In business terms, Queen Elizabeth I was the CEO who managed history’s greatest corporate turnaround. In 1558 she inherited a business in trouble.
Burdened by runaway inflation and a debased currency, bereft of strategic alliances, torn by internal dissent, and eyed greedily by competitors bent on takeover, her business – England – was on the brink of ruin.
England in 1558 was an economic and cultural backwater. Viewed as a business, it was a failing business. Viewed through the eyes of 25-year-old Elizabeth, it was a business in need of a turnaround.
Forty-five years later, England was the richest and most powerful nation in Europe and well on its way to becoming the greatest empire the world would ever know.
When she was born at Greenwich Palace on September 7, 1533, the baby Elizabeth was a terrible disappointment to her father and mother, as any daughter would be in a royal family in which only boys really mattered.
Born a disappointment, Elizabeth grew up to face – and survive – even worse trials. Her mother, Anne Boleyn, had been executed as an adulterous traitor, and Elizabeth herself declared a bastard. With the ascension of Mary I, Elizabeth found herself in great danger. She made it her business to conform outwardly to the Catholic rituals of worship. She professed loyalty and love to Mary. Yet she was continually under suspicion of plotting against her half-sister, was imprisoned for two months in the Tower of London, then released under house arrest.
With the passing of ‘Bloody Mary’ and the ascension of Elizabeth to the throne, many English men and women were distressed that rule had passed to yet another woman. But Elizabeth presented herself in a way that worked immediately to dispel the doubts. Tall and beautiful in the best tradition of courtly chivalry, she instantly demonstrated a charismatic rapport with the crowds that clogged the street of London in celebration of the coronation. She came as the proverbial breath of fresh air, but not as a whirlwind. Through statements and symbolic gestures she made it clear that she meant to return England not only to the path of the Protestant Reformation, but to greatness in trade.
She was careful not to act suddenly or sweepingly. Her childhood of danger and self-preserving self-restraint had taught her a kind of decisive patience.
She would work to effect change slowly and in ways that would retain enough of the old to give everyone a measure of confidence in the new. Elizabeth would gather about herself the best and brightest political and economic minds of England to be members of her inner circle of advisers, the Privy Council.
Armed with a wealth of information and insight, Elizabeth issued decisive, even imperious commands. She took a ‘buck stops here’ approach to leadership, framed in bold statements and expressed through bold actions – except when it suited her to buy time or deliberately delay definitive action.
The style was personal and intense.
All effective leaders appreciate the power of image, and they strive to greater or lesser degrees, to develop about themselves an image of leadership suited to the psychology of those they lead. Elizabeth deeply understood the culture from which she and her people sprung. As far as women were concerned, this culture favoured two convergent ideals. The glamorous lore of chivalry and the courtly tradition painted the feminine ideal as the virgin, pale, fair of hair, and of willowy, ethereal figure.
Concurrently, the religion of Roman Catholicism worshiped the Virgin not only as the mother of God, but as a kind of goddess herself, a being who could intercede for those who prayed to her, and a proper object of worship in her own right. Elizabeth recognised that a weakness of Protestantism, as far as the emotional life of the people were concerned, was its diminishment of the role of the Blessed Virgin. Grasping that this removal of the Virgin had left a hungry void in the Protestant heart, Elizabeth began to develop about herself – in her appearance, her conduct, her every pronouncement – the image of a Virgin Queen, at once a blend of the courtly ideal and the religious one.
Through a reign of forty-five years, Elizabeth time and time again transformed crises into opportunities, almost always by taking a positive but moderate course. Nowhere was this more evident than in her handling of religion, an area in which she enforced orthodoxy but not at the expense of personal conscience or conviction, and in her canny coping with her chief rival for the throne, her cousin Mary Queen of Scots.
Such episodes tell the story of a woman who faced grave dangers, formidable challenges and spectacular opportunities, and who managed all of them to her advantage as well as to the benefit of her nation. She was, of course, an exceptional leader. Yet her experience speaks to leaders of all enterprises in any age and in any place. For the businessperson in particular, charged with making the most of limited resources to address effectively the divergent demands and needs of subordinates, bosses, customers and investors, Elizabeth’s story is especially eloquent and revelatory.
Alan Axelrod Alan Axelrod, PhD is the bestselling author of Patton on Leadership (Prentice Hall Press). In addition to his books on history and current affairs, he writes business communication books as Jack Griffin; most notably, How to Say it at Work.
Excerpted from Elizabeth I CEO: Strategic Lessons from the Leader who Built an Empire (C) 2000 by Alan Axelrod. By permission of Prentice Hall Press. ?:
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