On the 11th Feb 1975, Margaret Thatcher became Great Britain’s first and only female leader and was the longest continuously serving PM in the 20th century- 1979-1990. What can Thatcher teach us about the use of power and popularity in leadership.
If there is one word to describe Margaret Hilda Roberts Thatcher, divisive could be it. Baroness, daughter of a Methodist preacher/grocer and a dressmaker, Oxford chemistry graduate, barrister, and Prime Minister who stated: “I am not a consensus politician or a pragmatic politician but a conviction politician”. At the end of Thatcher’s leadership, around half of the public thought she had been good for the country, whilst the other half didn’t. Thatcher changed the face and fortunes of Britain with sweeping social and economic reforms, she was undoubtedly powerful but it would seem not universally popular.
Thatcher inherited a Britain that had been disabled through public sector strikes, with a weak economy that necessitated a bail out from international monetary fund in 1976, she said “a leader is someone who knows what he or she wants to achieve and can communicate that”. In 1979, Thatcher’s aims were clear: to reduce the influence of the trade unions and reduce inflation. Unemployment actually rose, yet Thatcher was adamant on her course. A strong response to the Falklands conflict in 1982 added to her power and probably contributed to her re-election in 1983. Thatcher’s leadership at this time was decisive, her adage “never flinch, make up your mind and do it”, was never more apt, and for the modern leader this is a lesson that we can learn. Establish your goals, vertiginous as they may be, and maintain momentum.
In her second term, Thatcher privatised British Gas, British Telecom and British Rail, gave millions the opportunity to buy their council homes through the right to buy scheme, forged a strong relationship with American president Regan and forced miners to return to work after a protracted battle. Thatcher’s policies were not only firm, but radical, which fits in with her upbringing. It is said that Thatcher abhorred the ‘middle road’, having been advised by her father as a child that being different was to be celebrated. The young Margaret was told to make her own decisions, never follow, and if necessary to lead others too. For modern leaders, we may not have to take as radical an approach, but it is undoubtedly true that the middle ground, whilst arguably safer, is not always the route of a leader.
It was the clash with miners and the inequality born of the economic boom that perhaps most contributed to the divide in opinions of Thatcher, fostering perceptions that she didn’t support the working classes. Yet despite the social backlash, Thatcher was resolute. It would appear that her focus on reducing union power and improving Britain’s position as an economic power overrode all else, even her personal popularity. Unpopular as Thatcher’s stance may have been to some factions, it was undoubtedly brave and enhanced her reputation as a powerful leader. Leaders today have to make tough decisions on a daily basis, and if they are hindered by a desire to be popular this can in turn affect their decision making. Yes, it is desirable to be approachable and personable, but not to the detriment of effective leadership. The trick is finding the balance between popularity and power, as Thatcher asserted “you will only succeed if you know what you are doing is right and you know how to bring the best out of people”.
Thatcher’s third term as Prime Minister in 1987 was to be her last, tainted as it was by the greatly unpopular poll tax and the PM’s anti Europe stance, ultimately leading to her resignation. After leaving politics, Thatcher has been much lauded, becoming Baroness Thatcher in 1992, the first living ex PM with a statue in the Houses of Parliament in 2007, and receiving a state funeral at her death in 2013. Thatcher’s policies may not have always been popular, but she was without doubt a powerful, influential leader who will be remembered for her many contributions to Great Britain.
About the Author
Paul Russell is co-founder and director of Luxury Academy London, www.luxuryacademy.co.uk, a multi-national private training company with offices in London, Delhi and Vishakhapatnam. Luxury Academy London specialise in leadership, communication and business etiquette training for companies and private clients across a wide range of sectors. Prior to founding Luxury Academy London, Paul worked in senior leadership roles across Europe, United States, Middle East and Asia. A dynamic trainer and seminar leader, Paul has designed and taught courses, workshops and seminars worldwide on a wide variety of soft skills.