Why Thatcher Wouldn’t Succeed in Our ‘Lean In’ Culture

Why Thatcher Wouldn’t Succeed in Our ‘Lean In’ Culture

There could never be another “Iron Lady.”

That was the first thought that came to some minds today with the news that Margaret Thatcher, the U.K.’s great prime minister, had died.

This is an odd reaction. Women in the developed world now routinely hold more top jobs than they did in 1975, when the 49-year-old Thatcher first assumed leadership of the Conservative Party. The No. 1 bestseller on the New York Times list is “Lean In,” by a woman holding one of the highest of those positions, Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook Inc. (FB)

A look at what Sandberg, the granddaughter of a retailer, recommends and what Thatcher, a grocer’s daughter, did, reveals similarities. But there are also such great differences between the two women that you wonder whether a Thatcher might make it today in politics or at a publicly traded company.

Sandberg advises women to learn from female mentors, and Thatcher certainly did. Her tutor at Oxford University, the scientist Dorothy Hodgkin, encouraged the young Margaret Roberts to logically work through problems to their conclusion. That is so Sandberg: Sheryl plans her career moves in an Excel spreadsheet.

Taking Risks

Sandberg admonishes younger women to “lean in,” to push harder at work, in order to advance. Thatcher did lean in, and up, ascending by force the lowest rungs of the Tory ladder, starting with the Oxford University Conservative Association as a student. Sandberg specifically counsels women to take risks early and Thatcher certainly did that, too. While still in her 20s, Thatcher dared to run twice for office in a Labour Party stronghold, Dartford, and lost both times. Nor did Thatcher temper her risk-taking as she rose.

Her party tended to cave and reverse policy under political pressure, but not Thatcher: “This lady’s not for turning,” she famously declared.As a Cabinet member or prime minister, she pushed for budget cuts when her advisers, including influential U.S. supply-siders, advised her to emphasize tax cuts. “Pennies don’t fall from heaven,” Thatcher said in 1979, the year she took office. “They have to be earned here on Earth.” Under her guidance, the U.K. cut spending with a vigor that Ronald Reagan admired.

“Sit at the table,” is another key Sandberg precept and Thatcher did a splendid job at that. A genius at political timing, Thatcher very early sensed that the moment to grab a power seat was when the table was in disarray, as in the 1970s, when the Tories were flailing.

Thatcher also ruled at the diplomatic table, and even served as a kingmaker. “I like Mr. Gorbachev,” she said in 1984, when Mikhail Gorbachev was still merely an influential Politburo member. “We can do business together.”

We don’t know how much the Thatcher seal of approval contributed to Gorbachev’s elevation to general secretary of the Politburo a few months later, but it undoubtedly helped. Her partnership with Gorbachev, in turn, made it possible to bring about the end of the Soviet Union. Her encouragement to President George H.W. Bush — “George, don’t go wobbly on me” — helped the allies conclude the first war in Iraq.

But if Thatcher knew how to take her place at the table, she also knew how to walk away. The most spectacular instance of her doing so was in Bruges in 1988, when she made it clear the U.K. wasn’t willing to join the nations of continental Europe in building up the social welfare state.

Resisting Europe

“We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state of Britain only to see them reimposed on a European level with a European super state exercising a new dominance from Brussels,” she said.

Thatcher paid gloriously little heed to social fashion. She was known as a man’s man, and even one who harassed men she suspected might be vulnerable: When I worked in the U.K. in the 1980s, more than once I heard a male Tory say of another, “she made him cry.”

That same rough style might disqualify a rising Thatcher today. Over and again, today’s leaders counsel their pupils, especially the female ones, to network and get along, and focus on discrimination. “Many people believe that the workplace is still a meritocracy,” writes Sandberg, suggesting that the people who hold such beliefs are blind or wrong.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Sandberg also maintains, “to think about one woman holding another back.” Indeed it is, but an emphasis on woman-to-woman help tends to reward the get-along women rather than the aggressive ones.

Which brings us to the largest obstacle to today’s Iron Ladies: the emphasis on corporate or government process. As Sandberg laboriously notes, Harvard Business School, which already famously focused on teamwork and consensus, has lately emphasized teamwork even more. It’s hard to imagine Thatcher (“Defeat? I do not recognize the word”) thriving at HBS.

The result of the collaborative culture is that corporations or government institutions focus intensely on internal culture and pour their energy into achieving minuscule policy changes relating to workplace efficiency, gender or race. The great victory with which future Thatcher biographers are likely to open their accounts is her winning back the Falkland Islands from the Argentine junta. The great victory with which Sandberg opens her book was getting Google Inc. (GOOG) to establish reserved parking for pregnant women.

The one area in the U.S. where new Thatchers might arise is private companies, especially ones they themselves found. That is where they won’t be bogged down by process or political correctness. To these future Iron Ladies, one can imagine Thatcher advising: “The goal is not to lean in, though certainly that’s necessary. The goal is to move mountains.”

