What made Margaret Thatcher special in her time

Margaret Thatcher's leadership qualities were essential for Britain and the world of the 1980s, but her failings also provide lessons for leaders today.

AP Photo
In this 1985 photo, then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher meets with President Ronald Reagan during a visit to the White House.

Of the few women who led a nation during the 20th century, Margaret Thatcher stood out more than most. Her leadership qualities were so remarkable at the time that, even though she resigned as Britain’s prime minister more than two decades ago, her actions and style are still debated well into this century.

Her passing on Monday comes as new concepts about what makes a good leader take hold in government and business. Many people still look for inspiring, towering figures, of course, to guide them through wars, recessions, and big changes. They admire people who speak of principle and act with certitude – and occasional humor – as “the Iron Lady” did. In that sense, she was much like her American counterpart of the 1980s, Ronald Reagan. Both are known as “transformative” figures in recent political history.

Her commanding presence and her spine of virtue helped Thatcher stand up to the powerful miners union, the Argentine military in the Falklands War, the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and the Soviet Union. She muscled through conservative economic changes in a hidebound Britain. And she began the long project to restore the morale of a country lost in post-empire malaise.

Her belief in her own moral certainty, however, was also the undoing of her long tenure. Like many leaders with so much success, she forgot to listen, especially to her closest supporters. She was challenged within her party over her insistence on imposing a highly unpopular tax.

Many politicians in a democracy must find a balance between leading and following. In the post-Thatcher era, management consultants now speak of the “servant-leader,” or someone who can form close bonds with followers, empower them, connect a vision to daily tasks, and avoid taking credit. Humility is now more honored than during Thatcher’s day.

The Internet has spread ideas such as crowd-sourcing and the Wiki phenomenon of distributive power. Political uprisings like the tea party and the “Occupy” movement are nearly leaderless and almost nonhierarchical, showing the power of ideas more than the charisma of individual leaders. A rising distrust of institutions, from government to churches, has led to a whole study of how people can thrive in groups, or a community of followers.

In world history, Thatcher will no doubt be remembered for her results. She helped end the cold war, and stood up to tyrants like Saddam Hussein and terrorists like the IRA. She knew the principles that had sustained humanity’s progress up to then, spoke of them eloquently, and insisted on their practice.

Her record offers valuable lessons in leadership, some timeless and others to be avoided. That she was able to deftly maneuver  through male-dominated British politics should be an inspiration for all women.

She had faith in unending progress for all, and that kind of faith can extend to knowing there is progress in what makes a good leader for each age.

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