As an American I have had my share of preconceptions about the British monarchy. But after spending some time recently in the U.K. and having the opportunity to talk to a range of interesting people — from the southwest coast to the gates of London’s Buckingham Palace — I came away with a fresh perspective.
In my travels I learned more about the monarchy and the life of Queen Elizabeth II, and in particular, how she impacted and inspired so many in Britain and beyond.
Much will continue to be said about her extraordinary life — including her strengths and missteps — but here are key lessons that can apply to anyone interested in living a life of purpose and inspiration to others.
1 — Life won’t go as planned. Elizabeth has been called the “accidental queen” because she assumed the throne due to the abdication of her uncle, Edward VIII, and subsequent untimely death of her father, George VI. Elizabeth took on this new role at a young age without lamenting the loss of a more carefree life that might have been.
Our lives don’t usually unfold as we envision, either. Careers get derailed, opportunities fall through, caregiver responsibilities loom large and an injury or illness can knock us off our horse like a jousting knight. It’s our duty to make the best of our circumstances and carry on even if that means letting go of what might have been. Elizabeth went on to weather numerous challenges, scandals and setbacks throughout her 70-year reign. The takeaway is that it’s not what happens, but how we respond to it, that matters.
2 — Declare your intention. In 1947, on her 21st birthday, then Princess Elizabeth famously said the following in a speech: “I declare before you all that my whole life — whether it be long or short — shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.” This young woman stated her mission and lived her truth through the ensuing decades. In 1977, at her silver jubilee she remarked about her pledge, “I do not regret, or retract, one word of it.”
People respect those do what they say and say what they mean, especially in a world when so many are chasing the next shiny thing. There is a proven power in affirming one’s purpose and staying true to one’s calling. Decide what it is that you can be counted on to do.
3 — Balance tradition and change. Some say the monarchy, with all of its pomp and circumstance, is outdated. But in a world of continuous acceleration and disruption, rituals and tradition can serve as an anchor of stability and familiarity. Organizations — from corporations and teams to religions and families — also have customs and practices that help unite and inspire their members. The queen, while steeped in a thousand years of tradition, was astute enough at times to know when change was necessary and ushered it in.
4 — Make time to recharge. The queen found refuge from the demands of her role and the constant public scrutiny at her beloved Balmoral estate in Scotland. Asked why Balmoral when she could travel anywhere in the world she replied, “Because I quite like it there.” In a BBC interview a staffer recounted how once her car was through the gates of the property the queen literally kicked off her shoes.
In a 24-hour, “always-on” business world we all need to make time to reset and clear our heads. Studies show spending time in nature is a boost to physical and mental well-being. You don’t need an expensive estate to enjoy these benefits, there are national, state and local parks to be found, and even just a regular walk can work wonders.
5 — Be pleasant to deal with. Despite the queen’s stoic demeanor, many who met her described being charmed by the experience. “She had this uncanny ability to make you feel comfortable,” said one royal commentator. “As if you were just the person she was hoping to meet.” Elizabeth took a great interest in the affairs of each country she visited and asked questions in a curious way. She also had a funny side, and from Daniel Craig to Andrew Lloyd Webber there are no shortage of people on record who have mentioned being delighted by her wit and humor.
We don’t need a bejeweled crown or fancy title to replicate this approach. By showing a sincere interest in others, asking open-ended questions and occasionally adding a dash of appropriate humor, we can go a long way toward endearing ourselves to most anyone.
6 — Never mind the naysayers. The monarchy has plenty of critics, and the queen wasn’t immune to these attacks. In the end though, historians will add it all up. But throughout her life Elizabeth remained a symbol of strength and resolve staying above the fray of popping press flashbulbs and petty disputes.
Regardless of what you do there will always be someone who doesn’t agree with it or finds fault in your efforts. Sometimes, people may just not like you for whatever reason. Be open to constructive feedback, but don’t let haters keep you from your pursuits. As Finnish composer Jan Sibelius put it, “Remember, no statue has been put up to honor a critic.”
7 — Re-think “retirement.” Many people look forward to retirement, dreaming of changing latitudes and living the Jimmy Buffet lifestyle by hitting the beach and playing golf. But for Elizabeth retirement was never an option, her duties included patronage of over 600 charitable organizations. She worked tirelessly to the end, even greeting Liz Truss, the new prime minister, only days before her death at age 96.
Instead of retirement, plan your next act. Whether that involves starting a business, volunteering or otherwise reinventing yourself, studies show that keeping busy and staying active helps you remain sharp and live longer. Fingers crossed, we will all make it to our 90’s or beyond. But whatever your kingly pursuits, I hope you are a royal success.