Building Influence That Lasts
“The goal,” wrote celebrated author Chuck Palahnuik, “is not to live forever, but to create something that will.”
That should certainly be the aspiration of anyone who is charged with a leadership role.
This week much has been said and written in the world’s press and media about Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh. Some will argue that the coverage has been overblown.
I disagree, though I think there’s one aspect of his life that has not been given the coverage it deserves. That is the Prince’s contribution to our understanding of leadership.
We have heard much, for a long time, about his support for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, in both her personal and public life. The Prince deserves much credit for helping hold a sometimes fractious family together. He should also be celebrated for helping steer the institution of the monarchy through some very rocky waters.
In the words of the Queen herself: “this and many other countries, owe him a debt greater than he would ever claim, or we shall ever know.”
But what of the Duke’s more personal leadership?
For me, the primary leadership lesson the Duke taught us is this. A lifelong commitment to curiosity, maintaining an enquiring mind, is the only thing that guarantees longevity in leadership and influence.
Prince Philip’s speeches were often spiced with funny anecdotes. Some gave a nudge-and-wink to the vagaries of his three-steps-behind status at the top of British life.
Some of his speeches, however, took on a more serious and thoughtful tone.
He spoke, for example, with knowledge and passion about the environment. He studied and addressed the subject decades before it was popular to do so. “If nature doesn’t survive,” he once said, “neither will man.”
In this area, the Prince was ahead of the curve. At the invitation of a group of passionate environmental advocates, he became the first president of what is now the World Wild Fund for Nature. He remained associated with the organisation throughout his life.
In this, he was so far ahead of the curve, that people might find it hard to understand how challenging his ideas seemed at the time.
He shared a similar interest in farming and had strong views on organic farming.
Sometimes, he changed tack on these and other issues as science brought to light new information. It seems he set out to be well-read on the things that mattered most to him, or that he thought needed to be addressed. His library runs to some 13,000 books and who knows how many science journals he devoured through the years.
Being a take-action man, he didn’t seek information for its own sake. He seemed to want to get to grips with problems so that he could not only be an advocate for change but model new approaches or solutions.
Recently I watched a BBC documentary about the Duke which featured a section on the shop he developed on crown land. The shop sells organic vegetables and the like, all of them grown on the Windsor Great Park estate, of which he was the Ranger for 70 years.
As he and the camera crew drove around the estate, he spoke with keen interest about the goings-on of the vast property and the practical challenges it faced.
When asked whether he’d ever taken a “short course of study” in managing such an estate, he replied that he’d simply learned on the job. He added that his time in the navy had also taught him much about administration and managing problems.
Despite his sometimes self-deprecating approach, Prince Philip was obviously a man who read widely on the kinds of problems the estate would face.
He was also interested in aspects of spirituality and particularly in ways in which various religious groups might work together.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, noted this week that, “the Duke would have been the first to harrumph strongly at an over-spiritualisation of the world he found, let alone of himself.” Yet he was a student of religion.
He also painted landscapes and was, as most people know, an accomplished carriage competition driver. He helped draw up the rules for the sport.
He was keenly interested in engineering, once saying that whatever God didn’t create, engineering did.
In all, Prince Phillip was a consistently inquisitive man. The sharpness of his mind - and occasionally, his tongue - made him interesting to people who might otherwise have dismissed him as a mere extra on history’s stage.
One of his great legacies will be the interests and skills he quietly passed on to his children, by example. Charles is an avid supporter of natural farming methods and environmentalism. Anne is a keen sportswoman and, like her father, devoted to public duty. Andrew was a decorated navy man. Edward heads up the DoE scheme pioneered by his father.
Prince Phillip’s influence, however, is seen well beyond the confines of the Royal Family.
Whatever it is we lead, we’ll do well to learn from his example. We may not have the advantages of his position or the spotlight it gave to his advocacy for causes. But we can determine to pursue new knowledge, even in areas where others might think us an expert.
We can decide to pivot on some questions as new facts come to light - without losing sight of proven core convictions. We can commit ourselves to continue learning about things that lie outside our comfort zones.
Making those decisions a habit and acting on them is the only thing that guarantees us a lasting influence and legacy.