👑 50th Edition: 3 Times The Queen Bucked Convention (And What She Taught us About Leading)
Leadership is a balance of preparation and presence
Monday was my first anniversary of self-employment.
It was also the Queen’s funeral. And social media mirrored the gloomy weather that darkened Montreal.
I felt low energy as a result. But with extra time indoors, I pondered my biggest takeaways from the Queen’s legacy—over tea, of course.
Several Canadian friends had messaged me when the Queen passed asking how my British friends were reacting. “Are they sad? Do they think it’s the end of the monarchy?”
I lived in London from age twenty-four to twenty-six and I was curious myself how my overseas friends were taking it. Many were sadder than I expected—some comparing the loss to that of a grandparent. And a number of Instagram stories showed friends queueing for over twelve hours to pay their respects at the Palace of Westminster.
By contrast, this statistic from my local newspaper indicates I’m among 13% of Quebecers who feel a connection to the monarchy:
My Canadian friends who have also lived in London feel similar to me. We don’t believe in nepotism and find the concept of a “Royal Family” outdated, but we appreciate the Queen’s accession to the throne in 1952 was a different time.
Since then, she dedicated herself to serving her country—and the Commonwealth—for 70 years. As former UK residents, we saw firsthand how instrumental the Queen was in upholding cultural traditions and driving support for social causes. She was a symbol of respect, and her death is a monumental loss.
My Key Takeaways About Leadership
The Queen was dignified. She adhered to standards of excellence and showed humility in solidarity with others.
But there are three instances that stand out to me in particular—all of which involved bucking convention.
As you read about them below, think about the impact the Queen’s actions had—and what they can teach us about leading.
1. Joining The Army (When She Was Advised to go Into Hiding)
Did you know that at the time of her death the Queen was the only living head of state who served in World War II?
If you’re a fan of the Netflix series The Crown—which portrays the Queen’s life after World War II—the show makes a subtle reference to the Queen’s days of getting her hands dirty:
“While on a trip to Kenya, Elizabeth and Philip’s entourage struggles with a stalling car engine. Annoyed, the princess, played by Claire Foy, hops out of the car and tells them how to fix it.”
“It’s all right, I was a mechanic during the war,” she says.”
During World War II, the Queen’s mother was advised to retreat to Canada with then Princess Elizabeth and her younger sister, Princess Margaret, but the family insisted on remaining in Britain. The Queen—who was eighteen at the time—even joined the Women's Auxiliary Territorial Service.
According to BBC, the Queen “remains the only female member of the royal family to have entered the armed forces.”
Many believe the Queen’s experience in the military had a profound impact on the down-to-earth persona she upheld through seven decades of good times and bad.
2. Addressing Princess Diana’s Death (When Royal Protocol Dictated Otherwise)
The Queen’s response to public outcry in the wake of Diana’s death was her biggest act of humility in her 70-year reign.
“The Queen uncharacteristically miscalculated the public mood after Diana’s death in 1997. Her instinct was to follow protocol and precedent, staying at Balmoral and keeping her grandchildren with her.
This seemed hard and uncaring to a public hungry for open displays of emotion that would have been unthinkable in the Queen’s younger days. “Where is our Queen?” demanded The Sun, while the Daily Express called on her to “Show us you care!” insisting that she break with protocol and fly the Union Jack at half-mast over Buckingham Palace. Never since the abdication [of King Edward VIII] had the popularity of the monarchy sunk so low.”
Eventually, the Queen flew the Union Jack at half-mast over Buckingham Palace. She also addressed the nation in an unprecedented display of humility—referring to herself as a grandmother caring for grandsons grieving the loss of their mother. Here’s the speech that was broadcasted on BBC1 in 1997:
The Queen also approved of a Royal Ceremonial funeral to commemorate Diana’s life—though not everyone in the Queen’s inner circle agreed with her decision to break protocol in doing so.
In the Palace Papers, Tina Brown writes Prince Philip thought lowering the Union Jack over Buckingham Palace for Diana's funeral was a "great humiliation."
