Prime Margaret

By Gerhard Gschwandtner

This article reviews Margaret Thatcher’s success skills and takes a close look at her leadership and management principles. As you discover the blueprints to Margaret Thatcher’s success, you’ll be able to set new standards for your own performance and create higher levels of success for yourself.

Margaret Hilda Roberts grew up in a small apartment over her father’s grocery store in the town of Grantham, located 100 miles north of London. Their apartment had only cold running water, an outside toilet and no bath. The store had a post office section and sold groceries, cigarettes, confections and spices.

Her father, Alfred Roberts, was very active in the community. He co-founded the Rotary Club, served on the local town council for 25 years and later became mayor of Grantham. She described her mother, Beatrice, a trained dressmaker, as intensely practical, who taught her how to bake bread, make her own clothes and decorate her room.

Margaret Thatcher once reflected on her upbringing: “We were Methodists and Methodist means method. We were taught what was right and wrong in considerable detail. There were certain things you just didn’t do and that was that. Duty was very, very strongly ingrained into us.”

Politics were often discussed at the dinner table and in the grocery store, and young Margaret felt a natural interest in the subject. She helped in her father’s political campaigns, took elocution lessons in school, learned to play the piano, became a member of the debating team and developed her talents in the dramatic arts.

In 1943 she was admitted to Sommerville College at Oxford, one of England’s oldest women’s colleges. She soon joined the Oxford University Conservative Association (the members of England’s Conservative party are called Tories) where her political ambitions continued to expand. Margaret Thatcher was a great admirer of Winston Churchill and helped in his 1945 election campaign. She canvassed from door to door, handed out leaflets and delivered her first campaign speeches. Her lifetime goal was to make a significant contribution to her country. When Churchill was voted out of office, Margaret Thatcher was disappointed and commented later, “To me it seemed utterly unbelievable that the nation could have rejected Winston after everything he had done.”

After graduation she took a job as a research chemist. In 1948 the Oxford Graduate Association sent the 23-year-old Margaret to the annual Conservative party conference where she won her first political victory. She was considered as a candidate for a seat in Parliament. In February of 1949 her candidacy was approved by a voice vote by an overwhelming majority. At the reception following the vote she was introduced to a guest who offered to drive her to the train station. His name was Denis Thatcher. He was more than impressed with the youngest woman in England to run for Parliament.

The Thatcher Family

In December of 1951, Margaret Roberts and Denis Thatcher were married in London. The beaming bride wore a velvet dress of Tory blue. Thirty years later, in a BBC radio interview Margaret Thatcher reflected on her husband: “I was just lucky with Denis. Absolutely marvelous.” She told the interviewer that her husband always encouraged her to use her talents.

Soon after their marriage, the young couple moved to London. While Mr. Thatcher ran the family business (a paint and preservatives company), Mrs. Thatcher waged several unsuccessful campaigns against the ruling Labor party and pursued her legal studies to become a barrister. In early 1953, when she was five months’ pregnant, she passed her intermediate bar exam. In August she gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl named Mark and Carol. She immediately hired a nanny, continued her studies and passed her final bar exams in December.

A Seat In The House of Commons

Anyone who has ever witnessed a debate in the British Parliament will testify that it can be a surprisingly raucous place. Speakers often get interrupted by boisterous shouts, foot stomping, fist banging or impulsive insults.

Margaret Thatcher’s communication skills were charismatic. She expressed her thoughts with simple, yet powerful, words and her delivery showed passion and certainty to remove any chance for ambiguity. Her keen intellect often leapfrogged those who were resistant to opening their minds to a more practical way of thinking. When asked about her feelings as a woman in a field traditionally dominated by men, she remarked, “It doesn’t matter whether you are a man or a woman. What matters is your grasp of the problems and the need for action.”

In 1959, after running a well-organized campaign, she was elected Member of Parliament by the district of Finchley. In her maiden speech in February 1960, Margaret Thatcher introduced a bill to force local governments to admit reporters to certain council and committee meetings. At that time she was the youngest of the 25 women in the House of Commons (with a total of 630 members). Her presentation had substance, and soon the bill was approved by the House.

