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What can we learn about royal leadership from Queen Elizabeth


With the reign of the longest-serving British monarch, Elizabeth II, now at an end, we wanted to get a sense of what royal leadership actually means in a rapidly changing world and what it could mean for the queen's son Charles now that he has ascended the throne at the age of 73. And for that matter, we wondered how you can actually measure success or failure when it comes to the late monarch. For that, we called Arianne Chernock, professor of history at Boston University and an authority on British and European history. And she has a particular interest in gender and politics, and she's with us now. Professor Chernock, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

ARIANNE CHERNOCK: Thank you, Michel. It's a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: So one of the reasons we wanted to have this conversation is that leadership has become, you know, a buzzword. You know, we talk about what makes a good leader. There are countless podcasts and books and TED talks about it. Here's this woman who ruled for seven decades. Did we learn something about leadership from her tenure?

CHERNOCK: We have learned so much. So on the one hand, I think this is a story about female empowerment. Here we had Elizabeth at age 25 assuming the throne of this very powerful nation - a young wife and mother. And she really did prove to everyone to be this ideal constitutional sovereign. As Boris Johnson remembered her the other day, she was Elizabeth the Great, this queen who never complained, never explained. And along the way, she really proved to be the kind of - the model, the epitome of what the British expected of a sovereign. So that's the positive story. Then there's this misogynistic story I could also tell about her leadership. So much of what made Elizabeth an ideal constitutional monarch relies on these kinds of traits or qualities that are very stereotypically feminine - the sense of being apolitical or almost even passive, reticent to intervene. All of those feminine qualities served her well as monarch.

And I've spent a lot of time over the past few days looking at the kinds of reactions to the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, when her middle-aged son Edward became the king. And there was a similar kind of sadness that we're seeing now, a mournfulness about the fact that the crown would be passing from a queen to a king. But it was not because they thought Victoria was such an amazing female leader. They thought she had been very pliable, very passive and much more willing than perhaps her son to adopt this purely ceremonial role.

MARTIN: So what would you say are the expectations of her son, now King Charles III?

CHERNOCK: Well, I think the hope here is that he will continue to reign in the mold of his mother - very much apolitical. This is going to be more complicated for Charles for a range of reasons. We have his own history of intervening in political affairs. There have been various scandals over the years attached to his lobbying, let's say, of government officials in Britain. And then there is the fact, again, as I was suggesting, that he is a man, and an older man at that. That's not inherently problematic, but he is coming into an office that has, for the better part of the last 200 years, been occupied by women - first Victoria and then Elizabeth. As such, we are kind of accustomed to seeing this role, I would say, more akin to that of an American first lady.

MARTIN: Oh, interesting.

CHERNOCK: And it's going to take an act of imagination, I would say, for Britons and for people all over the world to see a man once again occupying that role.

MARTIN: One of the things that you've noticed in recent days is how many people commented on her empathy, her ability to comfort people at - in a time of great national pain. They also talk about her sense of humor. People have talked about that as a kind of a charisma that she has. Does her son have any kind of similar quality that people will value?

CHERNOCK: The qualities that you're talking about in association with Elizabeth are often coded as feminine. And of course, it doesn't hurt that she was a mother and grandmother. It's not impossible for Charles. He is a father and a grandfather as well, and he loves to surround himself with his family. But he is dealing with some family, let's say, fractures right now, both with Harry and with his younger brother. So I think how he manages those relationships will be really critical to him as he tries to take on this role of father of the nation.

MARTIN: On the one hand, the late queen is lauded for her gentle touch in certain aspects. And one of the big questions facing the monarchy is the demand for reparations, redress and, frankly, respect among former members or even current members of the Commonwealth. This fracture with Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan Markle, the duchess, you know, does that say something about her ability to address issues of racial difference? Because what we're talking about here is a matter of what their responsibility should be, on the one hand. But they're also - you can make an argument that they have been whistleblowers, that they are calling to public attention something that they say is deeply concerning about the royal family and the royal family as a symbol of a nation and its racial politics. So is there something we could learn from how she has handled that and how her son has handled that - or will handle that?

CHERNOCK: It would certainly serve Charles well to return again to Meghan and Harry and try, as much as he can, to bring them into the fold. Regarding reparations, you know, Charles did apologize last year in Barbados for Britain's shameful past on questions of slavery and empire. I think it would be tremendously in his interest to continue in that vein and make more and more gestures, acknowledging the pain that many people feel and the alienation that many British subjects feel, both in Britain and the Commonwealth, from the crown for this reason.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, does the institution of the monarchy offer something from a leadership perspective that its citizens and the people who support it feel is unique?

CHERNOCK: I mean, there are many aspects of this that do strike us as anachronistic now. But it can be meaningful, and it can be relevant. The kind of power the crown has is soft. It's a soft power, but it can be used as a tremendous weapon in diplomacy, in shining light on some really, really important social and political issues. I don't think we're going to see as much of this with Charles and Camilla at the helm, but stay tuned. I think that Charles' son William will certainly be pushing the monarchy in that direction in an attempt to modernize, always being deferential to tradition but also using it, I think, to continue in the traditions of his mother, Princess Diana, who did so much to destigmatize AIDS and other really pressing issues of her day through her office. That offers us some clues.

MARTIN: That was Arianne Chernock. She's a professor of history at Boston University. Professor Chernock, thanks so much for talking with us.

CHERNOCK: My pleasure. Thank you, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MR. KAFER'S "MOUNTAIN VIEWS (FEAT. YAN NAY)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.