Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, formally the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, seem to be everywhere these days, giving their account of mistreatment by the British royal family. First, there was the couple’s interview with Oprah Winfrey, then a six-part Netflix documentary, and now Spare, Harry’s memoir of life as King Charles’ younger son. (The title is a nod to the dictum that those in line for the throne should make sure to have two children, “an heir and a spare.”)
The royals, who make it a point not to discuss internal family conflicts or even their own feelings in public, can’t be happy with this very high-profile airing of Harry and Meghan’s grievances. And, from what Harry and Meghan say, it didn’t have to be this way.
It’s worth noting that we only have Harry and Meghan’s version of events. I’m guessing that other members of of the royal family have a very different version of this story that they could tell the world if they chose. But if Harry and Meghan’s description is at all close to the truth, then the royal family made two very bad mistakes that too many business leaders have made as well.
- They prioritized an organization over the human beings within it.
The British monarchy seems to have believed for more than a century that its most important duty is preserving the British monarchy, one of the five oldest currently in place. This is understandable when you consider that throughout the 20th century, one European monarchy after another was toppled by its subjects–in fact, Charles’ father Prince Philip was a member of the ousted Greek royal family. Many questionable decisions, including the decision not to rescue their cousins the Romanovs from death in Bolshevik Russia, were made in the name of preserving the British monarchy.
There’s a certain logic to this outlook. And yet, if an organization (or “institution” as the British monarchy is often called) makes self-preservation its number-one priority, how much loyalty can it rightfully expect from the people who work and live within that organization? Especially when they know that loyalty isn’t reciprocal, and they could be sacrificed any time to preserve the organization? How much loyalty can it rightfully expect from the British people?
- They assumed that Harry and Meghan had no other choice.
Marrying into the royal family–and being born into it too–means living a very particular life, full of public appearances and privilege, but also full of constraints. It also means living a very protected life, in a palace or compound, far removed from the rest of the world. Very few who have been born into this life or married into it have ever voluntarily left. That may have given the royal family the mistaken belief that whatever the sovereign and/or government decree will be unquestioningly obeyed by members of the family, even if that obedience breaks their hearts. Consider what happened when Queen Elizabeth II refused permission for her sister Princess Margaret to marry the man she loved because he was divorced. Rather than defy her and perhaps marry abroad, the couple broke off their engagement and went their separate ways.
Of course, not quite everyone falls into line so willingly. For example, King Edward VIII refused to follow instructions. He abdicated the throne in 1936 after the government refused to allow his marriage to Wallis Simpson, a divorced American.
If what Harry and Meghan say is true, the royal family seems to have expected that both of them would stay within the family forever, doing whatever they were told, however unhappy they might be. And, who knows, perhaps they would have if Meghan had been the gold-digging social climber some in the tabloid press portrayed her to be. But way before she ever met Harry, Meghan had a successful career as a television actress, entrepreneur, and influencer with more than 3 million social media followers. So with racist vitriol dogging her on social media, her letter to her father intercepted and published by a tabloid, and the royal family apparently complicit in the raking-over she was given by the tabloids, the couple decided they’d had enough. They knew they could live a good life in the United States, and so they left.
Even in this age of The Great Resignation and “quiet quitting,” too many business leaders seem to view employees the same way. They assume employees are dependent on them for a paycheck and so will have to accept whatever decisions employers make. That leaves them free to do as the royal family does, and put their organization’s survival and profits (often disguised as serving shareholders or investors) above the needs of their employees, customers, or community. But employees do have other options and, increasingly, they’re choosing them. And like Harry and Meghan, they may find that they are happier once they do.