A Comparison Between Two Different Characters and Leadership Skills: Obama Versus Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher & Obama
Margaret Thatcher was raised in a strict British household with a strong commitment to “self-improvement and a dedication to duty”, and followed a distinguished academic path at Oxford into a career as a politician. Her status as a female Tory stateswoman made her an anomaly and an outsider, but Thatcher’s resilience, intelligence and laudable work ethic ensured a prominent position within the party. However, Thatcher developed several individual traits that presented challenges for her occupation. Her competitive disposition diminished her agreeableness, and gave her colleagues an impression of a curt and unfriendly individual. A Type-A personality helped Thatcher develop a reputation as urgent, ethical and conscientious, but also lacking empathy and manipulating – almost Machiavellian. Her highly task-oriented character narrowed her focus on getting jobs done rather than building relationships, and cast her as an introvert with underdeveloped interpersonal skills. Her belief in gathering information and arriving at decisions herself displayed her self-confidence, but also painted her as inflexible and unwilling to hear differing viewpoints and experiences. Thatcher’s unique personal characteristics are at the root of both her problems and successes as a politician.
Thatcher’s case furthers our understanding of leadership by providing a clear example of how some traits associated with strong, successful leadership – technical skills, conscientiousness, a high locus of control – can become detrimental when taken to extremes or are not balanced by other leadership qualities. Thatcher displayed most of the traits that are described by Kirkpatrick and Locke (1991) as central to effective leadership – motivation, energy and self-confidence. Moments from her schoolgirl years – such as refuting a headmistress who suggested that she was too young and lacked the requisite knowledge of Latin to succeed at Oxford – provide a snapshot into Thatcher’s personal drive and desire to jump into action. Thatcher also worked tirelessly to gain a deeper understanding of important issues, maintaining that “she would never be bested on detail or outworked”.
However, Thatcher’s strengths were often a double-edged sword, and also represented her greatest weaknesses when taken to the extreme. Her commitment to an entrenched moral value system proved to be influential but also intractable – she “believed in her ideas passionately and there was conviction in her delivery” but also considered her challenges to the status quo as “the beginning of a crusade”, an extreme position that helped spur her resignation in 1990. Thatcher’s case demonstrates that leaders need to be willing and able to incorporate elements like agreeableness and flexibility into their portfolio, regardless of how well developed their technical skills are, or run the risk of alienating subordinates and allies. Thatcher’s competitive and task-oriented nature could be seen as integral to her successes, but those traits also highlight that leadership is often situational, and contribute to Thatcher’s complicated legacy. She successfully implemented policies aimed at reducing the size of the state, cut taxes, and promoted deregulation. Those who revered Thatcher’s commitment to her ideals, regardless of opposition, argue that she created the conditions for the booming enterprise economy of the 1980’s. Those who saw her leadership style as overly assertive and confrontational contend that her decisions undermined worker’s rights and put the interests of corporations above the needs of people. In this situation, a leader with a more positive, relationship-oriented style might have better navigated the internal and external considerations of her office.
The example of Thatcher also reflects the growing understanding that the match between organizational settings and leadership style is crucial, and possessing emotional intelligence can be as integral to success as traditional intelligence. Thatcher possessed a high locus of control – she believed that events where the result of her actions. Her self-dedication and work ethic constantly served her ambition; she set lofty goals and then worked to achieve them. However, Thatcher had to operate within the dichotomy of government – building policy platforms is loosely structured and flexible, but implementing legislation and government as a whole is highly structured. Her tendency to refuse a compromise on her goals and her type-A personality often compounded the problem of government gridlock, with a frustrated Thatcher unwilling to hear outside opinions and drawing more opposition from the Labour Party. In one prominent example, Thatcher refused to back down on a fairly minor local taxation issue: “Even when key cabinet ministers warned her that the measure would backfire, she fought on, crossing the line between conviction and rigidity.” Leaders can use this example to highlight the importance of adapting to the realities of their organizational environment, and hone the skills that allow a leader to organically develop enthusiasm for their causes, rather than imposing their views on others. As Daniel Goleman states, “The rules for work are changing, and we’re being judged by a new yardstick…how well we handle ourselves and one another”.
Many of Thatcher’s situational wounds were self-inflicted. Her Type-A personality, need for control and uncompromising disposition made her a polarizing figure, even within her own party. For a leader to have improved this situation, they would need to combine the intellectual prowess that Thatcher displayed with a long track record of cooperation, empathy and openness to differing positions. Because of his ability to integrate his strong academic background as a professor and lawyer with excellent interpersonal skills and a unique ability to self-monitor, Barack Obama is our Leader Exemplar of choice.
First, Obama believed in openness to experience as a core value. Whereas Thatcher presented herself as a hardliner on almost all issues, including subverting labour unions and raising the price of school lunches for students, Obama worked across the aisle, cooperating with Republican leaders to pass major legislation. In 2010, Obama worked extensively with leaders of both parties to pass the Tax Relief Act, using his relationship-building skills to win majorities in both Houses of Congress, including an 81-19 majority in the Senate, with just five Republican Senators opposing the bill. In the case of Thatcher’s tax cut bill, which she forced through in the midst of a 23% approval rating, Obama would have used the legislation as a opportunity to build consensus on both sides of the issue, adapting to the situation and resolving the conflict cooperatively. When the Affordable Care Act came under intense Republican opposition, Obama and the Democrats used it as an opportunity to debate their ideas in a public setting, holding 44 open hearings in the Senate and allowing over 160 Republican amendments to the bill.
Second, Obama displayed the ability to self-monitor behaviour and adjust to situations. When forced to cut education spending, Thatcher ended the school milk program and provided millions in subsidies to wealthy private schools, damning her as an unsympathetic “milk snatcher”. When Obama was faced with the issue of rising health care costs, he displayed a remarkable perceptiveness in designing the Affordable Care Act so that it would provide health insurance to tens of millions of low income Americans while simultaneously reducing the national deficit by taxing the incomes of the very richest Americans, a provision supported by an overwhelming majority of the country. Recognizing cues from the political landscape, Obama stepped back from his desire for a public-option system and embraced a plan endorsed by Mitt Romney; making behavioural adjustments based on social clues would have helped avoid the “Milk Snatcher” issue for Thatcher.
Finally, Obama displayed tremendous interpersonal skills. Thatcher’s shortcomings arose, in part, because she was outwardly combative and uncompromising. Obama, meanwhile, had developed a profoundly unique talent for connecting with people from his time as a community organizer in Chicago. His oratory skills and passion came off as sincere and hopeful, in stark contrast to Thatcher’s brash and at times harsh rhetoric. Thatcher’s most famous public moments – her “No, No, No!” speech in 1990, and the “Not For Turning ” declaration in 1980 – represent Thatcher rejecting any compromises to her beliefs. Obama instead cultivated a reputation for making profound, unifying speeches – like at the 2004 Democratic Convention – that, if applied to Thatcher’s case, would have helped communicate her policies in a kinder light and likely drawn more support from both the Labour Party and the general public. It is ultimately this belief in cooperation, in building relationships and adapting to change that makes Barack Obama the best choice to improve the situation presented in this case.
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