The Passing of a Great Leader: Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher


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


Margaret Thatcher, 10/23/25-04/08/13

thatcherIt has always amazed me that in America we are so often “surprised” when women are chosen for high levels of leadership responsibility and we are truly challenged at the idea that a woman could just as easily be the best choice for national leadership as a man. If we were to elect a female president, there would be a certain amount of self-pride that we are so diverse and accepting as to consider that the gender of the top leader makes little difference.

Yet, one of the strongest democratic, free market leaders of all time was none other than Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The longest serving prime minister of the United Kingdom since the beginning of the 20th century, Mrs. Thatcher died today at the age of 87.

From a leadership perspective, Prime Minister Thatcher defied much of the myth of what it takes to become a great leader…especially as a woman. She was born in 1925 to very common means. Her father taught her about politics as she grew up, but not as a political relate. Mr. Roberts (her dad) was a member of the town council.

It is clear that the way Margaret Thatcher became the dominant leader that she became was by something pretty simple…she decided to do so. She entered politics in the 50s, losing her first foray but learning an enormous amount from the experience and gaining a reputation in the eyes of the public and her peers. The battle was a tough one, so much so that in 1973 she was quoted from a television appearance as saying, “I don’t think there will be a woman prime minister in my lifetime.”

Next lesson then—not only did she want to be a leader, she persevered even when she believed it was impossible. In May of 1979 she became that person that she thought would never exist when she was elected Prime Minister.

If you have any interest in leadership and you have not read her biography, you really should. Her terms were amazingly challenging for anybody but as a woman, she destroyed every myth. She was decisive in military challenges, open in taking on adversaries, and wise in knowing when to push and when to pull.  She had guts and she had compassion. After three terms as prime minister, Margaret Thatcher left the post in 1990 yet continued as an active member of the House of Lords. She went on to write several books, the only one of which I have read being Path to Power(2005) which is an amazing study of her life.

The legacy of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is one of many lessons. While I would still argue that her example makes most arguments of concern about women in leadership positions sound ridiculous, the lessons of her life are applicable to leaders of all gender and race. They are also important for new leaders and tenured ones. If you know what you stand for and are convinced that your leadership would benefit those around you, you owe it to yourself and others to claim the responsibility to make it happen.  If you do this, and you stay true to your beliefs, you can change your team or your company and perhaps, the world.

Inspiring Leadership Creates Revenue

Bloomberg Business Week and the Hayes Group published a survey a while ago identifying the top 20 Best Companies for Leadership. The list includes many of those you would expect like Southwest Airlines, 3M, Zappos and General Electric.

In a comparison of what organizations value in leaders there were a number of significant differences. For example, both groups valued the ability of leaders to think strategically and to execute as the top two dimensions. However, for the majority of respondents, next in value  was decision-making followed very closely by technical expertise. For the Top 20, the third most important was inspiring leadership while technical expertise came in last.

In a comparison of financial results, the Top 20 beat the S&P 500 consistently. For 2008 where the S&P dropped 37%, the Top 20 averaged a gain of 1.6%.

It may be that those companies at the top understand that they cannot succeed by sheer expertise alone. The primary difference between technical expertise and an ability to inspire is the difference between a high individual contributor and a highly effective team.

Expertise alone will only get a leader so far. The ability to inspire others to join in the journey is the ability to exponentially increase the effort toward a common goal. That increased effort not only creates a more engaged workforce but a more successful company overall.   ­

The Bottom Line of Employee Engagement

Over the years, it has been a more intuitive than provable point that employee satisfaction has a direct relationship to customer satisfaction. While it makes logical sense that unhappy employees can lead to unhappy customers, many leaders would still argue that if they produce a superior product that customers want, then they will pay for it regardless of how employees feel.

The real problem exists between the relationships of two engagement factors: employees and customers. The researchers at Gallup call this “Human Sigma” in reference to the confluence of employee and customer engagement. There are four conditions, and their research has shown consistently that they DO make a difference.

Engaged Workforce/Unengaged Customers: In this condition, employees love you and love your company but are unwilling or unable to focus that engagement on firing up customers. In some cases they may be too internally focused or perhaps the channels by which they can interact with customers are limited.
Unengaged Workforce/Engaged Customers: Here the customers are excited about what you have to offer but employees don’t feel a part of the game and as a result, are not trying to find ways to maintain and grow customer engagement.
Unengaged Workforce/Unengaged Customers: This is not a pretty picture. Here neither your workforce nor your company is particularly jazzed. Nothing good can come from this situation as it is a predictor of poor financial outcomes and a questionable future.
Engaged Workforce/ Engaged Customers: The best of both worlds. Here, customers are excited about doing business with you and employees are excited about being a part of something great. This dual engagement feeds a virtuous cycle. Engaged employees find ways to engage customers who help make the experience a positive one for employees, etc.

Gallup proposes that organizations that have either engaged workforces or engaged customers show a marked improvement over those that have neither. However, when a leaders within an organization find a way to have both, they perform on major financial metrics at 240% over those who have either one or the other.
As I’ve said before, employee engagement does not have to be expensive nor complicated. Employee engagement is about understanding the needs and desires of those who follow and finding ways to link your organization to those needs and desires. There are a lot of approaches, the most simple one being to listen and pay attention. And then act.

Hurricane Sandy reveals True Leadership

The devastation of Hurricane Sandy over this last week is nearly immeasurable. Having just seen some of the post-storm photos of areas throughout New York, Connecticut and New Jersey are not only beyond description, they represent only a small fraction of the challenge that faces the area now as the clean-up and rebuilding begins.

