Margaret Thatcher Part 1: The Life and Times


London BusWhen thinking about compelling women leaders throughout history I ran through a list in my head of those whose lives and choices marked them as unique in their time or place—Louisa Mae Alcott, Madame Curie, Queen Victoria, Joan of Arc—but I didn’t get far before I decided to focus on Margaret Thatcher. Compelling? Yes. Controversial? Certainly.

What else could one expect?

Considering how few women have been heads of government anywhere in recent history, a proper examination of women in leadership would be remiss if it did not look at the life of this fascinating British woman.

Margaret Thatcher had a relatively commonplace origin. Her father was a Methodist minister and a man of politics, though politics were not Margaret’s first pursuit. Rather she first studied chemistry at Oxford. When she attempted her first foray into politics in the 1950s there was some fanfare regarding both her youth and, of course, her gender. Nevertheless she did not succeed. She became a member of parliament in 1959, by which time she was married and a mother of two children. She became the leader of the opposition in 1975, and then was elected Prime Minister in 1979. This was no flash-fire rocket to the top. This was two decades of hard steady work.

As one former Member of Parliament (MP) put it, “Everybody underestimated her. It’s the story of her life.” The summary of her style of leadership can be found in her Soviet-given nickname “The Iron Lady.” She was opinionated, decisive, and unyielding. This earned her both fierce followers and detractors. Some will claim that she was one of Britain’s finest leaders who turned the country back from a track of deterioration and gave Britain some of its old spine and vigor. Others will claim that she was ruthless, neglectful of underprivileged groups, and unsympathetic.

However this is not an analysis of her political policies. It is an analysis of her nature and leadership. Below are some key characteristics that appear to have been influential in her choices and success:

Decisiveness. The curious thing about being a decisive leader is that it will almost inevitably breed conflict. The temptation to equivocate for the sake of peace or popularity will always be present. Decisiveness is simultaneously one of the most attractive and most frustrating aspects of a given leader—all depending on whether or not you agree with them, of course.

Pragmatism. Otherwise known as savvy. If you are decisive but unreasonable in your decisions, then that virtue is utterly wasted. Thatcher took a ferociously hard line against the Soviets, but when Gorbachev came onto the scene, she famously said “I like Mr. Gorbachev. We can do business together.” One cannot lead if one cannot see opportunities for what they are.

Conviction. Another quote from the Iron Lady herself serves to illustrate this point: “I am not a consensus politician. I’m a conviction politician.” As a leader there will be times for compromise and concession, but if you lack conviction at the core of your leadership, you will get nothing done.

Resilience. Thatcher lost two elections in the early 1950s. She survived an assassination attempt. She was vilified and hated by many both during and after her tenure as Prime Minister. None of this caused her to give up.

Her resilience, persistence, and work ethic contrast in an interesting way with the current zeitgeist of work and success, so this is the next thing up for discussion!


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