Thatcher Fails Forward

After the 1964 election, Labor party candidate Harold Wilson became prime minister. The Conservative party selected Edward Heath as their opposition leader and Margaret Thatcher was appointed junior spokesperson on housing and land. Later she took on the job of education minister of Heath’s shadow government.

In 1970, the political tides turned and Edward Heath became Prime Minister. Margaret Thatcher became the government’s secretary of state for education and science. During her first year she made a political mistake that took her by surprise. She gave in to demands for sweeping budget cuts and agreed to end the expensive practice of providing free milk to students in primary schools. When the word leaked out, demonstrators began shouting “Mrs. Thatcher, Milk Snatcher.”

Her political opponents were even more cruel. When she introduced her proposal to Parliament, members of the opposition shouted, “Ditch the bitch!” The Sun, a London newspaper, called her the most unpopular woman in Britain. There was little she could do but grin and bear the wave of adversity. Margaret Thatcher admitted later that the criticism had hardened her. When asked how she coped, she explained, “You have to build an armor around yourself, knowing the things they say aren’t true.”

To improve its political fortunes, the Conservative party decided on a new leadership selection process. Margaret Thatcher recognized an opportunity to advance her career and in November of 1974 she informed Edward Heath of her plans to become a candidate for her party’s leadership. Challenging her former mentor was a risky move, yet she had faith in her abilities, she was confident in her plans and she trusted her political instincts.

Opinion polls indicated that Thatcher had little chance of winning against the incumbent opposition leader. However, on February 4, 1975, her party cast 130 votes for Margaret Thatcher, while Edward Heath received only 119. Heath resigned immediately. When the second ballot was cast on February 11, Margaret Thatcher became the first woman leader of the Conservative party and the leader of the opposition.

Her victory created a wave of enthusiasm in the country and the House of Commons. She quickly scheduled a whirlwind tour to visit seven foreign countries including the United States where she met with President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. To increase her influence on a global level, she delivered many hard-line speeches against Russia’s thirst for world dominance and lack of concern for human rights. The Russian news agency TASS called her the Iron Lady, a label meant to be derogatory, but she wore it like a medal of honor.

The Long Road To Power

Although she was able to increase her popularity in the international arena, her image had plateaued in England. She soon took her own advice: If you do not at first do what you want to do, you just come at it another way and try again. In 1978 she engaged a media consultant to help polish her appearance. Her speeches became more polished and poised. In an effort to become more persuasive she learned to tone down her voice and made greater efforts to allow her human qualities to shine through.

Margaret Thatcher had developed a plan for reforming England and she was prepared to fight for her convictions. After 19 years in the House of Commons, she knew that she was ready to become prime minister. In an interview with the London Times she confessed how much she enjoyed competition: “I must say the adrenaline flows when they really come out fighting at me and I fight back and I stand there and I know ‘Now come on, Maggie, you are wholly on your own. No one can help you.’ And I love it.”

After several unsuccessful attempts to challenge the party in power, in March 1979 she forced a showdown, delivered a fiery speech and proposed a no-confidence vote. After a seven-hour debate and an inconclusive voice vote, the speaker called for a division, where the members approving the no-confidence vote leave the chamber to the right-hand lobby and those opposing the motion walk out to the left-hand lobby. When the Speaker announced the vote count, Thatcher’s motion had been approved by 311 members and rejected by 310 members. The next day, Prime Minister James Callaghan requested the queen to dissolve Parliament and national elections were set for May 3, 1979.

Both parties engaged in a tough election campaign and both parties were predicted to win. The campaign themes looked like a role reversal. Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative strategy focused on change, reform and renewal, while the Labor party promised stability. The press was abuzz about the possibility of having a woman as the future prime minister. Margaret Thatcher elegantly sidestepped the issue and reminded her fellow subjects that the British would never have beaten the Spanish Armada if it had not been for the firm hand of Elizabeth I. She canvassed the country with a high level of enthusiasm, determination and discipline. Political observers credited her well-organized campaign as the key to winning the election.

