I have studied top leadership exits for 40 years, starting with the work done for my book The Hero’s Farewell (Oxford University Press, 1988). The most traumatic leadership change is a monarch’s departure because it only happens following a palace revolt or the death of the leader.
And so it is with the passing of Queen Elizabeth. Her death is emblematic of the cultural, strategic and emotional complexity of such an event. Her stakeholders, in her case, subjects, had a deep emotional bond with her as the regal emblem of their nation. With her careful dignity and thoughtful diplomacy, she made few public missteps, despite much backstage palace intrigue. We fought two wars against Britain, but we join her nation, our strongest ally, as they mourn the passing of their queen.
Few of us are royalists or monarchists, but Queen Elizabeth was a global force as a principled woman leader—accepting the crown at age 26 while still mourning her father’s passing, then surviving to be the longest reigning monarch in world history. Throughout her era, she was a voice of calm reassurance, guiding people optimistically through crisis after crisis, from the horrors of global tyranny to the ravages of a global pandemic. She led as symbolic head of state through 15 different heads of government and 15 U.S. presidencies—conferring legitimacy to a new prime minister just two days ago. She was also the most widely traveled monarch in history, never complaining of her duties, greeting her constituents with warmth, pushing her family to also get beyond the walls of Buckingham Palace.
Death at the age of 96 after a 70-year reign is not a tragedy of a premature passing. It is a sadness about the end of a leadership stability and a bridge of continuity to our historic past, including personal relationships with World War II titans such as Winston Churchill, whom she knew well. Our parents, our grandparents, ourselves, we knew of no other British monarch. She was a revered head of state and a reminder that Machiavelli clichés are wrong—leaders can be both loved and respected, hardly the tradeoff that Vladimir Putin and too many others seem to feel.
Paradoxically, she was a moral pillar of traditional values and also a bridge to the needed changes guiding our future—regal identity balanced by personal humility. Her traditional values—integrity, hard work, patriotism—forged strong bonds across the Atlantic.
As a change agent, she welcomed the embrace of ethnic and racial diversity, as well as other religions, with an especially important embrace of the Islamic newcomer to Britain. She embraced commoner spouses for her children and grandchildren (if not always smoothly) and helped guide former colonies into peaceful transitions into independent statehood.
In corporate jobs, we rarely encourage such long reigning administrations. Their inspiring visions and continuity of command can fortify admired cultural values while providing stability. But they can also grow an unrealistic belief in their own immortality and their unique indispensability of their identities as the leader.
Such monarchs in industry, like Queen Elizabeth in office, always put job first duties over other life interests, including family harmony. They undermine successors and ritualize traditions which need to change. Generations of successors can be discouraged and depart.
Armand Hammer led Occidental Petroleum from 1957 until his death in 1990 at age 92. The company stumbled in the aftermath of his legacy of Libyan dependence for decades, only finding its strategic footing in the last two years. FedEx founder Fred Smith stepped down this summer as CEO after over a half century of command, with people eager to see how his successor, Raj Subramaniam, a long time FedEx insider, will fare in the shadows of Smith legacy. Ninety-three year-old Rupert Murdoch’s patriarchal control of News Corp is so worthy of a soap opera that HBO actually created a fictional, satirical one modeled on his reign.
And so it was for Queen Elizabeth. Her frustrated, 73-year-old son Charles, now king, endured the longest royal apprenticeship in history as heir apparent. For decades, it resembled an extended adolescence, giving him plenty of opportunities to misstep while trying to avoid the shadow of his mother’s revered leadership.
Companies, like countries, are traumatized by the departure of a monarch, but we cannot diminish the value they created as much as the succession can be difficult. Queen Elizabeth’s death was inevitable and expected but is still a somber moment in the life of her nation. She was handed a unique leadership task and mastered it with unique diligence and dignity.
She is a reminder of the inextricably intertwined nature of the substance and symbolism of leadership and how very important it is to the life of a nation.