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Margaret Thatcher: An Appraisal of Leadership Style

On the death of the UK's first female prime minister

It is a comment that has been tripped out many times in the last few days, that regardless of her other achievements Margaret Thatcher's place in the history books was guaranteed on the 3rd of May 1979, when she was elected the UK's first female prime minister, and only the second in Europe after Savka Dabcevic-Kucar of Croatia in 1967. She needed to do no more to be recorded in the annals of history, but as we know she did so much more.

Barack Obama noted on Tuesday that , "she stands as an example to our daughters that there is no glass ceiling that can't be shattered", and while in general terms he is right, both these comments entirely miss the point, because Mrs Thatcher's existence and modus operandi were entirely unconnected with her being a woman or any intention to play a feminist role.

Her legacy from a leadership role is an intriguing one; by any standards she was not a collaborative leader. In the constituency one larger than the UK, where she did not hold nearly as many trump cards, Europe, she was just as clear-sighted and full of conviction as she was at Westminster, but asides from the much trumpeted 'rebate' that she won back by sheer bloody-minded attrition of her Euro-counterparts, she failed in most of her European objectives. The powers in Europe work on a much more collaborative and negotiated set of rules than she was willing to play by, and her single-minded approach failed her and her followers. She was unwilling to bend.

The interesting thing is that Europe then, unlike today, was not a broken force. The United Kingdom however was a very sick nation when she came to power. It is always easier to become celebrated for raising the dead than ministering to a largely healthy body that has a slight cold, and so her transformation of the UK was made easier by the fact she had so much broken material to work with. This is not to say that her achievements were anything other than remarkable and ground-breaking. While the UK's current coalition government inherited a similarly trashed economy, they have not had the level of ingrained deprivation that Thatcher faced in 1979. Nor, incidentally, have they concocted such a stridently different approach to the prevailing politics, though coalition inevitably forces compromise.

So how was she as a leader? She was very much the kind of leader now out of fashion... the heroic, charismatic one. And she was able to pull this off as she was electorally strong. Her much maligned successor, John Major, perhaps achieved more if you add in the handicaps of his slender and shrinking parliamentary majority, disaffected MP's aware their chance of high office was long gone 12 years into a Tory government, and the post-Thatcher poll tax resentment in the populace. Mrs Thatcher had none of these handicaps and her luck in pulling off victory in the Falkland's War, which was a super-gamble, set her in good stead for her later battles.

For, as her biographer Charles Moore describes, her outstanding characteristic was a willingness to fight. Not just the Argentineans, but Libyan terrorists at the embassy siege when most people advised her against the SAS solution, the IRA hunger-strikers when 10 prisoners starved themselves to death and she did not yield, and most famously the miners who ran a badly planned but belligerent strike against her. Her military choices were probably lucky, her political ones were the sign of an acute political sense...but as noted, they only worked at home when she was in full command.

This makes her seem entirely ruthless, but there are plenty of anecdotes that suggest she was not as iron on the inside as the outside, apparently weeping for 40 minutes on hearing of the sinking of a Falklands troop ship.

So if her external leadership style was very much a bombastic, conviction one, suited only to fixing the apparently terminally broken; her internal leadership style was more, to use a modern term, ambidextrous. She bullied and cajoled her senior Ministers, essentially to tease out whether they could defend their stances, and as she was a master at detail they rarely bested her and so felt humiliated. Her long-time spokesman, Bernard Ingham, who was always an ardent fan, described her as "the most tactless woman I ever met". And ultimately both in Europe and in her Cabinet this fervent approach to debate won her a dwindling number of allies, as her political judgement lost its acuity in the hubris of her later years as Prime Minister.

But at the same time, she is remembered for her care and appreciation for those not at her level. Secretaries recall her running baths for them, acolytes remember her running upstairs to get cold cures for them... In this respect she was a 'servant leader' enabling and caring for her 'troops'.

Like all great leaders she used her strengths, and her femininity in a man's world was definitely part of that, to her advantage, but she was not the team player or listening leader that most organizations require these days.

In sum the country was transformed by her, and so was the world (particularly those parts where collaborative negotiation were not on the agenda, the Cold War). She was very much of her time, the world would have looked very different without her, and on balance probably not as robust as it is today. But her style was one for particular times, and in many ways we have to hope that the world continues to have less need for such leaders for a long time to come.



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