Lessons from Elizabeth

I am not embarrassed to admit that I am a bit of a history nerd. And one of my all-time favourites is Queen Elizabeth I, who not only survived but went onto thrive as one of the greatest leaders of all time. 

One of the remarkable things about Queen Elizabeth I are the many lessons she can teach us about leadership in the business sense. These lessons apply just as much today at work as they did back in the 1500s. 

A former colleague in the US, without knowing my admiration of Elizabeth, once kindly gifted me a book “Elizabeth I CEO” by Alan Axelrod[1]. This book is filled to the brim with stories of her leadership style, and it explores how we can take strategic lessons from her reign and apply these at work today. I have read it many times since gratefully receiving it.

There are countless sources of information available about Queen Elizabeth, as she continues to provide inspiration even today in the 21st century. After much consideration and ongoing research into her reign, I have compiled my top ten lessons for us to heed as leaders at work.   

But first, here is a mega quick overview of her life before she became Queen, for those who don’t share my passion for history.

A quick history lesson to get you up to speed

Elizabeth was the only living child born to King Henry VIII and his second wife, Queen Anne Boleyn. King Henry is famous for having 6 wives, two of whom he had beheaded. One of those was Anne Boleyn for alleged crimes of treason and incest, but really it boiled down to her failure to provide a son for the King. Historically, the union between Henry and Anne was incredibly impactful, as it marked the start of the English reformation.[2]

Elizabeth grew up with two half siblings – Princess Mary[3] (daughter of Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife) and Prince Edward[4] (son of Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife). Following King Henry’s death, Edward became king at the tender age of 9. He died at the age of 15 and for an exceedingly brief time (9 days to be exact), Lady Jane Grey[5] ascended the throne. She was sadly a victim of politics and was executed on the order of Princess Mary, so that she could become the monarch. 

Let’s face it, that is pretty full on for even the most robust of children! However, throughout all of this turmoil, Princess Elizabeth survived. She was held prisoner for much of her childhood, held to account for the “crimes” of her mother and often referred to as a bastard child. Not an easy start.

Upon Queen Mary’s death, Princess Elizabeth became queen. What she inherited was not what she left behind. When she was crowned in 1558, England was riddled with debt and crippled by politics and opposing religious views. It was a victim of itself and was considered to be at the bottom rung of European nations at that point.  It was known as “this unhappy realm”.  From a business perspective, it was a failing business in danger of a hostile takeover.

Under Elizabeth’s 45-year reign, England became one of the richest and most powerful nations in Europe and was on its way to becoming one of the greatest empires the world would ever know.[6] So, how did she do it? What are some of the lessons we can learn from her approach to leadership?

1.   Create a compelling vision

Elizabeth knew how to create a vision, communicate that effectively and then realise it. When she took the crown, most of her subjects were wary of another woman ruler, after bloody Mary’s disastrous reign. 

Elizabeth deftly used statement and symbolic gestures to her people to make it very clear that she had a vision – she would return England to the path of both Protestant reformation, but also to greatness amongst its European peers.

She didn’t make any rash decisions. She worked with decisive patience and implemented change, whilst retaining enough of the past to ensure that her people felt comfortable.

2.   Build an excellent team

Although Elizabeth was intelligent and well educated, she understood the power of perspectives and data. She carefully built a team around her to provide her with wise counsel. She kept the best people from the reigns of her predecessors (including some Catholics), but then added the best and brightest political and economic minds in England. This nicely engaged both Catholics and Protestants and helped to create inclusivity.

As a result, she was very well informed about the political, religious and economic landscape around her. Most importantly, she actually listened to these experts. There is absolutely no point in hiring experts to your team and then fail to utilise their skills and experience.

3.   Be decisive and accountable

This was one of her greatest qualities in my view. There is nothing more frustrating than working for a leader who cannot make a decision – a lack of decisiveness is crippling. An even worse scenario is when you work for a leader who finally makes a decision and then backflips. Or blames others if it goes badly.

Elizabeth would consider the input from her team and then make decisive commands. She was bold and held herself accountable for those decisions. The buck stopped with her. Everyone knew it and respected her for it.

4.   The power of image

The Protestant reformation was lacking a critical figure that was pivotal in Catholicism – the Blessed Virgin. Elizabeth deliberately chose to fill this void and presented herself as a blend of both Queen and the Blessed Virgin.  Hence, she became known as “The Virgin Queen”.

This powerful image not only filled a void for her people, but also helped her to navigate the pressure to marry and produce an heir. It is quite remarkable that she managed to change her image with her subjects from bastard child to virgin queen.

