What about Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II has inspired such an outpouring of affection? It is hard to think of anyone else in our time who would have prompted such a widespread display of admiration.
Queen Elizabeth neither craved attention nor was bored with it. She seemed genuinely interested in others and curious about ideas, developments and politics. At the same time, she embraced her role which she saw as decidedly apolitical and institutional. She was a living symbol of dignity, someone to whom others could relate and believe that she understood them and their concerns.
She devoted the whole of her long life to serving the common good. She thrived on entertaining guests, including selecting books she thought her guests would enjoy that she would place on the shelves in the rooms they would occupy when they visited her at Balmoral Castle.
She was willing to discipline family members when their actions threatened the reputation of the monarchy. She could be firm and determined when necessary yet at the same time thoughtful and compassionate.
The love of her people freely flowed to her. Her charisma, which I experienced up close twice, was genuine — regal yet warm, at once charming and confident.
The first prime minister with whom she met as queen, Winston Churchill, was born in 1874. The last prime minister, Liz Truss, with whom Elizabeth met two days before her passing, was born in 1975.
For the better part of a century, she engaged with thousands of leaders and millions of citizens from across the globe. She helped to usher in and guide a new age, arguably the most momentous in history. More than any royal in Britain’s long and illustrious history, she helped the monarchy to adjust and adapt in a way that democracy could flourish while preserving powerful traditions that instill a sense of community and common purpose.
A commitment to duty
The first element of her success rested on her profound sense of duty. Her ascension to the monarchy was the product of circumstance rather than choice. The abdication of Edward VIII in 1936 when she was 10 and the premature death of her father George VI hastened by some of his lifestyle choices, brought her to the throne at the age of 25.
Along with other members of the royal family, she had served during World War II and adjusted to the possibility that one day she would ascend to the throne. It came earlier than expected. On her 25th birthday she spoke of her impending lifetime of service and pledged, “My whole life, whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service, and to the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”
The performance of duty is often difficult, demanding, under-appreciated and inconvenient. She remained steadfast and took her responsibilities seriously. Numerous knowledgeable sources have revealed that she read the briefs submitted to her carefully and asked probing questions. At the same time, she never disclosed her counsel, a pattern that was reciprocated by the prime ministers and others whom she advised.
Duty is even more impressive when performed over a sustained period of time. It is not easily sustained by sheer willpower. A second element is essential.
Her great love
In the process of fulfilling her duties she developed a great love of those whom she served. She saw them up close and witnessed their courage, selflessness and goodness. She realized that despite their imperfections, they shared her vision of a society that consistently sought improvement, that approached the future with optimism and a sense of purpose.
In her 2016 Christmas address to the nation, she observed: “I often draw strength from meeting ordinary people doing extraordinary things — volunteers, carers, community organizers and good neighbors — unsung heroes whose quiet dedication makes them special. They are an inspiration to those who know them. And their lives frequently embody a truth expressed by Mother Teresa of Calcutta. She once said: ‘Not all of us can do great things but we can do small things with great love.’”
A people’s trust she earned
Not least, Queen Elizabeth II was trusted by those whom she met at home and abroad. That trust was enhanced by the privacy she maintained about her conversations, her views and her preferences. Hers was a leadership that was principled without being judgmental.
Trust is earned not commanded. It is grounded in discretion. She did not disclose her conversations and never hinted at her preferences among the 13 U.S. presidents with whom she met, all since Harry Truman with the exception of Lyndon Johnson. She counseled weekly with the 15 British prime ministers whom she appointed.
This inspired candor in her conversations. Sometimes this candor was on public display as in a state dinner at the White House on May 8, 2007 when she spoke about the special relationship of the U.K. and the U.S. “Administrations in your country and governments in mine may come and go but talk we will, listen we have to, disagree from time to time we may, but united we must always remain.”
Her people trusted her words in part because she did not promise what could not be delivered. She did not suggest that all would be well, that the path would be smoothed or adversity avoided. Instead her optimism was anchored in reality. She did not make hasty or rash promises. She counseled prudence and realism dealing skillfully with a changing world rather than resisting the tide of history. She saw her role as cultivating unity during a time of change.
Her legacy of duty, love and trust is worth admiring and emulating.
Roger B. Porter, IBM Professor of Business and Government at Harvard University, served as the assistant to the president for economic and domestic policy from 1989-93.