There are times when, despite our best intentions, nothing can prepare us for what is about to occur. The movie, “The Queen,” portrays a wonderful example of how leadership styles can affect people’s reactions.

The story unfolds after the death of Princess Diana and portrays a “behind the scenes” perspective of the responses by Queen Elizabeth and Tony Blair to the death of Princess Diana. Prior to Diana’s untimely death, the well-publicized clash that was occurring between the Queen and Diana was representative of the undercurrents playing out in England at the time. The Queen represented traditional values and Diana represented modern values. The Queen represented the “Establishment” and those things that were unchanged, old fashioned, quiet, and dignified. Diana represented freedom, and what it meant to be modern in every way, including: actions, words, and wardrobe. As these value sets clashed, only those leaders, who were wise and quick to respond, would survive.

The first lesson from this movie is about the recognition of who holds the power. The Queen was born into power at a time when the values based on tradition were upheld. She modelled these values perfectly in her ability to: demonstrate her commitment to duty, follow a rulebook, and lead through her restrained and somewhat sober personality. These virtues were regarded highly at the time when the Queen was interacting with her first Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill. By the time the Queen was interacting with her 10th Prime Minister, Tony Blair, the world had changed but she had not. The British people had elected Tony Blair with the mandate that he would modernize England. He understood the people, and he demonstrated his commitment to modernization in small and large acts, including insisting that people call him by his first name.

A second lesson to take away is about the importance of encouraging dialogue and information sharing as a leader. On the fateful day of August 30, 1997, upon hearing the news of Diana’s death, the Queen’s instincts were to do nothing. She felt that the less attention given to this matter, the better it was for all those concerned, especially her grandsons. These instincts were intended to protect the boys but these instincts, which were ingrained in her from the time she was a young child, were based on a value system that was no longer appreciated by the general public. She was unaware of the magnitude of the public’s response to Diana’s passing or the power of the people. She also under-estimated the magnitude her response would have on the people’s perception of her. From the Queen’s perspective, if she just “held firm,” using her strength of character and reasserting her authority, she believed that the public would come to their senses. Obviously, this was not so.

From the time Diana married Charles to the time of the accident, Diana inspired the public with her choice to reject the rigidity of old fashion rules. With her abandoning the traditional values, she demonstrated the values of being warm, vulnerable, and leading with the heart. This caused the public to adore her because these traits made her seem more like “one of them”. They were able to identify with her and relate to her.

Upon hearing the news of Diana’s accident, Tony Blair and Prince Charles, both understood the magnitude of the event. Tony Blair understood the mood of the people and recognized their needs. Prince Charles understood the public better than any of the other royals due to being the closest to Diana and being under the scrutiny of the public and press for all of those years. With a lot of persistence from Tony Blair to demonstrate and illustrate to the Queen the appropriate response and with a lot of behind the scenes arranging by Prince Charles, the two were able to get the right response from the Queen into motion.

As leaders, we can learn from the actions of other leaders who are faced with extraordinary events:

Recognize who has the power.

The Press and the People held the power and this power was acknowledged and made even stronger through the press naming Diana the “People’s Princess.” The Queen assumed that she had the power, as royalty, but this was no longer the case. Therefore, this event was impacting the Queen’s reputation and she did not even realize it. Tony Blair understood how power had shifted and had to work with the Queen to help her accept change.

Listen to the advice of the skilled people on your team – that is why you have them.

An environment of open communication is critical in leadership. The Queen had “Yes Men” who were afraid to tell her the truth for fear that she would not be able to accept or deal with it. In contrast, Tony Blair had excellent people on his team who knew what had to be done at each turn. His team were not afraid to tell Tony the truth because he could handle the truth.

Creating a corporate culture where there are open lines of communication is vital for productivity and business goal attainment. Be aware of how your team communicates with you. If team members are “yes” people and never challenge your ideas or you find information comes to you later than you’d like, it is time to re-evaluate the cultural parameters you’ve created.

When you realize you have made a mistake, act quickly, decisively and do the right thing.

In the end, the Queen did make the right decision and was able to avert disaster. Although her instincts were giving her one set of feedback, she was wise enough to plug into those around her and into the public’s perception, to recognize that she needed to be flexible and change her initial response.

For those of you dealing with leaders or sponsors who may also not be “getting it”, recognize that you may be able to convince your sponsor to change their mind. Analysing what Tony Blair did we can see how he whittled away at the Queen’s resistance. He used persistence and good timing to his best advantage. He also demonstrated the appropriate behaviour through his efforts to go on live television and speak on behalf of the Queen in an effort to do for the Queen what she was not doing for herself.

This situation also highlights two other things that can happen in an organization. The first is to recognize that some people in an organization can hold power even if they do not hold the title. Diana had “a natural nobility” and she did not need a “royal title to continue to generate her particular brand of magic”. These are good people to understand and align with. The second is that crowds and the masses can be fickle. They are all about feelings and mood, which are fed with information provided through hearsay and gossip. Feelings that sweep through a crowd can be very basic and strong, such as those of anger, sadness and confusion. Good leaders acknowledge the people’s feelings and appeal to their hearts.

Summary

Although as a leader you may not have to face such an extraordinary crisis, one can learn from those leaders who have. By analysing their responses in terms of what worked and what failed, we can learn some important lessons. Tony Blair and Prince Charles understood the need to be flexible and in the end so did the Queen as she adapted her leadership style to accept change. Her ability to change her stance, and become flexible when faced with a problem that was highly sensitive, and filled with challenges that included logistics, constitutional issues, diplomatic issues, and procedural issues, allowed her to successfully manage through the crisis.

Janet Williams

Janet Williams, associate of Business Improvement Architects, is an experienced Business Consultant, Project Manager and Instructor. Janet specializes in Project Management and Business Process Improvement and has worked for the Public and Private Sector, including non-profit organizations.
In her consulting and project management work Janet’s focus has been to help organizations navigate and manage change as they implement their strategic objectives. She assists organizations with strategic assessments, analyzing problems and providing recommendations for corrective actions. Based on the needs of the organization, Janet provides project leadership and project team support. Throughout the project life cycle Janet builds and manages effective project teams, creates solid project plans and ensures communication reaches all levels of the organization.