How do aging monarchs lead effectively?

This past Sunday, April 21, 2013, was the 87th birthday of Queen Elizabeth II. And although Her Majesty is still officially working nearly 30 years longer than the average North American (who retires around age 60), and even, at a year older than recently-retired Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, among the world of royalty, it’s a different story.

Queen Elizabeth II began her reign about two months shy of her 26th birthday, and has now reigned for more than 61 years, just shy of the current King of Thailand, 85 year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who has reigned for 63 years.

Queen Elizabeth IIAnd while monarchs and members of royal families may have access to premium medical care and attention, aging presents the same challenges to every human being, including increased risks of diseases and illnesses, as well as reduced vision, slowed motor functions, and even cognitive decline.

With the existing pressures that royals already face, how do elderly monarchs deal with the trials of advanced age, and does that have an impact on their leadership and governance?

One major challenge facing aging monarchs is the question as to how – and whether to at all – cede a certain degree of responsibility to other people, and accept less power for themselves. For some monarchs, holding onto power can run the risk of creating a negative, and even potentially dangerous, backlash from the populace.

“The public resents the imperial manners of some monarchs...sometimes open warfare erupts between aging monarchs and younger some cases, their inability to acknowledge their own mortal limits led to insulation from attack and the defense of their withered agendas,” wrote Yale University business professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld in his book, The Hero's Farewell: What Happens When CEOs Retire.

Although that represents an extreme example facing aging monarchs and leaders, the facts of aging are consistent across the board.
“People's mental capacities in their 80s and 90s aren't what they were in their 40s and 50s,” Dr. Seth Landefeld of the University of Alabama at Birmingham told CBS News in February 2013, after the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. “Their short-term memory is often not as good, their ability to think quickly on their feet, to execute decisions is often not as good,” he said.

Around the world, the legacy of aging monarchs and leaders varies, but the transition of power has often been peaceful.

In Cuba, 81 year-old leader Fidel Castro resigned as president in 2008, and handed leadership over to his younger brother, then 76 year-old Raul Castro. When King Fahd of Saudi Arabia died in 2008 at the age of 84, his half-brother Abdullah took over.

In the near future, Queen Elizabeth II is set to become the longest-serving British monarch in 2015, when she surpasses the 63 year record on the throne set by her great-great grandmother, Queen Victoria.