(Amity Shlaes, director of the Bush Center Four Percent Growth Project, is the author of “Coolidge,” published by HarperCollins, and a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Amity Shlaes at amityshlaes@hotmail.com

How Thatcher Saved Britain

More than any other prime minister since 1945, Margaret Thatcher changed the course of British history. In one sense, like any politician, she was a product of her times, but don’t let that mislead you: Only she could have done what she did.

No other U.K. politician of her time or since has had her combination of courage and single-mindedness. To meet the challenges she faced, she needed both. While she was in office, the country’s voters never much liked her, and to their shame Britain’s chattering classes despised her throughout. However, enough of the country believed she was necessary to keep her in power for 11 years. They were right — she really was necessary.

“She did not just lead our country, she saved our country,” said Prime Minister David Cameron on Monday. “I believe she’ll go down as the greatest British peacetime prime minister.” She will, but it’s telling that the word “peacetime” jars. Thatcher saw herself, I think, as a wartime prime minister. There were enemies abroad, most notably in Argentina, and there were enemies at home who were very much more dangerous — Britain’s trade unions. She wanted no accommodation with either kind of foe. She set out to crush them, and crush them she did.

Take No Prisoners

To understand why the British, a tolerant people inclined to moderation in most things, supported this take-no-prisoners approach to government, you must understand the depths to which the country had fallen by 1979, when Thatcher first came to power. Five years earlier, a previous Tory government had been voted out of office after it had tried, and failed, to settle a strike by the coal miners’ union. That strike had literally shut down the country. Edward Heath’s government called a general election asking, “Who governs Britain, us or the unions?” The country gave its answer by voting in a Labour government.

Characteristically, Britain’s then-militant unions showed no restraint in victory. Seeking ever-higher wages, public- sector unions called a series of strikes in the winter of 1978- 79, the “Winter of Discontent,” leading to the biggest mass stoppage since the General Strike of 1926. Bodies were left unburied when gravediggers stopped work. Leicester Square became a rat-infested garbage dump, the trash piled 10 feet deep.

With voters at the point of despair, Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan returned from a meeting in (of all places) Guadeloupe to say the country was taking “rather a parochial view” of these problems. The U.K.’s best-selling tabloid newspaper, The Sun, led next day with the indelible headline, “Crisis? What Crisis?” and the government’s fate was sealed.

This is the sense in which Thatcher, who won the election in May 1979, was a product of the times. Even so, she was rare among leading conservatives for her determination to end the war she rightly believed the unions had already declared not with compromise, but with total victory. She and an inner circle of ministers made elaborate preparations (building up coal stocks, for instance, and restricting the unions’ right to strike in sympathy with other aggrieved workers) so that the government could face and win the next coal miners’ strike — which it did. In that battle, the National Union of Mineworkers wasn’t just beaten — it was wiped out.

Further measures to limit union rights followed. British unionism, which had staked everything on confrontation rather than cooperation, went into rapid decline. In a second front in the same war, Thatcher led an assault on the U.K.’s state-owned enterprises — she brought the term “privatization” into common usage. She also sold the country’s publicly owned housing stock. She believed in free enterprise and thought the state had grown out of bounds, but she was no more driven by a deeply thought- through ideology than her friend Ronald Reagan. She got little respect from intellectuals and mostly returned the compliment. Her instincts were her guide.

Broken Alliance

Most consequentially of all, she broke the alliance between the Labour Party and organized labor, thus remaking the political opposition. Subsequent Labour governments made no move to restore the rights that Thatcher had taken away. They knew how unpopular that would be. Reluctantly and by degrees, the Labour Party moved to the right, until it eventually had a leader, Tony Blair, whom the Economist magazine once celebrated on its cover as “The Strangest Tory Ever Sold.”

The reconstruction of the Labour Party was Thatcher’s most significant achievement. But it’s worth remembering that her triumph over the unions would never have been consolidated if she hadn’t won another war, as well — the one over some tiny, barely inhabited islands in the far South Atlantic. In this other pivotal moment, she showed the same unflinching determination as she had at home, together with another trait common to those whom history anoints as great leaders — astounding luck.

The war to win back the Falklands from the Argentine force that occupied them in 1982 was, by any standards, a reckless venture. By the early 1980s, Britain lacked the capacity to dominate even a weak military opponent at that distance. Argentina was fighting close to home. It had state-of-the-art air-to-surface missiles and much faster aircraft than the U.K.’s ship-launched jets, as well. Argentina should have won the war and nearly did. It lost through a combination of pantomime incompetence and fecklessness — things that Thatcher had no right to count on. A sensible prime minister would have argued for sanctions and a negotiated settlement. Thatcher wasn’t interested. You don’t win wars that way.

If Britain had lost the Falklands War, the humiliation would have been abject, and Thatcher’s chances of being seen as the country’s greatest “peacetime” prime minister would have been zero. There would have been no subsequent domestic achievements, either, since she would probably have failed to win re-election.