While theoretically, Royal protocol provides clear instructions for every scenario, it can’t always account for the emotional needs that arise in sensitive situations. In the case of Diana’s death, people like Prince Philip believed in displaying strength by respecting protocol. And they viewed giving in to demands from the public to break it as a sign of weakness.
But the Queen recognized her duty to serve the public preceded her duty to follow protocol. So she broke it to commemorate Diana’s life.
The Queen’s actions renewed public support for her. And by showing the world a more vulnerable side of herself, people respected her even more.
3. Driving a Head of State Around (When a Chauffeur Would Normally do so)
“In 2003, when then-Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah visited Queen Elizabeth II in the United Kingdom, the queen invited him to take a drive around Scotland.
Crown Prince Adullah got into the passenger seat and his interpreter into the back seat, but to his surprise, Queen Elizabeth hopped into the driver's seat, started the engine, and immediately began driving the vehicle.
Besides a head of state operating an automobile, which was already unique itself, what makes the story even more fascinating was that this was an obvious critique of Saudi Arabia's law that didn't allow women to drive at the time.”
According to various articles, Prince Abdullah was quite shaken by what felt like a joyride around Scotland. Some even go as far as to claim that when the Queen attempted small talk, the Prince urged her to “focus on driving.”
Per Royal protocol, the Queen was not at liberty to discuss her political beliefs. So you have to appreciate her tactfulness in taking actions that spoke for themselves.
I’ve shared three examples of how the Queen bucked convention to show solidarity for others. But what makes these instances stand out is the Queen’s track record for otherwise showing solidarity by adhering to convention.
A recent example was her sitting alone and wearing a face mask at her husband's—Prince Philip’s—funeral in April 2021 per Covid-19 regulations.
And of course, there were plenty of happy celebrations, like the annual Trooping the Colour ceremony to mark the Queen’s birthday. This particular event is said to entail over a hundred commands between several hundred officers—not to mention the involvement of horses, and planes that are flown over Buckingham Palace.
As you can see from the photos above, the Queen’s events drew the masses. I was lucky to witness Trooping the Colour in 2016, and it remains the most impressive orchestration I’ve seen to date. It’s hard to describe the energy that comes from the Army-level precision and pageant-like flair, set against a backdrop of some of the world’s greatest architecture.
Preparation And Presence (As a Leader And a Teacher)
Leadership is a balance of preparation and presence.
We see this in the Queen’s deliberate choices about when to adhere to protocol versus when to respond unconventionally—based on extenuating circumstances.
I often think about this lack of balance in teaching. Teachers are led to believe every moment of every course should be accounted for. And while that’s true, many misinterpret said advice as ruling out what I call “organic teaching moments”.
Organic teaching moments are the class discussions or tangent speeches that blossom from a profound question or comment from a student. Think of them as sparks that ignite a fire in you—or other students—to dig deeper into an unforeseen, valuable topic.
In the same vein that Royal protocol can’t anticipate emotional responses to extenuating circumstances, you can’t predict where course discussions will go.
So as you prepare for future sessions, my advice is to have thoughtful prompts ready—but be prepared to cut one in order to make space for an organic teaching moment. Don’t worry, you can always assign the prompt after class. But you can’t recapture the magic of profoundly connecting with students in real-time. So be adaptable—as the Queen was.
That’s a wrap for today. I can’t believe I’ve written this newsletter for 50 weeks straight now. It seems fitting to feature the Queen for such a big milestone.
That said, if you enjoyed this week’s edition, please like, comment, or share it with others who might enjoy it. I’m always keen to connect with more readers, and I thank you for being one of 248 this week. I appreciate you.
Wishing you a royal-pageantry-level, wonderful week,
P.S. For all the debate about the value of Canada being part of the Commonwealth, I know one thing for sure. I’m grateful to have benefitted from the UK’s Youth Mobility Visa. Living in London set my life on a new trajectory. And with British culture retaining a big place in my heart, I want to say thank you to the Queen for her service. May she rest in peace knowing she will be fondly remembered.