Netflix’s “The Crown” – the Brits’ most addictive-as-potato-chips offering since “Downton Abbey” – tells the story of Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy) from her days as a happy wife of a dashing naval lieutenant on the isle of Malta through her ascendance to the British throne on the death of her father, George VI.
Like many good narratives, its absorbing juiciness derives from familial tensions – between husbands and wives, mothers and daughters and, especially, siblings. But its real subject is one that plagues the contemporary world and whose misunderstanding, I fear, will cost the world dearly as it veers toward demagoguery – the nature of leadership.
The series consistently contrasts those who meet the test of leadership – George VI, his mother, Queen Mary; his wife, Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother); and his prime minister, Winston Churchill – with those who shirk or chafe under leadership’s challenges – George’s elder brother, the Duke of Windsor, once Edward VIII, who has given up crown and country for the woman he loves; Elizabeth’s husband, Philip, who is forced to sacrifice his naval career for his duties as the Duke of Edinburgh and the Queen’s mainstay; and her sister, Princess Margaret, who comes perilously close to repeating the Duke of Windsor’s controversial romantic trajectory.
In a sense, the series is a kind of leadership “Pilgrim’s Progress” as the young Elizabeth – guided by memories of her father (a tender Jared Harris), the admonitions of her steely grandmother (the formidable Eileen Atkins) and the spine-stiffening exhortations of Churchill (a marvelously blustery, canny John Lithgow) – conquers hurdle after hurdle in the making of a queen. Not for nothing does the series feature George or Elizabeth standing in a drawing room with “The Rainbow Portrait” of that other Elizabeth – Elizabeth I. “The Rainbow Portrait,” the most glamorous depiction of the former Elizabeth Tudor, gives us her apotheosis. She is “Gloriana,” the triumphant Renaissance symbol of world-emerging England and virgin emblem of its Church. (Not-so-coincidentally, the final episode of “The Crown” is called “Gloriana.”)
A monarch, Churchill tells his Elizabeth, is in part an image, an idea, an ideal. Give the people that, he says, not the flesh-and-blood creatures offered in the idiosyncratic insouciance of the familial Philip (an amusingly snarky Matt Smith) and the sexy Margaret (Vanessa Kirby, alluring in her hauteur).
And indeed, many of our best leaderships have understood Churchill’s admonition (Churchill included) – Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Churchill’s wartime partner; John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama. A leader offers the illusion of intimacy. He stands at a remove, often with an ironic detachment, usually honed as a defense mechanism in childhood. This is not to suggest that he doesn’t care about the people he leads. But he is not someone you can have pancakes or a beer with – the folksy populism of George W. Bush and Donald Trump on the campaign trail notwithstanding.
A leader reveals an aspect of himself. (Sadly, rarely can the word “herself” be applied.) And yet, if a leader does it right, that aspect comes to represent the whole.
What makes a great leader? Some would say the ability to communicate a vision clearly and inspire others to help implement it. But by that standard, Adolf Hitler would be judged a great leader. He certainly was effective for a time in implementing madness and evil. But a great leader, no.
For real leadership is more than vision and execution. At its heart is a contradiction: You must lead from the front by putting yourself last. The series contrasts the at-times derisive, dismissive way Philip and Margaret treat others with Elizabeth’s reassuring smile, attentive ear and willingness to go the extra kilometer – actually. When a staffer suggests she shorten a grueling Australian tour in oppressive heat, she replies, “We’ll be fine.”
The problem with leading from the front is that it often requires the heady blend of the three Ds – duty, dignity and discipline – from others as well. Here Elizabeth struggles. She’s not quick to catch on to the way her new status has emasculated her traditional husband, robbed her mother – who has, after all, already lost a husband and home – of her royal and maternal roles and reduced Margaret to flighty sidekick. She fails in particular to let Margaret shine, as their mother has advised. That’s key leadership advice. Look at the way George Washington nurtured the careers of the young Marquis de Lafayette and Alexander Hamilton. He didn’t turn around and say, “and I’m a genius for promoting them.” A leader understands that if those who serve under you do good, you look good. Period. You don’t need to put it out on Twitter.
Finally, leading from the front means being alone. At one point in the series, Elizabeth asks Churchill what she should do about a particular issue. No, not what I want, ma’am, he says, what you want.
By the end of the series, Elizabeth has absorbed the lesson: The crown is hers to wear and bear. At the close of one episode late in the series, she stands by herself in Buckingham Palace, Philip and Margaret having gone off to their private solaces. For a moment, she hesitates. But only for a moment. Then she turns on her heels and walks away from us through a series of receding rooms, attended only by silent, presumably unseeing footmen.
Foy – who played Elizabeth I’s tragically ruthless mother, Anne Boleyn, in PBS’ “Wolf Hall – gives us here the passionate wife, doting mother, loyal daughter and protective big sister behind the woman who is nonetheless first and last a queen.
That humanity makes her solitary choice all the more poignant.