The Leadership of The Crown | Eileen L. Wittig
The Crown is technically about how Elizabeth, Princess of York, became Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith. It’s quite the journey, even just in the 10 episodes currently released, and it picks up speed with each episode as she becomes more entrenched in her new role and the stakes become ever higher.
But by the end of the first season, you’re not watching to see what Elizabeth does. You know what she’s going to do, even without knowing history. You’re watching her husband, Prince Philip. Because she is the crown, and he is us.
When Elizabeth and Philip marry, they have plans for themselves as a couple. Philip has a distinguished naval career from the war, and they’re planning to move back to his station in Malta so he can move up the ranks. But before they can, King George Vi dies, and their personal lives are put on halt. Forever. But Philip didn’t know that.
Shortly after her father’s death, Elizabeth, newly queen but not yet crowned, receives a letter from her grandmother, Queen Mary. That letter sets the tone for Elizabeth’s reign, and should in fact set the tone for all leaders:
I know how you loved your Papa, my son. And I know you will be as devastated as I am by this loss. But you must put those sentiments to one side now, for duty calls. The grief for your father’s death will be felt far and wide. Your people will need your strength and leadership.
I have seen three great monarchies brought down through their failure to separate personal indulgences from duty. You must not allow yourself to make similar mistakes. And while you mourn your father, you must also mourn someone else — Elizabeth Mountbatten [her married name]. For she has now been replaced by another person — Elizabeth Regina.
The two Elizabeths will frequently be in conflict with one another. The fact is, the crown must win. Must always win.
“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” Shakespeare wrote in his play for Elizabeth’s predecessor, Henry IV. For Elizabeth, the crown incorporates the laws and traditions of England, going back hundreds of years, past Henry IV and all the way to William the Conqueror in the eleventh century. While Elizabeth Mountbatten may disagree with some of them, Elizabeth Regina is not her own person. She is a figurehead. The embodiment of the country, its government, and all its people, living and yet to be.
So all leaders must be.
A Bigger Picture
When a person becomes a leader, they are no longer just themselves. They are suddenly responsible for many many people, and everything they touch is affected for the coming generations. This is true for all types of leadership, whether in government, church, the private sector, or family.
As such they must bear these people in mind with every decision. They cannot simply do what they want. They must act with a mind to the consequences for others. This is what leadership means. As Queen Mary witnessed through her life of three monarchies — and as we see ourselves in the show — every time a leader makes a decision based on their personal inclination, chaos ensues.
Deference to Tradition
Obviously chaos will also sometimes ensue when a decision is made based on law and tradition — neither are perfect — but it happens less frequently. The crown has hundreds of years worth of experience to learn from. Human nature doesn’t change. There is never anything new. All desires and mistakes have existed and been made before, and can be learned from. If all leaders governed as Queen Mary suggests and looked to history for their answers, the world would arguably be much calmer.
But this is difficult. The two Elizabeths do conflict. And while she is able to internalize her grandmother’s advice and switch mentalities between the two, everyone surrounding comes in contact with her suppressed confliction as well — especially Philip.
Philip knew he was marrying the future Queen of England, but he seems not to have realized that the Queen of England is a different person from Elizabeth, “woman, wife, mother, sister,” as Philip complains in one episode. Elizabeth Regina is impersonal, unemotional, calculating, aloof, cold. Philip doesn’t understand why or how she could ever bow to past and future centuries instead of the desires of the people around her at that very moment.
It’s a natural instinct, and we all have it. We want to do what we want, when we want, and as we rise through the ranks of our career or social life or wherever we happen to be, it’s true that we do have more power to realize those desires. But they’re just desires. And the higher we go, the more people there are below us to be affected, for good or bad. And the farther we have to fall, with more people to hold it against us.
Power is a scary thing. So easily used adversely, twisted, destroyed.
Watching The Crown, you know what Elizabeth is going to do not because of how the script has been written, but because of how history has been written. There’s a security in having a predictable leader in any area of life who will make decisions based on the history particular to their role. It is in deference to tradition — not self-serving, cunning innovation or arbitrary choices motivated by ego — where we find the driving force of humane, productive, and truly great leadership.
Originally published on fee.org on January 10, 2017.