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Margaret Thatcher's Death Marks an End to the 'Heroic Soloist' Era

Margaret Thatcher's leadership style was distinct and dazzling--and is now obsolete.
Margaret Thatcher bids farewell after a visit to the United States in March 1981.
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In all the discussion in the U.K. surrounding the death of Margaret Thatcher, agreement exists around only one thing: she was the country's first female Prime Minister. After that, if you're looking for a shared view, all bets are off. Some say Thatcher saved the country; others argue that Britain is still suffering from the privatization and financial deregulation spearheaded by her government. Still, everyone in the country is proud of having elected a woman to the job of Prime Minister. In the love-hate relationship that characterizes Britain's view of America, the British are sincerely proud that they did this first.

More challenging is what kind of female leader she made. Most striking of all, she did nothing to advance the cause of other women. She had no women in her cabinet and was never seen to favor women in seats of power. She had a notoriously poor relationship with the Queen, no female advisors, and apparently no female friends. If the acid test of female leadership is how much they help other women, Margaret Thatcher failed.

Male journalists called her a flirt, and it's a strangely quirky aspect of British manhood that they found her power something of a turn-on. That she regularly touched men's arms and enjoyed scotch are too details regularly surfaced to try to make her mildly human. In the 1980s, I worked with a severely left-wing journalist who was, against his own will, rather charmed by her. I do not recall any female journalist with the same response.

Thatcher Epitomized Maie Leadership

The truth of the matter is that Margaret Thatcher did what many women do in the top spot: she performed a fabulous impersonation of male leadership. If traditional male leaders were tough, she was tougher. If they were patriotic, she was more so. If they relished military engagements, nothing suited Thatcher more than going to war (even if her war was puny and political). The leader of a party that had trivialized and marginalized women, she did all in her power to take and keep center stage. No one else mattered: not her ministers, not her party leaders. No one was ever in doubt that, as premier, Thatcher was in charge.

Thatcher didn't care about consensus. "I am not," she said, "a consensus politician. I am a conviction politician." That made her a bad partner. Under her leadership, Britain lost all chance of becoming an influential part of the European Union and significantly slowed the country's adjustment to its post-imperial role. You could say the country still hasn't really adjusted to its modern status, clinging instead to America's coattails in a desperate attempt to remain important on the world stage.

She Was a Heroic Soloist

Just as Thatcher lacked interest in working with other women, so she also had no interest in working alongside her peers. The cost of this style was significant. As she became more and more isolated by power, and increasingly surrounded by sycophants, Thatcher lost touch. People who might have stood up to her were gone or thrown out; those who clung on did so only because she could deliver the electorate. Once even that was in doubt, they dropped her with alacrity.

In many ways, the passing of Thatcher is the end of a leadership era in which a heroic soloist is trusted to know all the answers. They don't do conflict well, they aren't interested in exploration, their self-belief is their greatest strength and vulnerability. Collective wisdom is an oxymoron for such leaders. While the British media overflows with all the predictable clichés, it's interesting to reflect that the most-hated British prime ministers of the 20th century are probably Margaret Thatcher and her spiritual heir, Tony Blair. Both full of quasi-religious self-confidence. Both poor partners. Both charismatic and loved for the votes they could deliver. Both very bad listeners. Both failures at grooming a viable, strong successor.

At Best Her Track Record Was Mixed

This week in the U.K., a great deal of hackneyed sentiment will gush over Thatcher's transformation of a country that was an economic basket case into one with a flourishing economy. It's a narrative that withstands some scrutiny. Anyone with a more than five-minute sense of history can see in Margaret Thatcher's era all the roots of the current economic crisis and Britain's stubborn failure to recover.

It says everything about her leadership--and the leadership style she exemplified--that tonight in Britain, people are crying into their cups and dancing in the street.

Last updated: Apr 9, 2013

MARGARET HEFFERNAN

Margaret Heffernan is an entrepreneur and author. She has been chief executive of InfoMation Corporation, ZineZone Corporation, and iCAST Corporation. In 2014, she published her fourth book, A Bigger Prize: How We Can Do Better Than the Competition.




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