US Business Editor at The Economist; guest interviewer for Newswire.fm; speaker through Leading Authorities
RIP Margaret Thatcher, Britain's first female prime minister, who changed her country and the world, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. She was known as the Iron Lady, but she also had balls of steel, a tin ear and, at times, a heart of stone. Love her or hate her, she taught us some important lessons about leadership – especially about how to lead by being unreasonable.
The Power of Unreasonable People. Mrs T was called the Iron Lady because of her formidably strong will. Once she decided that something needed to be done, nothing was going to stop her. As she put it, at a moment when her followers were having second thoughts and wanted a U-turn, "you turn if you want to; the Lady is not for turning." She was one of those leaders who achieve change by being what George Bernard Shaw famously called "unreasonable people", in the sense that "reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves." Shaw believed that all human progress was the result of these unreasonable people.
Balls of Steel. To be an unreasonable leader requires tremendous personal strength of character and a willingness to take risk. Mrs Thatcher (later Lady Thatcher) took charge at a time of great despair about Britain's future, with the economy in a mess and a widespread belief at home and abroad that the country was no longer a world power. She challenged head on the conventional wisdom that nothing could be done with policies ranging from privatizing large chunks of the public sector to refusing to allow Argentina's invasion of the Falkland Islands to succeed.
At the time, many people found this bold style of leadership surprising for a woman, though Mrs T was merely "leaning in" and taking charge long before Sheryl Sandberg recommended it. This sort of leadership can be extraordinarily inspiring, as Mrs Thatcher showed, especially to others who have become disillusioned with the existing situation and with other leaders who spout the conventional wisdom that nothing can be done. A few highly motivated people can defeat a vast number of unmotivated people who believe they are stuck with the status quo.
Tin Ear. When you are defying the conventional wisdom, it can help to be a little deaf. You cannot afford to be distracted by all the noise around you. A little blind, too. Admiral Nelson famously put his telescope to his blind eye to avoid seeing a signal from his commander telling him he could retreat from a battle. Yet this can have its downsides: a truly deaf leader fails to make good use of feedback loops that can provide valuable information.
For instance, Mrs Thatcher was clearly surprised by the strength of the rebellion among her own supporters that led them ultimately to ditch her as their leader; had she been a good listener, she would perhaps have been able to address the causes of the unrest, and save herself. The lesson here for aspiring leaders is that the tin ear is useful occasionally as a tactic, but it is crucial you do not become truly deaf to what is going on around you.
Heart of Stone. To many people, including myself growing up, Mrs Thatcher came across as uncaring and even heartless. People who knew her personally say this was far from the reality, as was illustrated well by the scene in the recent film, "Iron Lady", starring Meryl Streep as Mrs T, where she personally wrote letters of thanks and sympathy to the families of every member of the armed forces who died during the Falklands campaign.
Perhaps given the controversial nature of the changes she wanted, which caused disruption and pain to many families and communities in parts of the country where public sector jobs were axed, she was bound to be seen as heartless by some people. And it must be hard to maintain a spirit of compassion when, as in Mrs Thatcher's case, many people publicly shout about their hatred of you, and your life is nearly taken by terrorists. Leading change can require a thick skin, for sure.
Yet, I believe, Mrs Thatcher contributed to her unpopularity among a large part of the British population through her failure to do more to ease the pain of those who suffered most from her policies, such as coal mining towns which lost their mines, and by the apparent harshness of some of her public statements, such as calling trade unions the "enemy within" and saying "there is no such thing as society". As a result, some of the sensible changes she introduced remains unappreciated, even though four subsequent prime ministers have continued with them largely intact. This helps explain why Britons are not united in affection for their late leader in the way Americans were when Ronald Reagan died.
Even so, if you want to be an unreasonable leader, one lesson is that you should not expect to be popular or to get much gratitude.
But when does it make sense to adopt an "unreasonable" leadership style?
Mrs Thatcher succeeded because, first, there was clearly a massive problem with things as they were. Thus a significant number of people were willing to accept that change was needed, even if they were not clear about what had to be done. Second, she came up with a solution that worked – not perfectly, but well enough that many of her changes remain largely in place over two decades after she was ousted. Had she been more selective with her tin ear, and demonstrated more compassion to those who were being hurt by the process of change, the end of her career might have been happier, and her memory more widely celebrated.
Do you face a situation where big change is needed? Do you have a workable solution? Do you have balls of steel? Then maybe this is your moment to get in touch with your inner Iron Lady and be an unreasonable leader. But take care how you use that tin ear, and never let your heart turn to stone.