Valuable leadership lessons from the Thatcher era

Rarely has the death of a politician created such a polarised reaction. In the immediate few hours since Margaret Thatcher died, Twitter has had everything. From The Economist’s “One of only a handful of peace-time politicians who can claim to have changed the world” to Frankie Boyle’s “Finally, I get to wear my black suit and tap shoes together…”. And from Nick Robinson’s “One word will sum up the leader who died today – belief” to Tim Stanley’s “I grew up in a community where the utterance of her name could cleave a room in two”, The Iron Lady certainly divided opinion.

Yet whether you loved or hated her politics (and please keep this caveat in mind throughout!), Thatcher has certainly left behind a legacy of some important and, to be fair, mixed, lessons about leadership. Here are a few of the key ones:

  • Vision and principles are essential

Unarguably, Thatcher had a very strong personal political and moral compass. As has been well documented, this came in part from her early years as a grocer’s daughter in Grantham, her entry into the Oxbridge world as a working-class, grammar school upstart and was honed in the male-dominated world of politics and the Tory party. But throughout her career, she retained a ruthless focus on her vision and principles as a conviction politician. And this had a huge impact on those who worked alongside her: the clarity of her vision and her views left people in little doubt as to the direction of travel.

  • Leaders must simplify and focus

Margaret Thatcher was an expert at getting to the heart of the matter. Read any of the materials written about her time in office and the most common theme was her ability to simplify and communicate with razor-like clarity. Watch any of her media interviews from the 1980’s and you will find an innate ability to express ideas in simple words and deliver messages that resonated with people. Brevity and sharpness underpinned almost all of her communication. That resonated with those who worked alongside her (for better or, at times, for worse).

  • Preparation is everything

Once in power, political leaders rarely have time to think. They work hugely long hours, are catapulted from meeting to meeting and are lobbied by thousands of interested parties. But the history books tell us that Margaret Thatcher used the three plus years she had as party leader in Opposition to prepare meticulously for her time as the nation’s leader. Many of her key ideas and political themes were discussed well before she came to power in 1979. Many feel that, without that preparation, her impact on economic and social issues would have been significantly less powerful.

  • Bench strength matters

Margaret Thatcher was by no means a “sole” leader. Despite her own strong personal convictions and unquestionable leadership skills, she also surrounded herself with a group of smart, committed and dedicated people on whose thinking and ideas she could draw. And she brought in people to her own team from a wide range of sources: from industry (like John Hoskyns who worked at IBM and then Chaired his own company, Hoskyns Group); from academia (such as Alan Walters from the LSE, the World Bank and Johns Hopkins who became one of her closest economic advisers); and from a wide talent pool of upcoming MPs (Lilley, Redwood, Portillo etc.).

  • Leadership (nearly always) involves significant personal cost

Anyone who has read Thatcher’s political biographies or watched “The Iron Lady” cannot fail to notice the personal cost that she bore due to the leadership mantle which she took on. The effect in terms of strains this put on her relationships with her husband and children alike was compounded by her gender. Her struggle was greater and her personal sacrifices sometimes more polarised as she fought to gain leadership credibility in a male-dominated environment. Lessons for all leaders (male and female) there, I suspect though.

  • The quest for power always has limits

The strength with which Thatcher pushed to be taken seriously, to become a candidate, to gain the Tory party leadership and to become PM (and remain there as the longest serving PM in history) was undoubtedly a leadership advantage in her early days. However, it also became her undoing. She was eventually ousted by her own party, many simply tired of her leadership (and management) style and her single-mindedness. Leaders often need to temper this quality once at the highest level in the organisation. Listening becomes more, not less important.

  • Leaders are rarely loved

As some of the Twitter comments at the top of this blog show, leadership is rarely a path to total fandom. Margaret Thatcher’s passing away is likely to provoke just as many street parties as it does positive obituaries. As many leaders in recent times have found, being at the top can be a very double-edged sword (whether you have done right or wrong – think Entwistle, Goodwin, Crosby etc.). Ignore this as you climb the ladder at your peril.

So, no matter what your political persuasion, the only female PM we have ever had has left some of the most universal and pertinent lessons for all leaders, whether in politics or business. (Though I doubt this will be the main thing people argue over as Thatcher’s legacy…).