The Leadership Style Of The Iron Lady

Margaret Thatcher’s first cabinet meeting set the tone of how she expected her government to run: efficiently, effectively, where people worked as a team and where all ministers were expected to play from the same sheet of music.

Secretary of State George Schultz described her best: “She’s tough and smart. She’s a great and determined lady who’s shown us what leadership is all about. What made her so remarkable was that she understood how to use power.” Margaret Thatcher explained: “All power is a trust. We have to use our power wisely and well.”

Throughout her term as prime minister she encouraged her fellow citizens to assume a greater share of individual responsibility and to treasure the gift of independence. In a speech to a group of business leaders she stated, “I came to office with one deliberate intent: to change Britain from a dependent to a self-reliant society; from a give-it-to-me to a do-it-yourself nation; a get-up-and-go instead of a sit-back-and-wait Britain.” When the opposition noisily jeered her vision, she often used George Bernard Shaw’s famous line in contempt of her colleagues: “Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.” Her philosophies, her personality and her political selling style became even more focused, effective and compelling.

A Brush With Death

Margaret Thatcher often used to write her speeches in the wee hours of the morning. She enjoyed the quiet time, which helped her ideas to crystallize. Her high level of energy allowed her to get by on about five hours of sleep.

In October 1984 she stayed with her husband Denis in an elegant suite at the Grand Hotel in Brighton, an old seaside resort where the Conservative party held their annual conference. While most delegates were sleeping, at 2:50 a.m. Margaret Thatcher was still polishing her speech for the next day. At 2:54 a.m. a powerful blast ripped through the building. A carefully hidden bomb exploded four floors above Margaret Thatcher’s suite and tore out a huge section of the hotel’s facade. The results were devastating. Five people died and 34 people were injured as four stories collapsed one on top of the other. Margaret Thatcher announced immediately after the bombing: “Life must go on. The conference will go on as usual.” She kept her word, and after a short period of rest, she entered the Brighton conference hall at 9:30 a.m. and was received by thunderous applause. She told her audience: “The fact that we are gathered here now – shocked, but composed and determined – is a sign not only that this attack has failed, but that all attempts to destroy democracy by terrorism will fail.”

A few months later, Margaret Thatcher admitted that the terrorist attack had given her a new outlook on life, saying: “Life is infinitely more precious to me now. When something like that happens, it alters your perspective. You’re not going to be worried or complain about silly little things anymore.” Like many people who had a brush with death, Margaret Thatcher increased her focus on life, saying: “Life is always scary in some respect, but it is also full of hope. In the end your hope rests upon what you are prepared to do to help things along.” n

Benchmark Questions

Are you living your life based on a philosophy of ongoing improvement?

Do you feel that your greatest achievements are still ahead of you?

Do you have a methodology for living up to the best that is within you?

Do you challenge yourself to reach higher and higher right after you’ve achieved a great level of success?

Are you clear about what you want to achieve in your life?

Are you excited and enthusiastic about your goals?

Do you take time out to release stress and free yourself from everyday worries and anxieties?

Are you able to communicate clearly, confidently and persuasively?

When you speak, do you use simple words, short sentences and clear word pictures?

When customers describe their unique situations, do you take the time to listen attentively?

Does your sales presentation have selling power?

Do you turn adversity into stepping stones that lead to further growth?

Are you prepared to fight back and win small victories every day?

When you’ve reached the point where you tell yourself, “I can’t go on,” do you renew your commitment to “Never give up”?

Are you able to get tough when the situation demands it?

Are you able to fully show your human qualities instead of wearing a mask?

Do you allow yourself to make mistakes so you can learn and grow?

Do you share your vision with the people who follow you – bringing them enthusiasm, high energy and conviction?