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Margaret Thatcher – lessons in leadership?

Huw EvansMargaret Thatcher's death has provoked a predictable stream of tributes, insults and reminiscences from the political and media establishment. But what did her premiership tell us about political leadership and are any of the lessons relevant to leadership outside of politics? Here are some thoughts:

  1. To be praised as a decisive political leader, you must be prepared to be divisive. Margaret Thatcher epitomised this axiom. On all the issues of the day on which she took an emphatic and decisive judgement call (monetarism, the miners, Northern Ireland hunger strikes) she made life-long enemies and permanently divided opinion. Tony Blair experienced the same with Iraq whereas the more consensual premiership styles of Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan and John Major avoided much of the antagonism but also much of the credit for having a firm grip on the tiller. This does not feel as true for business leaders who operate under less intensive media scrutiny than their political counterparts and have more scope to behave in a rounded way. But popularity and respect remain difficult bed-fellows for those tasked with making big decisions.
  2. Luck matters in leadership. Very few successful people, especially in politics, like to admit that luck has played a part in their success but the most successful leaders are also usually lucky. Lucky to be in exactly the right place at the right time on their way up (Tony Blair), lucky in their choice of opponents (in Mrs Thatcher's case; Arthur Scargill, Michael Foot and a brutal military dictatorship in Argentina) and lucky in their available allies (Reagan, Gorbachev). Politics, as often in business, is a game of judgement calls and very fine margins of error where luck can play a decisive part. Luck cannot sustain a flawed leader indefinitely nor does it always last but Margaret Thatcher's career is a reminder that it often plays a bigger role than contemporary history or leaders' autobiographies allow.
  3. To achieve a lasting legacy, you have to single-mindedly seek to accomplish one. Very few lasting legacies happen by accident - they are created because their architects devote considerable time and effort to creating them - often at the expense of other priorities and other people with leadership potential around them. Margaret Thatcher was determined that her time in office would be used to fundamentally change the way Britain's economy, labour market and society operated. In this she was successful by her own terms, not least because she was prepared to disregard some of the more difficult consequences of her choices. Many leaders both inside politics and outwith it choose instead to exercise a more balanced type of stewardship, actively managing unintended consequences and promoting a more collective leadership style. Both styles can be valid but a more consensual, balanced leader is less likely to build an irreversible legacy in their own image than someone with the determination and single-mindedness of Margaret Thatcher.
  4. Don't overstay your welcome. However successful the leader, everyone has a shelf life. The paradox, as both Mrs Thatcher and Tony Blair found, is that the longer their stay in Downing Street, the more difficult they found it to accept their judgement could be wrong even as they were developing an even bigger appetite for what they could do with the time which was ebbing away from them. Any successful leader has to rely on their instincts but a tipping point always exists for an experienced leader where the big judgement can let the leader down. If Mrs Thatcher had stood down in May 1989 after a decade in power, the poll tax could have been dropped by her successor and she would have avoided opposing German reunification and joining the ERM; all major judgement calls that she got wrong in her last few years in power. Instead, by staying too long and by failing to develop a succession plan, she weakened the inheritance for her successor and exposed herself to the immense personal trauma of a forced exit when she could have left on a high with adulation ringing in her ears.
  5. Mandate matters. It is no co-incidence that the two Prime Ministers, Thatcher and Blair rated the strongest by the British public since the War both won three terms of office in highly personalised campaigns. By contrast, leading a Coalition Government has undoubtedly made it more difficult at times for David Cameron to lead from the front on contentious domestic issues while Gordon Brown's public ratings never recovered from his all-too public decision not to seek an electoral mandate of his own. Leaders who are seen to be fearless and convincing about the mandate for their case have a clear advantage in winning the substance of an argument.

Last updated 29/06/2016