Secrets of Power and other leadership lessons from Elizabeth I

Marissa Shrum and I talk from time to time.

Today, we got talking about Elizabeth I. Today is November 17 and that makes it the anniversary of Elizabeth’s accession to the throne of England in 1558.

I was noting how extraordinary Elizabeth was a political force. I even found myself speculating that had Elizabeth not been on the English throne for 45 years, Marissa and I might be having our conversation in Spanish.

I don’t know that this is true, but we can say this much. When Elizabeth took the throne, Spain was the indisputably the most powerful European nation. But the end of her reign in 1603, England was rising fast.

Marissa and I were talking about women and power. We were noting how tragic it was that, hundreds of years after Elizabeth, women continue to struggle to be fully acknowledged and deferred to as leaders.

The problem we agreed was sometimes that women are obliged by cultural convention to present themselves as generous and supportive. This inspires some employees (especially, but not only, men) to withhold their deference and loyalty to the boss. Subordinates don’t respect female bosses as much as they do male ones. (By and large, on the whole.)

What would Elizabeth have thought about this? I hesitate to presume to speak for so brilliant and accomplished a woman. But I do have the advantage of having studied Elizabethan culture for several years. (My PhD thesis at the University of Chicago was about how Elizabethans treated public life as a theatrical performance.)

Elizabethans were keenly interested in what we might call the stylistics of power, how people used non verbal behavior, facial expression, tone of voice, and the gestures of the body for political effect.

Elizabeth was especially interested in these matters. After all, she was a woman and in 1558 a young woman. Many people were prepared to doubt and even challenge her claim to power. She was obliged to use every medium and device at her disposal. (Including, of course, clothing. See the magnificent outfit she wears in the Armada portrait image above. Who could doubt this claim to majesty and empire? Well, lots of people could and did. Hence her careful attention to the languages of power.)

Shadows of doubt

Here’s what I think Elizabeth might say to women in the present day.

  1. briefly and occasionally, signal that you are not the subordinate’s friend.

The objective of political posture is what we might call a shadow of doubt.

We want to create in the subordinate a small tremor of uncertainty. What if his or her relationship with the superordinate is not secure? What if the boss is prepared to withdraw her good opinion and support?

Let’s be clear: this is not a permanent shift in attitude and tone. Female leaders will want to continue most of the time to be supportive and generous. All we want to do is to drop a new signal into the flow of signals between boss and superordinate. Just enough to make the subordinate to go “hmm.”

Ok, now to specifics. Here’s what Elizabeth might advise:

  1. in the course of a conversation, narrow your eyes. (Every so often, and almost without regard to the topic at hand).

Again, these are intermittent activities. Use them sparingly. Use them all the time and you compromise the other half of your management style: that generosity and supportiveness. Your “resting style” as a boss should be open eyes, brisk and continuous conversation, the usual warmth of interaction.

It’s men who often seek more obvious control or intimidation. The Elizabethan approach to power, at least as we are interpreting it here, is more subtle, more “nuanced” (Marissa’s word, as I recall).

What does success look like? The subordinate should now be carrying on an new internal conversation. “Are we good?” “Is something wrong?” “Should I be working harder?” “Do I need to lean in a little more?” And the phrase that should no be banished forever from consciousness: “She will let me get away with that. I mean, she’s so nice.”

Some will recoil at this on the grounds that the advice is manipulative. Of course it’s manipulative. If the alternative is employees who think that they can take advantage of the boss, well, a little manipulation is clearly called for. And probably too good for them. Elizabeth had many still more formidable ways of manipulating the relationship. But you, the female executive, probably don’t have access to a rack, the tower, or banishment from court. (Perhaps that should change.)

Ok, that’s advice from a monarch. And if you would do me this small courtesy. Tonight if you happen to holding a glass of wine, please raise it in celebration. If you are willing or alone, please say, “Long may she reign over us.” The English celebrated November 17th well past Elizabeth’s passing. They lit bonfires and set off fire works. (Yes, if you have fire works, that would be a nice touch.)

But the better way to celebrate Elizabeth is this: every time you are dealing with one of your “unruly subjects,” you now know what to do. In the course of conversation, simply stop talking, let your face become a little pensive or even a little blank, and look away from a moment. Then come back to the conversation. You have evoked a shadow of doubt and this should have summoned a ruly subject, someone who no longer dares take your generosity for granted.

[I should say the actual details of my nonverbal advice here are mostly surmise. I have read the Elizabethan “courtesy literature” and its description of nonverbal strategies. But as far as I know, Elizabeth didn’t ever record her strategies and I am only guessing what her actual advice would be.]

Bonus round

My recently published book, The New Honor Code, offered a glimpse of Elizabeth.

It’s part of my description of the Tilbury speech Elizabeth delivered on the eve of the attack by the Spanish armada in 1588.

In the sixteenth-century scheme of things, England was little and vulnerable. The troops at Tilbury were hungry, underpaid, and properly terrified. By the Spanish standard, this island was poor, provincial, and home to hundreds of thousands of Catholic sympathizers who had been encouraged to rise up in support of the enemy.

Elizabeth’s Tilbury speech was theater in the service of statecraft, infinitely more compelling than the amateur production being staged in the channel by foppish aristocrats firing off conflicting instructions. (The commander of the armada, the Duke of Medina-Sidonia, had never fought at sea.) The Spanish called their armada invincible. Elizabeth had come to Tilbury to say, “No, actually, this is what invincible looks like. My courage will triumph over your titles and grandeur.” This is Elizabethan for “Bring it.”



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Grant McCracken

I'm an anthropologist & author of Chief Culture Officer. You can reach me at