Falklands Triumph

The Falklands victory expunged memories of the Suez crisis of the 1950s and sustained Britain’s “proud island nation” myth for several more decades — several decades too long. It helps to sustain that myth even now, though with gradually diminishing power. It shapes attitudes to Europe, and much else. (And a good thing, too, she would have said. Didn’t she warn us how Europe would make a hash of things?)

The very qualities that made Thatcher indispensable as the scourge of the U.K.’s unions and toxic public sector came closer than most Britons realize to making her a nullity through foreign misadventure. She was lucky — as great leaders have to be. And the fact remains, she won the war that mattered most — the war to save the British economy. For that, in my view, no praise is too great.

(Clive Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Clive Crook at ccrook5@bloomberg.net

Why Margaret Thatcher Reminded Me of My Mother

I admired Margaret Thatcher the way I admired, feared (and loved) my mother. I didn’t share Thatcher’s politics but stood in awe when, through sheer conviction and resolve, she did what needed to be done. Both women were working-class but managed to go toe-to-toe with privilege. Both were charismatic and domineering, controversial and unafraid. Prime Minister Thatcher had a majority in Parliament to accomplish her agenda. My mother had me.

In 1979, Thatcher became leader of a country broken by bureaucracy and hobbled by strikes, with garbage rotting in the streets and bodies rotting in the morgue. Nothing seemed to work. The clotted cream went into the fridge on Monday but curdled when the electric power failed on Wednesday. Bureaucracy was swollen and inefficient. There were three-day work weeks and trains that didn’t run. The regulatory regime hadn’t kept pace with business or technology.

A shop owner’s daughter trained as a chemist, Thatcher was a conviction politician. She had a hide tough enough to endure harsh criticism and the will to ram through painful changes, such as shrinking government and privatizing services and building a regulatory environment in which business could thrive. Simplistic at times, she preached personal responsibility and self-reliance: Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again.

Thatcher didn’t wait for public opinion, or other politicians, to catch up with her. One joke circulating at the time had her ordering a steak at a restaurant with fellow politicians. “What about the vegetables?” the waiter asked. “They’ll have the steak, too,” she answered.

Inauspicious Debut

Thatcherism’s debut was inauspicious, occasioning massive demonstrations. Liberals hated her, although she kept some of the safety net, including the National Health Service and public housing. By the end of 1981, her favorability rating had sunk to 25 percent. Gradually, though, life began to improve and so did her standing. A rising tide lifted some, if not all, boats. Jobs were created. Credit was loosened enough for the man in the street to get a loan, and businesses started taking risks again. A bite-sized war helped — the 1982 drama in the Falklands, where she battled an Argentine dictator over the fate of some patriotic British sheep.

Backing her at every turn was U.S. President Ronald Reagan. Their alliance was stronger than the sum of its parts. She said she could work with Mikhail Gorbachev, and if the “Iron Lady” could, Reagan figured he could too. Together they ended the Cold War.

An attempt on Thatcher’s life in 1984, which killed five in a Brighton hotel where she was speaking, only increased her resolve. However, Thatcher’s steel spine was often inflexible. Peace with the Irish Republican Army eluded her and she (like Reagan) was morally blind to apartheid in South Africa. When Reagan was replaced by President George H.W. Bush, Thatcher worried that Bush was too timid to master a violent world. When Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, she told him, “Don’t go wobbly on me, George.”

Like Thatcher, my mother never went wobbly. She had a family in distress to lead and she did it without concern for her approval ratings. I adored my civil-servant father but followed my mother. Confronted with a difficult and expensive trauma — due to an epileptic seizure, my older brother, Jimmy, was severely brain-damaged at birth — she wrestled it down and pinned it.

Private Care

There would be no sending my brother off to costly private care. Instead, my mother engineered an only occasionally hostile takeover of the neighborhood, the parish and our school. I was told to inform the neighborhood kids that if you want me on your team, you have to take Jimmy, too. My parents couldn’t go out to parties, so the parties came to us. Jimmy couldn’t read, but he helped churn ice cream, bake bread and grow watermelons.

The parish school didn’t want to take Jimmy, but my mother, having slowly acquired power, didn’t hesitate to wield it. She had initiated lucrative Friday-night bingo, which had ingratiated her to the pastor. In addition, she had built a kitchen to make hot lunches, paved an adjacent lot for a playground and planted a weedy field to accommodate baseball and hockey. Jimmy polished the chalices while my mother oversaw the Altar Guild, sewing, starching and ironing the linens. By the time my brother was ready for school, she had made the school ready for him.

I believe in the Great Man, and certainly Woman, theory of history. I recognized Thatcher’s greatness because I had seen a version of it up close, exerting power, shaping destinies, transforming not a nation but a neighborhood. She and my mother were great, tough, unyielding women whose philosophy I didn’t always agree with but whose leadership I couldn’t resist. Like Thatcher’s legacy, my mother’s lives on. For 30 years, Jimmy has been an usher at 7:30 Mass. Every Sunday.

(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Margaret Carlson at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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