God Save the Entrepreneur

Photo by  Steve Johnson  on  Unsplash

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

Leadership has a fungible, plastic, and chameleon-like characteristic that transforms its functions to fit an infinite variety of situations. Wherever there are humans, there is leadership, but not always the same kind. Rogue militias, pirate ships, film studios, casinos, pizza shops, churches, mosques, Fortune 500 companies, classical orchestras, classrooms, biotechnology startups; all require a competent leader and a steady hand to direct the action and achieve the best outcome. One of our most useful capacities at Social Starts is our ability to leverage a deep bench of venture, executive and startup experience to identify entrepreneurs with the greatest likelihood of leading their teams to victory. So, where might you look for a great model for leadership?

Look no further than The Queen. Yes, Queen Elizabeth II. If you’re an entrepreneur yourself, you might wonder - what in the heck do I have in common with a 92-year-old great grandmother that inherited a bunch of money and a cool gig? My response: if you don’t have much in common, you should be concerned!

Over 66 years of rule, Queen Elizabeth has demonstrated a remarkable degree of resilience and competence. She has led her nation through the most dramatic and rapid period of technological and cultural change in human history, and done so without wearing herself out - in fact, she is the longest-reigning and oldest monarch in English history. The British Commonwealth UK have changed and are changing more than many other nations, due to their central position in the global economy and culture. The past 66 years have seen the fading away of the British Empire, the creation and rise of the European Union, Brexit, the collapse of the Soviet Union, multiple massive wars, unprecedented technological innovation, a decades-long march to change and challenge long-held cultural and social mores, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, more than 2 billion people escaping extreme poverty, the virtual elimination of many deadly diseases, and a media environment in western countries that has shifted from the relatively niche and contained (largely radio and print with a bit of television) to the ubiquitous and all-consuming (smartphones and social media).

World events aside, British paparazzi, family tragedy, politics, and sentiment have been no cakewalk for the Queen either. Governments and national programs have come and gone; popular and seemingly-invulnerable prime ministers have watched their careers come to a close in great shame and failure; the country is demographically and culturally entirely different in 2018 from what it was in 1952. In a recent interview, the director of the Netflix series “The Crown,” about Elizabeth II, put it quite well: “ Look at how many prime ministers are wheeled out in coffins, on stretchers, having made fools of themselves: Downing Street is full of sick people. And yet she survives…”

Through “the darkest of hours,” to quote Churchill, The Queen has remained. Stalwart and steady, incredibly reliable, yet willing to change with the times. Recent polls place her at an 80% approval rating, higher than any other head of state in the West - possibly in the entire world, were the world’s more authoritarian regimes to allow for free speech and accurate polling. Even Vladimir Putin, the beneficiary of a robust police state and corrupt polling practices, only barely edges out Elizabeth II with an 82% approval. What characteristics of such a leader, who has managed to remain useful, powerful, relevant, and popular, over such a long period of time and through tremendous change, can an entrepreneur aim to emulate? I argue that there are three: discipline, duty and clarity.

The amount of Royal and Ceremonial engagements, photo-ops, weddings, funerals, state dinners, functions, and other events that Elizabeth has attended over her 66 years, is immense and incomparable with any other leader. The degree of ceremonial duty bestowed upon her is grand indeed, and her ability to attend decades upon decades worth of such events without ever making a noteworthy mistake or bringing embarrassment to her nation or the Commonwealth seems almost unimaginable in our current environment. She has hosted 112 heads of state for State Visits, including brutal dictators such as Indonesia’s Suharto and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, and done so with great dignity and competence. As President Trump recently remarked, “If you think of it, for so many years she has represented her country, she has really never made a mistake. You don’t see, like, anything embarrassing. She is just an incredible woman.” While he may not have waxed so poetically himself, he is right - the degree of discipline and self-restraint exercised by the Queen, over so many years, is a wonder indeed. It is not easy to think of one maintaining such a refined, polite and dignified public image and face, over so many years, with hardly a freckle or a wrinkle to show for it. Finally, one must ask, what does discipline, practiced over many years, look like? Resilience and longevity. These characteristics must be sought out be every entrepreneur.

Like the Queen, any good entrepreneur will have to maintain a high degree of control over their emotions and actions. They too will have to endure difficult circumstances and complete many boring and monotonous tasks. They will have to do things that they do not like and meet with people that they would rather ignore, and do them at times and places that they would definitely rather not - and yet it is essential that they maintain the emotional discipline necessary to sustain and grow their company. With hard work, foresight, and a bit of luck, they may see their discipline evolve into something that resembles resilience and longevity.

