Home » HRH QUEEN ER II: Death and Succession

HRH QUEEN ER II: Death and Succession

by Tsitsi Mutendi

Queen Elizabeth II, born Elizabeth Alexandra Mary, on April 21, 1926 was Queen of the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth realms from Feb. 6, 1952. On Sept. 8, whilst holding the record of longest-living and longest-reigning British monarch, she died at the age of 96 at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. Her death was announced at 18:30 British Standard Time.

Immediately at the time of her passing, the Queen’s death set in motion Operation London Bridge, a collection of plans including arrangements for her funeral, and Operation Unicorn, which set protocols for the Queen’s death occurring in Scotland. She was succeeded by her eldest child, now King Charles III.

Nothing is as certain as death and taxes.

There is a well-known phrase that states that “nothing is certain but death and taxes.”

This saying comes from the letters of Benjamin Franklin where he states:

Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes. Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy, 1789

However, Franklin’s letter is not the origin of the phrase; it appeared earlier in Daniel Defoe’s The History of the Devil

Things as certain as Death and Taxes can be more firmly believ’d.

Daniel Defoe The Political History of the Devil 1726.

Meaning nothing in life is certain. The only things that you can be sure of are:

1. You will undoubtedly die.

2. You will certainly have to pay taxes. 

When Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne, it was by a default that was set into play when her father, King George VI, was made to take up the leadership seat after his brother, Edward VIII, abdicated from the throne. Had it not been for her uncle, Queen Elizabeth would have been a lessor royal with responsibilities that were a lot less than those she had to carry for the 70 years she sat on the throne.

Consequently, as a prudent leader, she realized that although her leadership was an uncertainty, her death was surely not, and it would happen. She became prepared through Operation London Bridge. Operation London Bridge (also known by its code phrase “London Bridge is down”) was and is the funeral plan for Queen Elizabeth II.

The plan includes the announcement of her death, the period of official mourning, and the details of her state funeral. The plan was created as early as the 1960s and revised many times in the years before her death in 2022.

For families of wealth and all family businesses for that matter, it is very important to put in place strategic plans that map out what will happen when the founder or the leader of the business or family is no longer there to carry their duties and run the family or business as they have done.

The phrase “London Bridge is down” would be used to communicate the death of the Queen to the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and key personnel, setting the plan into motion. 

Bodies involved in preparing the plan included various government departments, the Church of England, Metropolitan Police Service, the British Armed Forces, the media, the Royal Parks, London boroughs, the Greater London Authority and Transport for London. Some critical decisions relating to the plan were made by the Queen herself, while some were left to be determined by her successor.

Reporting on the preparations, The Guardian described them as “planned to the minute” with “arcane and highly specific” details. Several other plans were also created to support the implementation of Operation London Bridge, such as Operation Unicorn, the plan that details what would happen if the Queen were to die in Scotland. Running concurrently with Operation London Bridge are operations concerning King Charles III’s accession to the throne and his coronation. Several Commonwealth realms developed their own plans for how to react to the Queen’s death. 

All this elaborateness shows the dedication with which the family and the various entities under their umbrella were prepared for the shift of leadership, and there was a plan in place to handle most possibilities.

When death happens suddenly, we have seen companies and families fall apart over the smallest of things. Emotions run high during times of loss. There is confusion as to what should happen next. Where there is wealth and businesses are involved, this can cause disarray that leads to financial and emotional loss for the family and other beneficiaries. 

Knowing that the late leader had a plan in place and being a part of a plan gives structure and also direction. For the everyday person, this means ensuring we have wills made out and updated. It means starting to identify successors and preparing them for their role. It also means empowering those people who need to support our loved ones and our financial instruments during the transition. 

Succession is a plan and an event.

If done right, succession can allow a current leader, or figurehead, to pass on their lessons in leading the business and family while they are present. And this can be done in a number of ways. 

This can include showing the successor the ropes whilst still in the position of leader and allowing the incoming successor to see how it’s done over a set period without stepping down. And in the situation with Queen Elizabeth, awaiting nature to enforce the succession at its will through death.

Another option would be to train the successor but step down and allow the successor to lead under the mentorship of the previous leader. This allows the business and the successor to grow into the role whilst benefiting from the guidance of the previous leader. Both options are highly dependent on trust and circumstances.

Choosing the successor is an important part of governance

Succession is not always a simple, clear-cut case. Queen Elizabeth could have taken the decision to appoint another successor other than her son. As in the situation that brought her to the throne, her uncle (Edward VIII) abdicated the throne and his younger brother (King George VI, father of Queen Elizabeth) was forced into the position, or risk losing the family business.

In cases such as these, the family governance (traditions and cultures) has been set by many generations before, and there is a way that they play out because it is agreed. In the case of Charles III, it is by birthright more than by competence or choice, that he has become King.

In our businesses and families, the roles we can take or are appointed to are also very much by our choosing to either take the birthright as a succession method or otherwise agree to other methods that work for our particular situations. Governance is an ongoing changing set of agreements and rules that allow families and their businesses to have rules and guidelines, especially in important situations that can become highly sensitive or even cause rifts.

Natural governance in most cases allows us to follow precedence, but as families become bigger or business and wealth interests become complex, a clear-cut outlined way of doing things that is supported by legal frameworks may be necessary, and something families look into.

Why is this all important for business owners and families of wealth?

The British Royal family is one of the oldest families of wealth, with family business investments and estates that span continents, employing millions, and their leadership affects millions globally, even if it is just ceremonial in some places. Any learning opportunity we can get from the royal family can be translated into essential guidance in the micro realms that our families and businesses occupy, as well as lessons that can create long-lasting legacies and multigenerational success. And who knows? We may be royalty in the future.

One of the biggest lessons in this is that of stewardship and preparedness. If the generations within our families and businesses learn the vital lesson of stewardship, then families can be assured of the continuation of their wealth and their family legacies.

Queen Elizabeth was a global leader and businesswoman from a family of generational wealth, which had its role in history globally. Now her son, Charles III, will continue to be the custodian of the family as well as its leader and already has a succession plan in place with a plan similar to “Operation London Bridge”. 

For African businesses to achieve this magnitude of success and continuance and for wealth to continue to last from generation to generation, there must be stewardship and a similar purpose for all members of the family.

At the center of making this happen is a governance structure that is sturdy and held up by the family as their map and compass to navigate the rough waters of life as they seek new territories and safe havens.

Tsitsi Mutendi is a co-founder of African Family Firms, an organization that aims to facilitate the continuity of African family businesses across generations. She is also the lead consultant at Nhaka Legacy Planning and the host of the Enterprising Families Podcast.

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