Elizabeth understood that she was a powerful symbol and that she needed to send an unambiguous message. No leader of a business can afford to ignore their image and how they present themselves. The image of the leader becomes synonymous with the culture of the business. 

5.   Share the danger with your people

On the eve of the anticipated invasion by the troops of the Spanish Armada in 1588, Elizabeth appeared to speak to her troops, wearing the body armour of a cavalry officer[7]. She did not talk about herself, her courage or her sense of duty. She spoke about her absolute trust in her people. This is significant and creates respect and loyalty.

Too often staff in an organisation watch the blood letting when things go wrong, and yet the leader continues on unscathed. Elizabeth was very clear to let her troops know that would not be the case and that she would share their fate that day. That is powerful stuff.

6.   Communicate beyond words

Elizabeth was a powerful communicator, but not just with her well chosen words. She also understood the impact of her body language. She was very deliberate with how she engaged with her people and was very attentive to anyone that she was speaking to. She always conveyed the impression that anyone that she came into contact with was important to her.

She was well known for making and maintaining eye contact and for her attentive listening style. She would pay attention to all of her people, not just those at court. She made sure to travel and spend time with her subjects regularly, in a time when travel was less than comfortable or easy. She was known to make regular “progresses”[8] for the hearts and allegiances of her subjects at least once a year. No sitting in the corner office for Elizabeth – she was out there meeting her people.

7.   Moderation and a spirit of compromise

More than most leaders at that time in history, Elizabeth was motivated by moderation and compromise.  She managed to skilfully navigate her way through the theological debate that she inherited and spent time building consensus. Consensus building leaders[9] spend energy emphasising the areas of agreement rather than those of disagreement. To do this effectively, the leader needs to show how the areas of agreement vastly outweigh the areas of disagreement. In other words, focus and proportion.

8.   Attack the problem not the person

Elizabeth was excellent at keeping her team focused on the issue at hand, rather than attacking individuals. There was no brow beating, no name calling, no raised voices. Instead, she would give a straightforward summary of the issue at hand, an explanation of the consequences of that issue and a specific and dramatic example. So, no threats but a firm and clear understanding of the consequences of failure.  When Elizabeth would then issue orders, they would be executed effectively by her team.

9.   Exclude no-one

Too many organisations freeze into an inner circle of decision makers who are defensive against the outer circle of the rest of the organisation. At best, this is a waste of resources. At worst, there is conflict between the inner and outer circles, which creates resentment and distrust. 

Elizabeth had an inner circle of advisers, which was very deliberate in size. It was large enough to provide expert opinions on important issues, but small enough for her to manage debate. She had a very clear process around who was promoted into the inner circle, which she communicated effectively. However, she was also careful to not alienate the outer circle, providing they behave as “good and loving subjects”.[10]

Elizabeth also made it her business to know everyone of power, influence or talent in her realm. She did not rely on hearsay but forged her own personal relationships. 

10.  Work on yourself

Elizabeth never stopped learning, even as Queen. She understood that knowledge is power and was focused on being able to speak with anyone on any intellectual topic, particularly political events. As a result, she spent three hours a day reading. 

But her self-care went beyond the thirst for knowledge. Elizabeth was fit and especially loved horse riding, hunting, dancing and long, brisk walks. She was known to sometimes leave tense negotiations to go for a walk to calm her mind. Elizabeth seemed to understand that leadership is not about just the mind – it is also about your physical presence.

It was exceedingly difficult to curate a list of only 10 lessons, as I could easily write another 10 just about her courage, political nous, crisis management and attention to managing the financials. Without doubt, there is a reason that the world continues to have great fascination with her reign – she was an exceptional leader.

Ps. The image used is of Cate Blanchett, an Australian actress, from the 2007 film, “Elizabeth: The Golden Age”. This followed the 1998 film “Elizabeth”, which also starred Blanchett.Image credit: Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I, IMDb 2007

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[1] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/322055.Elizabeth_I_CEO

[2] https://www.hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london/history-and-stories/anne-boleyn/#gs.5tksgc

[3] https://www.britannica.com/biography/Mary-I

[4] https://www.britannica.com/biography/Edward-VI

[5] https://www.britannica.com/biography/Lady-Jane-Grey

[6] Alan Axelrod, “Elizabeth I CEO”.

[7] https://www.rmg.co.uk/stories/topics/spanish-armada-history-causes-timeline

[8] https://britishheritage.com/history/queen-elizabeth-i-slept-here

[9] https://www.pon.harvard.edu/tag/consensus-building/

[10] Alan Axelrod, “Elizabeth I CEO”