Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Queen Elizabeth I

Queen Elizabeth I provides a classic example of very public leadership. Ruling England for almost 50 years in the 1500s, she embodied many leadership principles discussed in modern theory that are applicable today.

Elizabeth, young and inexperienced, began by surrounding herself with advisors. Most notable of these was William Cecil, who served as Elizabeth's most trusted confidante. Due to their close relationship, Cecil was able to speak more freely to Elizabeth than she would allow anyone else, and indeed she expected him to do so. In this sense Elizabeth was following the directions of Machiavelli, as he says a wise ruler acts by "choosing the wise men in his state, and giving to them only the liberty of speaking the truth to him...he ought to question them upon everything, and listen to their opinions, and afterwards form his own conclusions." (While we are hardly able to count Machiavelli as one of today's "modern" theorists as mentioned above, he can be considered "modern" in the context of Elizabeth. In fact, since The Prince was published in 1532 and Elizabeth began her reign in 1558, and since we know Elizabeth was a scholar, it is perfectly likely that she read his book.)

One point on which Elizabeth did not follow Cecil's counsel was her refusal to marry. Elizabeth was in love with Robert Dudley, an English noble, but she feared that an alliance with any man - be he an Englishman or a foreign monarch - would diminish her authority and tear her country further apart. She showed an understanding of a leader being a servant, that leadership is "a forfeiture of rights," concepts discussed by DePree (1992). An ordinary woman would have been allowed - in fact, encouraged - to succumb to the desires of the man she loved and marry him, but Elizabeth would not allow it for herself. She sacrificed her love of a man for her duty to her country. Leaders today may not usually be faced with this particular dilemma, but the theory of sacrifice remains the same.

Elizabeth began her reign in a country fraught with internal problems. Fortunately for her, her reign was relatively peaceful militarily, allowing her the luxury of focusing on these at-home issues such as the religious divide and nearly-worthless currency. (Note: By "relatively peaceful" I do not mean to diminish the importance of the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, but I'm choosing not to discuss it here.) These problems could not have been addressed successfully by the autocratic methods used by prior rulers - what Elizabeth's contemporaries may have seen as "weakness" in leadership was simply a different style from what they had seen before, and it was a style better suited to the issues at hand than a dictatorial one. I see this as an example of what Stogdill meant when he stated that "the qualities, characteristics, and skills required in a leader are determined to a large extent by the demands of the situation in which he is to function as a leader" (1948). Elizabeth was a leader, and her father Henry was a leader, but they were entirely different leaders due to the state the country was in at the time of their reigns. That Elizabeth was aware of this undoubtedly contributed to her success.

Questions for you:
Would we see Elizabeth in such a historically significant and influential light if she had been a man? Is our view of her subject to the "male chauvanism" described by Bass and Avolio (1994)?

Was Elizabeth "born" or was she "made"? She was born a princess with impressive genetics on both sides (Tudor and Boleyn), but she was disinherited after her mother was executed and she held Protestant beliefs during a decidedly dangerous time for non-Catholics. Which was more influential to her leadership personality?