Personality and charm and motivation can be brilliant baubles of charismatic leadership as it’s experienced by others in real-time.
The test of time is more demanding. It’s focused on results. Future generations can see what’s happened. They have to live with the consequences.
The supreme leadership test: Would the most significant actions and consequences have occurred, had others held the relevant position of power or influence?
Margaret Thatcher’s leadership passes this test, indeed flies past it.
Margaret Thatcher Indispensable Leader
Margaret Thatcher’s leadership accomplishments include three policies that are difficult to imagine, singly or together, being undertaken by anyone else with comparable zeal or to similar effect:
—Thatcher led the political assault against the trade unions and trade union bosses (such as Arthur Scargill of the miners), who had increasingly dominated British politics, under successive Labour and Conservative governments, in the 1960s and 1970s.
—She ordered the successful military action to restore British sovereignty to the Falkland Islands. Following the initial Argentine occupation, at a time of maximal political peril for Thatcher, her foreign secretary resigned in protest against her course of action. Most of her advisers were reported to be opposed to a British invasion, citing the high risks. So, too, the Reagan administration was initially cautious. When the operation succeeded, Margaret Thatcher’s electoral prospects rose, overcoming discontent with her economic record to date.
—She stood with the President Ronald Reagan’s Cold War policies, in the face of intense domestic controversy.
—She permitted air bases in Britain to be used in American air strikes against Libya, in retaliation for terrorist acts.
—She held the line against the rising consensus for Britain to seek full membership in the European Union, including replacing the pound sterling with the euro. This put her at odds with fashionable opinion, including many in her own party and cabinet.
Thatcher exhibited traits of character that were central to her leadership effectiveness:
—Persistence. This was seen from the start, with her dogged determination to break through the male preserve of British politics. She repeatedly sought a seat in Parliament, first in 1950. She finally achieved it in 1959. For a female to achieve the top rung of British politics in that era required a degree of dedication that is difficult to convey fully today. The magnitude of Thatcher’s achievement may be obscured, in part, by public familiarity with her example.
—Courage. Thatcher repeatedly took risks that would have daunted many others. The Falklands invasion was far from sure thing, looking from the start. Her decision to challenge the leader of the Conservative Party in the Commons, former prime minister Edward Heath, was unanticipated. The odds were long. Other, more likely challengers backed down.
—Vision. Much like Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher expressed and personified a vision. “Thatcherism” became a word of praise or opprobrium, depending on where you sat. Yet everyone pretty well knew what it meant. It was a bold declaration against British decline. It was an assertion of support for economic and financial change, tempered by a reassertion of traditional values. This vision and some of its key policies, such as privatization of public enterprises, had resonance in many nations. This was in part because it was so clearly in opposition to the socialist and communist ideals also on offer at that time.
A Changed Political Dialogue
Consequential leaders—Thatcher, Reagan, Franklin Roosevelt—serve not only through immediate accomplishments. They also serve by altering the ways that people talk and think about issues. To that extent, they may also change how people view the world–and what they believe is possible.
They thereby shape the future.
Her New Labour successor and admirer, Tony Blair, reset his party’s compass amid the changes Thatcher wrought.
Now it’s the Conservative Party that is struggling to innovate, to bring new ideas to bear, building on Thatcherite principles to meet the needs of a decidedly different era.
What About You?
What leaders have you observed, up close or from a distance, whose service has been proved indispensable, without whom things would be very different?
In your own life and work, can you point to meaningful contributions, results that were made possible by your leadership?
Going forward, do you have aspirations for such leadership in your world?
If not, why not?
If so, are you making measurable progress?