so. As a Harvard Business Review article from some years ago observed:

“Plans do not develop anyone — only development experiences develop people. We see many companies put more effort and attention into the planning process than they do into the development process. Succession planning processes have lots of to-do’s — forms, charts, meetings, due dates and checklists. They sometimes create a false sense that the planning process is an end in itself rather than a precursor to real development.”>

2. The value of mystique. As Walter Bagehot famously observed, the life of the monarchy is its mystery - “We must not let in daylight upon magic”. The Queen did a good job with mystique and King Charles seems, from his address to the nation, to have understood that he is going to have to stop expressing views (although he might have wished that he had not allowed cameras in to watch him fighting with his pen). Whilst transparency is clearly important for businesses and for each of us in our dealings with others, there is also a magic about mystique which should not be underestimated.

Two examples:

  • I was walking down Bond Street last Thursday at 2pm and I passed the Chanel shop where there was a queue outside, with maybe 15 people waiting to get inside and (presumably) buy a handbag or some shoes. That was not happening at any other shop. It may be something to do with shop size but there does seem to be a powerful draw to the Chanel brand. The long history may help - the fashion house was started by CoCo Chanel in 1910 - management over the years has surely done a fine job in nurturing a sense of specialness and mystique; and
  • I had lunch with an acquaintance a couple of months ago and came away realising that I knew literally everything about him and what he’d been doing and he knew nothing about me. It was not a great experience and an example of over-sharing. To build a relationship of trust we need to be open about ourselves but “listen generously” to others and leave more about ourselves for future discovery.

3. Quiet dignity. The Queen embodied a sense of quiet dignity, in stark contrast it must be said to some other members of the Royal Family. She also had a self-deprecating sense of humour. As the Economist observes “Monarchy works better with a wink than a snarl”. And in reality a lot of other things would also work better that way. Many will have seen the clip but it is a lovely story from the Queen’s personal protection officer (Dick). He was with the Queen after they had had a picnic near Balmoral and they came across two American hikers. They didn’t recognise the Queen asked if Dick and the Queen they had met her. The Queen said that she hadn’t but that Dick had, so the hikers asked the Queen to take a picture of the hikers with Dick. It’s very charming.

4. Continuity/Renewal. For many organisations renewal in leadership is important. This is reflected in the UK Corporate Governance Code and its expectation that Chairs should be gone after 9 years and in the regular rotation of Senior and Managing Partners of professional service firms. A change in leadership brings fresh thinking and new impetus and also helps to motivate others to strive for advancement.

But the Monarchy is different. The very continuity which the Queen has brought to the Monarchy has been of real value. Over the last 70 years the UK has had many moments of political upheaval and, whisper it, has had to manage a declining role in the world. Yet the Queen has always been there. She has “seen off”, as Boris Johnson put it, 15 Prime Ministers. The Queen has been, to borrow George Orwell’s phrase, an “escape-valve for dangerous emotions” in that she was senior to politics and could be a focus of patriotism without tribalism and bigotry.

And at moments of real national alarm, such as the lock-down in March 2020, she has provided comfort simply by being there on TV screens reassuring the population that we would meet again.

One does not have to be an ardent monarchist to see that this constancy has been important.

5. Dealing with the challenges. When bad stuff happens in a business, the CEO and the Board have to deal with it promptly and efficiently. That is necessary in order to defend the interests of shareholders, employees, customers and other stakeholders. It is also necessary in order to sustain the reputation of the leadership as, in this increasingly on-line and social media world, reputation is an ever more fragile asset.

During her reign the Queen had to cope with some very difficult issues within the Royal Family, the firm. With the possible exception of the death of Princess Diana, when the nation was left wondering why they had not heard from the Queen for days, she has generally addressed the issues. She arrived at a settlement with Prince Harry which had to walk a very difficult line and the Duke of York was finally prevailed upon to settle with Virginia Roberts. She elegantly confirmed that she wished Camilla to be Queen Consort earlier this year, heading off a potentially tricky succession issue.

The learning is probably that some issues might have been dealt with more speedily - the Duke of York’s travails for example - but then it must be remembered that this is a family and not a PLC.

6. Music and Colour. At this worrying time for the world, we can also draw inspiration from the fact that, although the job of being Queen meant that she could not afford to be too interesting in her views and activities, she did like music. Apparently, she awoke to the sound of a piper every morning and has been feted over the years by a wide range of musicians - from Duke Ellington to (of course) Queen.

And she dressed brightly, apparently saying “I have to be seen to be believed”.

We men could do something for the cause of brightness by bringing back ties which, very sadly, are an endangered species.

Christopher Saul

Christopher Saul provides independent trusted advice to senior executives and key stakeholders within publicly quoted and privately owned businesses and professional service firms. His areas of focus are governance, succession and the moderation of differences.

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