Margaret Thatcher and Leadership


Margaret Thatcher and Leadership

6 minute read | By Colin | Leadership

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Margaret Thatcher and Leadership

What can we learn about leadership from Margaret Thatcher? Since the death of Margaret Thatcher, the media has been awash with conflicting accounts of how she led the country during her three terms as Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990. Commentators have been grappling with the issue of whether she was a great leader or not. The answer to this question largely depends on your political views.  However people seem to be in agreement that  Margaret Thatcher exhibited a unique style of leadership.

Leadership has been researched for centuries in an attempt to find a single definition and explanation. The fact that there have been so many attempts suggests to me that leadership is multi-faceted and consists of a number of elements including; authenticity, strengths and emotional intelligence.  It is also dependent on the environment, the situation and the organisation. It is through these ‘leadership lenses’ that we review Margaret Thatcher and ask ‘What can we learn?’

Situational Leadership

A number of commentators have stated, ‘Cometh the hour cometh the woman’ or that a strong leader was needed in 1979.  According to research by Daniel Goleman and Hay Group, different styles of leadership are more appropriate in certain situations. When there is a crisis, as was the case in 1979 or when Argentina invaded the Falklands, then ‘directive’ and ‘pace-setting’ leadership styles can be very effective. However research also shows that over the long term these styles have the effect of eroding morale, reducing engagement and burning out staff. Towards the end of her premiership, once the crises were dealt with, it seems that Margaret Thatcher’s style was less effective. Goleman argues in his book ‘The New Leaders’ that the best leaders are able to flex their approach with skill and use a variety of different styles, contingent on the situation.

Do you predominantly use one style of leadership?

Do you have a range of leadership styles that you can call upon with skill?

Do you use the appropriate leadership style contingent on the situation?

Authentic Leadership – Why Should Anyone Be Led By You?

Another constant theme in the discussions about Margaret Thatcher has been her formidable drive based on her personal convictions. Goffee and Jones in their book ‘Why should anyone be led by You?’ argue that the best leaders are authentic and true to themselves.  Many people have remarked that, whether you liked or disliked what Margaret Thatcher did, you knew exactly where she stood and she absolutely believed her actions were the right ones.  Steven Ratcliffe in his book ‘Leadership’ suggests that leaders need to be very clear about the future they want to see and spend time crafting that personal future vision, without which there is no drive behind their leadership.

So, why should anyone be led by you?

Strengths Based Leadership

As I listened to the debates about Margaret Thatcher’s leadership – with half the country saying she had great strengths and half saying she had great weaknesses – I wondered, how did she manage to rise to be Prime Minister and then win two further elections? Clearly she maximised her strengths – goal orientated, decisive, task focused, a formidable debater and influencer, a visionary.  Initially her weaknesses were not seen as critical. However, later on some of her weakness remained and ultimately her unwillingness to listen, or utilise the strengths of her team (cabinet), led to her being overthrown by her own party. Tom Rath and Barry Conchie in their book ‘Strengths based Leadership’ argue that leaders need to utilise their strengths, while ensuring their weaknesses are not ‘derailers’. Equally, often our strengths, when over played, become our weaknesses and Margaret Thatcher may have overused her forceful style when a more collaborative and inclusive approach may have been more appropriate.

What strengths do you need to maximise?

What could be possible derailers to your career?


Emotional Intelligent Leadership

Another consistent theme regarding Margaret Thatcher?s leadership is the term ‘the Iron Lady’ and the famous quote ‘The lady is not for turning’. Research by Daniel Goleman indicates that corporate leaders of organisations that outperform the average are acutely aware; aware of themselves especially their emotions and also aware of the impact they make, aware of others and aware of the environment they are in. Emotionally intelligent leaders engage at the emotional level and show empathy. Steve Ratcliffe suggests that once the future is defined then a leader’s next job is to engage hearts and minds behind the project. Clearly from the reaction to her death, Margaret Thatcher created some very loyal followers, not just in the UK but around the world.  Equally, however, she failed to engage large swathes of the population. She never seemed to realise that ‘the meaning of the communication is the response you get’ or that intent does not always equal impact.

How aware are you of your emotions right now?

How aware are you of the emotions of others?

Have there been times when your actions produced a different impact from those you intended?


Organisational Leadership

A notable consensus regarding Margaret Thatcher is that she made things happen and got things done. She had an agenda and she implemented it. SHL’s (one of the leading psychometric testing providers) model of ‘organisational leadership’ is a mixture of both leadership traits and management traits and suggests that, to be a successful leader of an organisation, requires both skills. Often leaders fail to deliver because they fail to manage, implement and execute on their vision.  Larry Bossidy in his book ‘Execution’ refers to this failing as ‘lacking the discipline of getting things done’.  Steve Ratcliffe argues that the third phase of a leader’s role, after setting the future vision and getting engagement, has to be a focus on delivery.

What do you need to do to deliver what you have promised?


So, did Margaret Thatcher exhibit many of the things that researchers have identified as great leadership?  Absolutely.  Did she have some weaknesses when it came to leadership?  Absolutely. Can we learn from analysing Margaret Thatcher under the prism of leadership?  I think so, don’t you?


Food for thought?

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