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A Profile in Public Leadership: Learning from the Iron Lady

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Robert Brescia
June 5, 2021

“Look at a day when you are supremely satisfied at the end. It’s not a day when you lounge around doing nothing; it’s a day you’ve had everything to do and you’ve done it.” – Margaret Thatcher

Thatcher’s character can be summarized as ”ruthless decisiveness.” One may not have liked her answer to your question on occasion, but one thing we could count on—it would be the truth with a capital T. There was no waffling in her leadership and in her communication—it was always clear and concise.

In 1925, Ms. Thatcher entered this world amidst very humble circumstances—a small-town girl. Fast-forward to her professional career: as Education Secretary in 1971, Thatcher abolished free milk in England’s public schools for children aged seven to 11. This earned her the notorious label by the Labour Party as, “Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher.” Thatcher explained, “I learned a valuable lesson. I had incurred the maximum of political odium for the minimum of political benefit.” Ultimately, she led the Conservative Party and became the country’s first female Prime Minister in 1979, serving in that role until 1990.

Here are some leadership lessons we can learn from Margaret Thatcher’s public service to England:

Communicate—clearly.

Along with her steadfast friend, President Ronald Reagan, Thatcher was also an expert communicator. She used humor to her advantage, and she kept her remarks simple and clear so that everyone could easily understand her thinking and her intent.

Be humble—yet powerful.

Many have heard the good political advice of, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” This is traced back to President Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy leadership—the exact wording was, “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.” We can appropriate this sound advice in the case of Ms. Thatcher; She was not loud and brash, and not imbued with a grandeur of her own self-importance. She was someone you would welcome having a pint of Guinness with.

Make friends, nurture them, and leverage the power of acquaintance.

Ms. Thatcher was an expert at this characteristic of public leadership. Her “good buddy” was President Ronald Reagan and between them, they set a leadership tone together for the world. In the mid-1980s, I was serving as an Olmsted Scholar in France—one of my responsibilities was to help plan and organize President’s Reagan’s trips to France, notably for the 40th commemoration of the Normandy D-Day invasion in 1984. I observed first-hand the symphony of solidarity between Thatcher and Reagan, showing the world what statesmanship looks like. Ms. Thatcher has stated the following with respect to their true friendship:

“Ronnie and I got to know each other at a time when we were both in Opposition, and when a good many people intended to keep us there. They failed, and the conservative 1980s were the result. But in a certain sense, we remained an opposition, we were never the establishment.”

Public Leadership is a Lonely Business.

Do you want to be liked all the time? Well, more than likely public leadership is not for you. Many elected officials and appointees are overly concerned with being liked so they compromise on just about everything—“Go along to get along.” Thatcher realized that as soon as you take a clear stand on an issue, you divide folks into at least two groups: those who agree with you and those who do not. She knew that the alternative is far worse—a compromised solution with little value and everyone dissatisfied with you. She did what she thought was right, and she acted from conviction.

Be Ambitious—Not Overbearing.

There is nothing wrong with ambition. It is what drives action; no ambition—no action. Ms. Thatcher was quite ambitious, setting her own agenda and intermediate goals along the way. She was always out front, tackling the issues and driving her agenda wherever and whenever she could. After her election, she delivered a rousing speech on freedom of the press—no accidental choice of topic. The press loved it and that started a long trend of following her closely and covering everything she said or did.

Summary.

When I teach leadership, one of the very first topics that I undertake is authenticity, or as the young folks say, “Keeping it real.” Once we understand who we are, we can then chart a path to improve our demonstrated leadership. Margaret Thatcher was authentic—she did not change who she was just to suit a particular circumstance. She was a great public servant. Let’s close with some Thatcher-isms that provide a glimpse into mind of this public servant:

“Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”

“I stand before you tonight in my Red Star chiffon evening gown, my face softly made up and my fair hair gently waved, the Iron Lady of the Western world.” (Referencing her Soviet nickname in 1976).

“I am not a consensus politician. I’m a conviction politician.”


Author: Dr. Robert Brescia respects the wisdom of generations, promotes the love of learning, teaches ethics to university students, geography to 9th graders, and leadership to organizations. The Governor of Texas recently appointed him to the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC). Bob has a doctoral degree with distinction in Executive Leadership from The George Washington University. Contact him at [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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