One facet of Elizabeth’s character that is hard to fathom from a contemporary American perspective is the degree to which she has placed her role as monarch before any other personal, or even familial, considerations. It’s striking to observe even the amount of physical distance she keeps from her own children and dear family members, for it is against protocol for anyone to touch the monarch beyond what is simply polite, including her own family. Further, she ensures that family matters, manners, and desires are crafted and edited to fit the demands of the monarchy. The funeral of Princess Diana is a notable example of this, where the Queen set her own personal disputes with the princess aside, and opted to hold a grand royal and public funeral due to Diana’s powerful connection with the English people. Similarly, per royal protocol, Elizabeth’s personal opinions on political matters are quite difficult to decipher and require a fair amount of tea-leaf reading (likely English Earl Gray) to make any guesses at all. Considering the vast degree of change and controversy throughout her long reign, it's difficult to imagine a modern person in a similar position of influence and power completely keeping their opinions to themselves behind a stone-cold mask of impenetrable duty and patriotism. One of the key factors in Elizabeth’s longevity and popularity is this singular devotion to her institution, this incredible ability to put her duties to the Commonwealth far before her own family and her own personal concerns. 

This kind of “patriotism” is a quality that entrepreneurs should seek to model themselves after. They will be tried and tested and challenged in an innumerable amount of ways. Would Mark Zuckerberg, Harvard undergrad, ever have thought that one day he would be enduring a massive public outcry and testifying before Congress about his (circa 2005) hot-or-not app’s effect on the presidential elections? Likely not. Similarly, Elon Musk never would have imagined that he would be the head of a rocket company and an electric car company with a higher market capitalization than Ford, and in 2008 would be facing their imminent bankruptcies while undergoing a divorce, yet manage to survive and thrive for the next decade. The best entrepreneurs are often challenged in unique and diverse ways, and it is a sense of duty and devotion to their project, beyond all other concerns, that engineers the kinetic force for their success.

If one doesn't have a clear vision of who they are and what they are trying to do, it's difficult to both be disciplined and to maintain duty. Further, it's almost impossible to pilot any voyage in a successful direction. Here once more, The Queen has provided an excellent example. She has a complex, yet clear, understanding of the British monarchy and its role in English society and the world at large. It is with this understanding that she has been able to maintain the Platonic Form of what a good monarch looks like. Though there has never before been a British monarch in a mass-media or social-media environment, Elizabeth’s sense and intuition for what a dignified and powerful monarch ought to be has helped craft a unique, uplifting and relevant position at the highest nexus of English and even international society. Without her good taste and sense for who she is, what she is doing, why she is doing it, and for whom she is doing it, it's unlikely that the monarchy would have been able to survive and thrive all the way into the present, and maintain it’s incredibly relevant role in the world.

Most importantly, without such clarity, Elizabeth would not have had a keen instinct for change. Prince William and Prince Harry’s marriages to Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle are wonderful examples of this. In the past, marrying a commoner or an American would have led to the loss of titles for an English royal, and the House of Windsor would be in discord and without two of its leading heirs. Thanks to The Queen’s past experiences with her uncle and son, and her foresight and understanding of changing times, she has embraced a new protocol that allows her family a lot more latitude in whom they choose to marry in order to help preserve the cohesion and success of her family. Many other European monarchs, such as the German Kaisers, Austrian emperors, Spanish monarchs and others, that did not have such a keen understanding of their role or their times, have either lost their monarchies or watched them diminish in prestige and relevance over the course of the past hundred years. Others, such as the Russian Tsars (or French monarchs, if one would like to go back a bit farther) have lost their lives and the lives of their families due to this lack of clarity and understanding of their people and their role.

An entrepreneur would do well to emulate this example - to maintain a keen sense of who they are, what they are doing, why they are doing it, and for whom they are doing it. With this clarity of understanding will also come the right instincts for when to pivot and when to change course - arguably the most important benefit of all. Clarity, and the resultant insight, will create the space and the contours for an entrepreneur to guide their motley crew into promising horizons.

Thought the ol' great-grandma didn’t have much to teach, eh? Well, as I hope you’ve seen, entrepreneurs can learn a lot from The Queen. Discipline, duty, and clarity are all invaluable qualities that few of us could ever hope to exhibit on such a grand scale. Yet, all three are deeply accessible to any and all of us.

The Queen reigns. But, from an entrepreneurial perspective, she also rules.

By Robert Cohen, Social Starts/Joyance Partners Intern