3 Leadership Lessons From Queen Elizabeth II

Posted 06.05.2012

The past few days in London have marked the Diamond Jubilee celebrating the 60th year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.  It’s been a pomp and circumstance extravaganza, and the members of the Royal Family have all had parts to play.

One thing the Windsors appear to understand better than anyone is that appearances matter for people in leadership roles – ceremonial or otherwise.  This point was brilliantly summarized in a New York Times article over the weekend called The Outfits That Say “The Queen.”    The piece opens with a line that the Queen is reported to have said in private: “I have to be seen to be believed.”

It’s a sneakily smart observation because it goes beyond what you would typically think of when you hear that someone or some thing has to be seen to be believed.  The idea usually means that something is so over the top that you literally have to see it to believe it.  In the case of Queen Elizabeth, I think it tells us that she completely understands that any belief in the value of the British monarchy is dependent on the image that she (and her family) project.

In The Next Level, I encourage leaders to pick up a big footprint view of their role and let go of a small footprint view.  As the events of the past week illustrate, the Queen takes the impact of her footprint seriously.  So, there is literally only one Queen of England, but if you dial the pageantry back, I think there are some applicable lessons from Queen Elizabeth for leaders in any walk of life:

  • Appearance matters.  You may argue that it doesn’t or shouldn’t matter, but how you put yourself together sends a message and makes a difference in how people view you.  In the case of Elizabeth, the Times article explains that when she inherited the throne from her father George VI, “The young queen needed an easily identifiable signature… The formula she arrived at … was of a series of simple shapes and color blocks.  The pastel rectangle of her customary coat and the bright disk of a matching hat… would say the queen even if the queen wasn’t in the outfit.”  A non-royal example of this dynamic was the black turtleneck and jeans that became Steve Jobs’ sartorial symbol.  I’m not arguing that you as a leader should wear a “uniform,” but I am saying that you need to consider the message you’re sending through your appearance and make informed choices to reinforce the desired message.
  • What you say and how you say it matters.  Queen Elizabeth does a lot of public speaking.  She may not be the most exciting speaker the world has ever seen, but she is always on message.  That requires thought and preparation.  It’s worth at least a few minutes of your time to think about what you want to say and how you want to say it.  The Queen doesn’t wing it and neither should you.
  • Showing up matters.  Stop and think about two things for a moment.  First, how often do you see Queen Elizabeth on TV?   The woman does a lot of public appearances.  Second, in case you didn’t know it, she is 86 years old!  The Queen’s job is to basically show up and make a good impression.  At 86, she is definitely getting it done.  Sometimes being a leader can feel like a drag because it gets tiresome to always “be on stage” (which you always are if you’re a leader).  The next time you’re feeling like phoning it in or skipping it, think of Queen Elizabeth and show up fully.

What else is there for leaders to learn from Queen Elizabeth II?