Mrs Thatcher inspired affection and loyalty from her own supporters like no other British leader since Churchill. This article examines why. Whatever you thought of her policies, there are leadership lessons we can learn.
As I disagreed with nearly all her policies when she was in power, my younger self would be amazed to find me writing an article headed ‘Emotional Intelligence of Mrs T’. Like many people in the UK, I tended to think of her as ‘The Iron Lady’ – unbending, not caring about the people and communities hurt by her policies, and completely convinced of her own rightness.
So when I read the Guardian’s live blog of the Parliamentary tributes to her this week, I was surprised to find myself quite moved by some of the personal anecdotes about her life, particularly the stories of her kindness to individuals that worked for her. It is worth looking at how she conducted her career in terms of the components of Daniel Goleman’s model of Emotional Intelligence: self-awareness, self-management, relationship awareness (noticing and understanding emotions in others), and relationship management (social and leadership skills).
One of the most-used skills of the politician is to dissemble – to tell people what you think they want to hear, whether you actually believe it or not. Thatcher generally was the opposite of this kind of politician; she actually believed in what she was saying, and spoke from her beliefs even when she knew they would be unpopular. In the longer term this worked in her favour, as it developed her reputation as a ‘conviction politician’.
In contrast to the content of her message, she was quite prepared to change the style of her delivery in order to remove obstacles to being heard. She came from a ‘respectable middle class’ background, growing up above her father’s grocery shop in provincial Grantham – what would be regarded as ‘humble beginnings’ in the Conservative party that she joined in the 1940s. Financed by her businessman husband Denis, she presented herself as a conventional upper-middle class ‘Tory lady’, nicely but modestly dressed, in order to impress party officials and be regarded as a safe choice for a parliamentary candidate.
Later, when she became leader of the Conservative party, social deference in British society was ebbing away, and appearing too ‘posh’ would alienate voters. Her presentation returned to the more modest ‘Grantham housewife’ in order to appeal to the lower-middle and working class potential Tory voters.
Famously, she was prepared to listen to her advisers when they suggested that her voice needed to become softer, to seem more approachable to voters, and lower in pitch, to convey authority. You can hear the difference between the ‘before’ and the ‘after’ in this clip:
One quality often thought to contribute to self-awareness is having a sense of humour about oneself. In this area, at least, we can say that Mrs Thatcher seemed to be deficient, as she showed little sign of having a sense of humour about anything. We can infer this from her delivery of the jokes that her speechwriters occasionally saddled her with; and even more from her inadvertent double-entendres.
Any politician on the way up in a democracy needs to develop excellent self-management skills, to cope with the many rebuffs, snubs and reverses. This would be particularly true for an ‘outsider’ – which as a woman in the postwar Conservative party she was. The film ‘The Iron Lady’ and TV drama ‘Margaret Thatcher: The Long Walk to Finchley’ give an idea of the kind of obstacles she must have faced from sexism and snobbery.
An essential component of emotional self-management is persistence. Margaret Thatcher worked tirelessly, first as a schoolgirl to better herself, winning a scholarship to secondary school and becoming head girl; then at university, winning another scholarship to Oxford and becoming president of the university’s Conservative Association.
She was the Conservative party’s youngest and only female candidate in the 1950 and 1951 general elections, before finally being selected for the safe Conservative seat of Finchley in 1959. Along the way she had two children and qualified as a barrister.
By some accounts in her early career she was sometimes nervous of speaking in public or meeting important people, but never showed it. Her habit of dominating a conversation or interview, in a way that few other politicians have managed, may have been to some extent a cover-up for nerves.
Perhaps the only time the facade of Thatcher’s emotional self-management cracked was when she was deposed as leader of the Conservative party, and appeared on the steps of No. 10 Downing St. in tears.
Empathy and Relationship Management
This is where Mrs Thatcher’s career holds the most lessons for leaders. As Andrew Sparrow points out in his Guardian piece, “Thatcher (like most people who get to the top in politics) succeeded partly because she was good at managing people“. The tributes from parliamentarians who knew her contain many examples of small kindnesses, unexpected letters of condolence, and support shown to people around her.
The example that sticks in my mind was the story told by Sir Tony Baldry MP:
“Patrick Nicholls, a junior minister, had to resign from Thatcher’s government after being arrested for a driving offence. He was very depressed. But he was told to be in the division lobby at a certain time, and Thatcher made a point of going up to him and going through the lobby with him arm in arm, as a very public show of support.”
Sparrow suggests that these kindnesses are examples of how hard she worked at cultivating loyalty from people she would need. I think there may have been more to it than the purely instrumental. For example, her bodyguard of many years revealed in a TV interview that before she became prime minister, she regularly used to cook for him and his colleagues in the evenings. She obviously knew how to treat people in her immediate circle in a way that inspired loyalty, and that she would show consideration for people even when, like the disgraced junior minister, they were not in a powerful position, suggests that her kindness came from the heart.
Famously, her empathy did not extend to people in the communities devastated by her abrupt restructuring of Britain’s industry, nor to the miners, ‘new age travellers’, gays and others who did not qualify as ‘one of us’. It was as if her leadership style needed enemies – including large swathes of society in her own country, which she identified as ‘the enemy within’ – to rally her people around her.
Mrs Thatcher was able to get substantial numbers of middle class and ‘aspirational working class’ people to vote Conservative for the first time because she shared their values, and could communicate with them in a way that the upper class Tory establishment could not (readers outside the UK may not be aware of how much perceptions of social class still play a part in UK politics).
Crucially, she could communicate with these people in a way that they could understand. A 2009 analysis of her speeches found them significantly lower in ‘conceptual complexity’ than those of other postwar British prime ministers and world leaders. Lack of complexity, from a persuasion point of view, is not a bad thing – read Drew Westen’s book The Political Brain to see how people are won over by emotion rather than logic and nuance in political speeches.
Another interesting aspect of Mrs Thatcher’s leadership was how her self-belief, a crucial asset in winning power and standing up to critics, snobs and sexists in her early days, gradually became a liability. It seems that she gradually came to suffer from ‘CEO Disease’ – the condition identified by Daniel Goleman where underlings lose the courage to give you information that they think you might not like, and you believe you are always right in the face of the evidence.
In the end, her insistence on the immensely unpopular ‘poll tax’, against the advice of some of the leading figures in her own party, gave the party grandees the excuse they needed to depose her.
So, what emotional intelligence lessons for leaders can we draw from Mrs T’s reign?
- Treat people well and have empathy for them. People will repay you with loyalty. At the same time, extending that empathy to everyone in your country or organisation, whether or not they agree with you, will allow you to be a leader who unites rather than divides (readers outside the UK may not be aware that many people in the UK, including whole communities in Scotland and the North of England, hated rather than admired Mrs Thatcher).
- Be clear on what you stand for, and communicate it in a way that people can understand.
- Manage your emotional state. If you overcome fear and keep going in the face of criticism, you can achieve things that others have decided are impossible.
- Beware of ‘CEO Disease’. Listen to dissenting opinions and ‘don’t shoot the messenger’ who brings you bad news – if you dismiss them too abruptly, you will eventually have no-one prepared to tell you when you are wrong.
- Don’t see the world in black and white terms. If you are stuck in ‘either/or’ thinking, it means you will have difficulty making sense of multiple perspectives that seem to disagree. This makes decision-making simpler, but you may end up making a decision that does not address the real situation. At its extreme, you end up with George W Bush’s “you’re either with us, or against us” which gives you no room for dialogue with people who do not share your perspective.
image of Margaret Thatcher from Wikimedia