Lessons from the Iron Lady

Bullying Victorian school mistress or narcissistic diva? Future business leaders might wrongly conclude that both these caricatures capture the management style of Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister who died last week in London at age 87.

Bullying Victorian school mistress or narcissistic diva? Future business leaders might wrongly conclude that both these caricatures capture the management style of Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister who died last week in London at age 87.

In the popular imagination, Thatcher has been characterized as the insufferably bossy micromanager who alienates her direct reports by squashing initiative, remaining impervious to counsel, and strictly limiting others' decision-making authority.

However, in her heyday, Thatcher demonstrated a far more evolved and nuanced approach to management than her critics concede or as depicted in Meryl Streep's Oscar-winning performance in The Iron Lady.

1990 was Thatcher's last year in office and the year when some of the most controversial action in the movie takes place. At the time, I was working as a marketing and PR consultant to the University of Buckingham in southern England. On an otherwise unremarkable day, a letter circulated by our department head landed on my desk. The writer offered a critique of a project recently completed by my team. Positive overall, the author praised our effort and challenged us to go to the next level — and then provided a few specific suggestions on how we might get there. The note was signed by a university board member: Margaret Thatcher.

As the former Cabinet Minister for Education and Science, Thatcher was known to passionately embrace her causes. Remarkably, in one of the most intense periods of her political career — she was toppled from office in a Tory coup later that year — she took the time to write a supportive note to a team of young marketers.

“Stealth management” is a term I think can be applied to Thatcher's executive style, and I believe she was its pioneer. During my tenure at Buckingham, we came to view her as a powerful and empowering force of nature — often operating unseen — who inspired and enabled those working in support of a coveted institutional mission to attempt the seemingly impossible.

Thatcher wouldn't have intervened in any overt ways; it wasn't her style. But in true stealth spirit, she often made herself available as a strategic resource to the university, operating from behind a silk curtain. When we were attempting to secure a meeting to discuss a key initiative with an industry titan, leading economist, or member of the House of Lords, doors didn't just magically open; they flew off the hinges.

Known for her deadly seriousness rather than a sense of humor, Thatcher wielded a saber wit when need be. When a cheeky student shook hands with her on graduation day and said, “This hand has shaken that of Arthur Scargill,” referring to her old nemesis, she dryly replied, “Well, let's cleanse it then, shall we?”

Often characterized as self-righteous, rigid, and uncaring, those who knew her describe a different Thatcher. One who listened to people and was genuinely interested in what they had to say, as well as very considerate to those who worked with her.

Clearly, Thatcher enjoyed her rarified position as a female leader on the world stage. As one observer noted, she dressed as though she were going to a cocktail party, even at nine in the morning. After she left office, I saw her at a University of Buckingham reception in New York in the mid-nineties. Regally dressed in a blue velvet full-length dress, her features were much softer and she appeared much smaller in stature. I once heard her press secretary lamented about how harshly she photographed; paradoxically, this apparent limitation gave visual gravitas to the Iron Lady moniker.

No doubt Thatcher was a polarizing figure and arguments regarding her economic and social policies will be vigorously debated for years to come. However, for tomorrow's business leaders, her example is instructive and filled with lessons about evangelically serving a vision, persisting with ferocious tenacity, and rejecting personal fear in the face of monumental challenges.

Interestingly, the kind of leader she most admired was not the CEO rock star but, rather, someone more like her father: a stubborn entrepreneur who had built something from nothing. It is lessons such as these that future business leaders can take from Margaret Thatcher in defining themselves.

Marina Hines Mortimer is president of Mortimer Media Group. Her company specializes in marketing, business development, and media relations for corporate and agency clients. She can be reached at marina@mortimermediagroup.com.

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