Lessons in Leadership from Margaret Thatcher

I’m chugging through The Iron Lady, John Campbell’s biography of Margaret Thatcher, after watching the biopic of the same title, starring Meryl Streep (love you, Meryl). I really enjoyed the film, but assumed it Hollywood-ized Thatcher. So I’m doing some fact-checking, I suppose, by reading Campbell’s tour de force. Apparently the British writer condensed the original two volumes down to a slim 576 pages in order to make the story more accessible (aka – so American idiots could read it). Thank you, Mr. Campbell.

But that Maggie. What. A. Woman.

More than learning about Thatcher’s politics, I wanted to know about Thatcher’s experience as a female leader – how she managed as a woman, what she did to earn respect and power in a male-dominated world and how she ultimately made her gender a non-issue.

I have to admire her tenacity and ability to set her sights on something (in this case, Prime Minister), and commit to its pursuit without compromise.

A particularly clever move she made in order to gain a male following was to consciously – I assume – tap into “female types: established role models of women in positions of authority whom men were used to obeying.” As Campbell writes:

Thus she was the Teacher, patiently but with absolute certainty explaining the answers to the nation’s problems: and the Headmistress exhorting the electorate to pull its socks up. She was Doctor Thatcher, or sometimes Nurse Thatcher, prescribing nasty medicine or a strict diet which the voters knew in their hearts would be good for them. Finally she was Britannia, the feminine embodiment of patriotism, wrapping herself unselfconsciously in the Union Jack.

I find this fascinating. And brilliant. It means, to a certain degree, that she was most effective leading as a woman, not as a man.

In my experience in corporate America, I’ve found this to be a hard lesson for women in leadership positions to learn.

Many of my female superiors have felt the need to abide by male standards in order to do their job effectively – denying feminine characteristics in order to prove their seniority. I’ve heard supporting anecdotes from friends – male and female. Risking insolence in the name of honesty, seems that older women in senior positions tend to share a few common characteristics: overly critical, demanding, confrontational and defensive.

No doubt this is a carry-over from the incredible women before me that actually had to play “man” in order to break the glass ceiling – the women who fought tooth and nail to get through the door at male-dominated institutions. I’d imagine that these women feel (because they have long felt) threatened. They have to prove their worth at every turn – which really means proving that they’re better than everyone else. Again – I get where this comes from. Women long had to outperform every man in the room in order to have a voice. But I’m hopeful the workplace is changing away from requiring this kind of behavior from women. Speaking just from my personal experience, I’d say it is – at least in certain industries. And women need to take advantage.

Thatcher is a useful example of a woman who learned to lay down her feminist arms once the battle had been won. By Campbell’s account, when it came to Thatcher’s first campaign for Prime Minister, “she no longer needed to prove that she was tough enough for the job: it was becoming a cliché, as David Wood noted in The Times, to say that she was ‘the best man among them.’ What she now had to do was to make a virtue of her femininity.”

I don’t completely love that Thatcher “had” to do anything regarding her gender – that forcing femininity was a tactic. But I do like that being a woman was acceptable – and effective.

I came across an interesting piece in the Harvard Business Review from psychologist Leslie Pratch on women in leadership, “Why Women Leaders Need Self-Confidence.” Don’t be completely fooled by the title. Self-confidence goes a bit deeper than internal cheerleading. According to Pratch, it is a key element of “active coping,” defined as “a set of behaviors central to executive success.” Read: better active coping skills means better leadership ability.

According to Pratch’s research, the qualities that make a man a great leader are not the same qualities that make a woman a great leader: “To the extent that women who are leaders exhibit a masculine style, they amplify their role conflict and increase the chances of receiving unfairly negative evaluations.”

Some key findings (in laymen’s terms) are below. These are characteristics, evaluated based on whether they hurt or help women and men establish their leadership position among colleagues:

  • Readiness to articulate sources of frustration and difficulties – good for women; bad for men
  • Defensive vagueness and ambiguity – bad for women; good for men
  • Self-confidence and self-esteem – good for women; bad for men

Ultimately, Pratch suggests that women are expected to be women at work. And their failure to do so actually hurts their leadership: “Women are expected to display high levels of social (communal) qualities, including needs for affiliation, a tendency to be self-sacrificing, concern with others, spontaneity, and emotional expressiveness.”

My favorite finding: “For women, the ability to identify and face difficulties in the external world openly and non-defensively predicted leadership beyond any chance occurrence.”

I’ll drink to that. It’s my active coping technique of choice.

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One thought on “Lessons in Leadership from Margaret Thatcher

  1. […] then, to bring it all the way back to my earlier post on women/effective leadership styles, as a woman who may or may not want to be a fortune 500 CEO and may or may not be an […]

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