What We Can Learn from Margaret Thatcher

I think it’s safe to say that Margaret Thatcher is a very divisive figure.

To some, she’s considered to be very uncaring and out of touch, with her actions having a devastating effect on our society. Others see her as a great leader though and admire her strength and work ethic.    

Was she really out of control and oblivious to other people’s opinions, or was she simply listening to the right people and determined to get things done in difficult circumstances? Like the other parts of this series, I’ll look at the good, and then the bad points before working out what's important.

The Good

I don’t think anyone could deny that Mrs Thatcher worked incredibly hard during her time as Prime Minister. She would often work late into the night and regularly got by on just a few hours sleep. She was also extremely driven and firmly believed in what she was saying.

She fought hard for what she believed in, and you only had to hear the leaders of Russia and Israel praise her strength when they learned of her death to work out that she was a force to be reckoned with. 

She was also a skilled negotiator and her deals with the European Union and Saudi Arabia were very impressive. It’s clear that she personally lead these initiatives and that we continue to see the benefits of them today. 

Her leadership during the Falklands crisis was also significant. While some consider it aggressive, or even opportunistic, I think her resolute, decisive response made a difference. She made tough calls, like the decision to sink the Belgrano, and cut through sensitive American foreign policy concerns regarding South America.

I think one of her defining moments came after the bombing of her hotel in Brighton. She emerged from the wreckage determined that the Conservative conference would still take place the morning after the attack, and this sent a clear and defiant message to the terrorists.

She also took responsibility for her own actions and lead by example. If something was wrong, she would fix it and expect others to do the same.

I remember hearing an account of a journalist dropping a tray of food on an aircraft and looking down to see Mrs Thatcher instinctively clearing it up. There are also numerous accounts of her taking a personal, but very practical, interest in people, like ensuring the wife of one of her guests had a food parcel when she missed an event due to illness.

She also created effective and equal partnerships with other leaders. She was never afraid to challenge Ronald Reagan and their relationship was a far cry from the uneven Blair/Bush partnership.

I think we can all take something away from Mrs Thatcher’s drive, work ethic and determination. She also took personal responsibility for her actions and didn’t expect anyone else to step in and do things for her. 

The Bad

By the end of her career, Mrs Thatcher had become detached from her Cabinet and this clearly lead to her downfall. She appeared to be closed minded and this is evident by the way she pursued controversial policies like the poll tax. Her approach towards Europe also appeared to be slightly out of touch with the times as well.

I think this is an important reminder that we do need to respect those we work with and do our best to co-operate with others when it’s possible. Leaders also need to connect with their people when they can.

She also appeared to want to do everything herself. In the end, she was effectively doing other people’s jobs as well and reacting very negatively when they didn't meet her standards. I don’t think this is ever a good idea, and a leader has to find the appropriate balance.

Her devotion to the job and intense focus also left her little time for her family, let alone any other interests.

It was also hard to deal with her at times and even senior politicians and civil servants admit to being a little bit scared of her at some point. I don’t think this sort thing encourages collaboration though, or the exchange of great ideas.

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan

What's Important

I honestly think that Mrs Thatcher is often misunderstood. She’s usually accused of creating a selfish, dog-eat-dog culture but I don’t think this reflects her values.

I genuinely feel that she believed that people should be rewarded for hard work, be given the opportunity to make a difference and do what they can to make things better.

While a lot of her ideas were viewed as arrogance from a position of privilege, I think she genuinely couldn't understand why people weren't inspired to improve their own communities and make a difference. I also think she believed that prosperity and wealth would trickle down through a successful society and benefit us all.  

I’m not saying that I completely agree with this though, it's just the way I think she viewed things.

It’s hard to defend some of her policies, like the poll tax, as well, but I do like her underling belief that people would respect and feel part of something they had invested in. This is also an example of where her persistence and focus was misguided, as she clearly underestimated public opinion.

Unlike politicians today though, I think she believed in what she was saying and genuinely thought she was right. I also think that she acted in the best interests of the country.

I also sympathise with her when I look at some of the members of her party at the time. 

It’s also clear to me that although she may not have listened to her ministers, she did listen to experts. Senior cilvil servants have spoken openly about this following her death and it’s clear that critical military decisions, like the sinking of the Belgrano, were made after receiving specific advice from her admirals. 

I think it’s more the case that she listened to selected advisors rather than allow open discussion on everything.

Like some of the other people I’ve looked at, I don’t think you need to emulate these people to benefit from their experience. We can learn a lot from Mrs Thatcher and I think we could all benefit from taking personal responsibility for things and do our part to make things better.

I think the most important thing she taught us is that leaders shouldn’t set out to be liked and that you have to make hard decisions sometimes. 

Her downfall also serves as a warning about making enemies, and that even those close to you may not be on your side when it comes to the crunch. They may even let you down and fall short of your expectations as well.