A Life in Service
In Remembrance of Queen Elizabeth II 👑
“Let us not take ourselves too seriously. None of us has a monopoly on wisdom.”
Last Friday marked the fifth anniversary of me moving to London and I found myself waking up with an acute sense that everything was about to change. Not just for me, but for the entire world. Her Majesty The Queen had died the day prior and throughout that first Friday, there was a palpable energy in the air. This was a definitive end of an era.
I found myself in deep reflection, because while five years in London felt significant, it was nothing compared to the 70 years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, let alone the entirety of her life - which fell just shy of a Century.
Instead of focusing on the institution, I prefer to examine the individual. To really try and see who Queen Elizabeth II was and what her life represented - a life dedicated to service.
When Queen Elizabeth II was born in 1926, her grandfather, King George V, was in power and her Uncle, Edward VIII, was in line for the throne. As a child, I’m sure she knew that she would have duties as a member of the royal family, but not a major role.
Then through a confluence of events, the course of her life changed forever. In 1936, her Uncle abdicated the throne, her father became King, and suddenly she was the next presumptive heir and the world was experiencing major geopolitical instability. It’s easy to forget that Queen Elizabeth’s formative teenage years took place during World War II. In a departure from normal protocol, she successfully persuaded her father to let her volunteer with the British Army. As a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service, she became a driver and trained in auto mechanics, making her the first member of her family to ever serve in the military. She literally rolled up her sleeves to change tires while also challenging gender roles at the same time.
This innate desire to serve followed her throughout her young adult life. At 21, while touring in South Africa, Her Majesty delivered a powerful and moving speech solidifying her desire to serve, stating - “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service.” An early adopter and lover of technology, she broadcasted her speech on the radio so that everyone could hear her message loud and clear.
More impressively, is that years later and well into her reign, she held true to her life of service until the very end. Without complaint, without explanation, without attitude. That commitment, that devotion, and unwavering faith is what I believe makes Queen Elizabeth II an extraordinary individual and leader.
Leadership comes in many forms. Most of the leaders that we recognize today or are modeled for us are either political figures, CEOs, or celebrities. Many are driven by power, ego, ambition, or money. They are loud, they are confident, and they demand our attention!
Queen Elizabeth exemplified a different type of leader. Yes, as Queen there’s no denying that she had money and power - but she lacked an ego. Instead she embodied what it meant to be a quiet leader, someone who is confident but shows modesty, restraint, and tenacity. Quiet leaders tend to prefer to solve problems through collaboration and encouragement rather than through aggression or dominance - letting actions speak louder than words. This is a unique form of leadership and we don’t have many examples of it in modern day - it’s almost as rare and precious as the jewels that adorn the crown.
There are many examples of her quiet leadership in action, but I particularly like this story. In 2003, the King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was given a private audience with the Queen in Balmoral. After lunch she asked if he would like a tour of the estate and he agreed. She had the Royal Land Rovers brought around to the front of the estate, where the King climbed into the front seat, his translator in the back, and to his surprise Her Majesty hopped into the driver’s seat. She turned the car on and zipped off into the Scottish countryside. As we know, she has loved driving since her days in the British Army, and proceeded to take him on quite the wild ride! What makes this significant thought, is this took place at a time when Saudi women didn’t have the freedom to drive (it’s shockingly recent). Instead of verbalizing her views, Her Majesty was in the unique position to send the message that women are equally capable of driving and should be extended that freedom.
Then there’s the Queen’s character. She was stoic, but not stern. Behind closed doors, she was charming, funny, and kind. Sometimes she’d give the public a glimpse of her wit - like when she filmed the Bond scene for the opening of the London Olympics or tested her acting chops with Paddington Bear in celebration of her Platinum Jubilee. Despite being surrounded by the opulence and extravagance of her position, Queen Elizabeth wasn’t flashy or superficial. She was humble, practical, and frugal. A great example of this is that she saved her wartime ration coupons to purchase her wedding dress. Her statement fashion was always colorful and bright, but off-duty she was often found in tweed, a scarf, and wellies - tending to her dogs, her horses, or out on walks with her growing family. When she wasn’t “on the job” per se, she embraced family life and time in nature - there’s no doubt that Balmoral was her “happy place.”
Also, throughout her time in service the Queen was always at the forefront of technology, often being the first to embrace innovation and support the sciences. Here are some of her “firsts” from over the years:
In 1940, as teen she delivered her first public speech on the BBC Children’s Radio to lift wartime spirits and boost morale.
In 1952, her coronation was the first to be televised by the BBC. More than 20 million people worldwide watched the broadcast, which helped make TV more mainstream.
In 1969, The Queen recorded a message of goodwill that accompanied the Apollo 11 astronauts. It’s still up there today, sitting below the American flag.
In 1976, Her Majesty sent the first email to the US Secretary of Defense during a visit to the Royal Radar Establishment. The subject said “A Message from Her Majesty The Queen” announcing the arrival of a new programming language, signed “Elizabeth R”. Her username was HREM2 on her first official email account and she’s since signed all online communications with “Elizabeth R”.
In 1997, The Queen launched Buckingham Palace's first official website, which thankfully survived through the dot com bust.
In 2014, she embraced social media by sending her first tweet which said “It’s a pleasure to open the Information Age exhibition today at the @ScienceMuseum and I hope people will enjoy visiting. Elizabeth R.”
Most recently, like many of us, during lockdown, she embraced zoom to stay in touch and continue to do her work and connect with Brits.
As we approach her upcoming funeral and in the days, and even years following - we’ll be able to truly see what her life in service meant and the void that it has left. Instead of one person stepping up, it’s up to all of us to do our individual parts to lead in service in our own unique ways. Which is why today, I declare before you that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to teaching and expanding knowledge in order to grow our collective understanding. I’m in your service and look forward to the years ahead.
It's worth remembering that it is often the small steps, not the giant leaps, that bring about the most lasting change. - Queen Elizabeth II