Leaders emerge in a crisis

While these are indescribable tragedies, these are also the times when true leaders emerge and stand out from those who are just filling a position.  I’m not just talking about the willingness to of people to engage in helping each other, but leaders that inspire others by their actions ofLeaders emerge in a crisis optimism, courage and engagement of others.

Take Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, NJ. Regardless of where you stand on his politics or his prior statements, you have to admire his willingness to back up his statements with action. Mayor Booker himself was among those who went out into the streets of Newark to encourage residents to evacuate and for the homeless to come into the shelters.  He used the tools available to him, such as Twitter, to communicate actively with his public without all of the steps of hierarchy between him and his constituency.

In many cases, the heroes and leaders in a disaster like this will always go unknown due to the fact that they are focused more on the outcome than the recognition.  These are the individuals that not only take care of their neighbors, but inspire those neighbors with their actions to rise above their fear and loss long enough to come to the aid of those even in worse shape.

And this is where leadership and morality again come together. I am currently in a debate with some of my graduate students (God bless ’em) who chose to believe that leadership has no moral component. I can only hope that they are wrong, because in times like these, it’s the morality that will save lives and create an peace where there is only chaos

Pay Attention

Value your relationships

I’ve argued for awhile that there’s no such thing as work/life balance…there’s only life balance. In trying to separate the two, we act as if our work life somehow effects us only within the context of the business or organization for whom we toil. This disconnected view can also lead us into a routine where our family and friends are considered the humans in our lives while those around us at work are considered…well….often not considered at all.

Take a minute today and think about each of your employees and co-workers. How much do you now about them? Have you adopted the view that there is no place for personal relationships in the workplace? If so, isn’t that a shame?

By the way, don’t read this short post as righteous moralizing. Events this past week have reinforced for me that I commit the same error, and do so with amazing frequency. We get caught up in what we believe to be priorities until we lose sight of what’s really important. Yes, the three hour meeting on strategy is crucial…but so is the fifteen minute break talking about kids and hobbies and past-times.

At least consider taking a few minutes today and during the days of coming weeks to become a little more aware of the people that have been put in your path. Consider the gift of their relationship and see if there isn’t something unique that they add to your own life experience. If not, look a little harder. The time we spend together is the time we have…we don’t get to respend it somewhere else. Maybe we should try a little harder at making it significant.


Discussing what can’t be Discussed

Even if we pretend it’s not, the undiscussable is still there

I’ve written often in this blog about the value and process of giving and receiving feedback. It is a skill that I’m convinced is woefully underused yet is crucial for leaders to master as they endeavor to create high-performing teams. While some managers do a great job of at least creating the opportunity for feedback, they can talk and listen and talk and listen and still have a sense that there are issues out there that are simply not coming into the conversation. This is because, in most organizations and on most teams, there are “Undiscussables.”

We have lots of terms for undiscussables, one of the most common being “the elephant in the room” or “the 800 pound gorilla.” I’m not sure why we’ve decided to use jungle metaphors for this phenomenon but the fact remains that an undiscussable is not acknowledged and is known by everybody…except perhaps the person(s) directly related to the topic itself.

Dealing with undiscussables is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, simply allowing an important issue to remain untouched can create discomfort and an almost toxic environment. On the other hand, the issue is undiscussable for a reason. Either people don’t feel safe talking about it, there are social sanctions to bringing it up (the team punishes the speaker for making them uncomfortable), or there is simply not a clear way to get the topic on the table.

If you think there are important issues that your team actively ignores, you should consider finding a way to address them. But be cautious. Calling out the 800-pound gorilla may only serve to tick off the 800-pound gorilla! There is nothing constructive about the well-meaning manager who calls together a dysfunctional team and has them “put it all out on the table” without a plan on what to do with “it” once “it” is on the table.  Undiscussables are usually highly emotionally charged and have little to do with logic. It’s a genie that’s difficult to get back into the bottle.

(Anybody else notice how metaphor driven I am today?)

Discussing an undiscussable issue takes finesse and a true respect for those holding the beliefs as well as those about which the beliefs are held. These issues aren’t created overnight and they can’t be resolved overnight either. So what do you do?

First, start asking high-quality, data-seeking questions. If you are unable to do this without being defensive, have somebody else like an HR professional or external consultant do it for you. The purpose of the questions is not to fix anything but rather to understand what makes up the issue that cannot be discussed. You want to find out exactly what the belief is and why it is held. Look for examples of behaviors on your team or in your organization that may reinforce the belief, even if the actual situation is not what it is seen to be. Don’t defend anything…simply listen

Second, help people understand that they are only seeing the behaviors of others rather than the intent. There are tools with which to do this, but the point is simple. I only know what you do but I have no idea of why you do it. Even if you tell me why you do the things you do, I can never know for sure that what you say is true or that you even know why you do what you do. But I can SEE what’s happening and that is something we can talk about.

Third, give people time. Be patient. Making your team aware that you know of the undiscussable and that you are willing to address it may be the only step on which you can succeed initially. That’s fine. Any change to the reinforcing loop that is causing the problem will ultimately change the loop. Don’t be judgmental about what is reasonable and what isn’t…if people have a topic they feel they can’t discuss it has nothing to do with whether you could discuss it or not. Those are THEIR feelings.

Finally, create safety. Monitor your own responses and remember that undiscussables are cloaked in fear. If somebody starts to be honest, encourage it and avoid any kind of defense or attack. Let people know that you will do whatever is necessary to ensure that it’s ok to discuss important issues. If you encourage the process step by step you may find that the topics that are getting in the way can be addressed once they are out in the open. If you don’t know how to address them, ask for help…from the team, from a colleague or from a trusted mentor. However you choose to address it, there will be a lot more air in the room for people to breath if you get rid of all those large animals!