Friday, 19 April 2013

A T-ypical Leader?

Originally posted on 17th Apr 2013 on the Discuss HR blog for

 Human Resources UK

Mrs T - A Typical Leader?

In the week of the ceremonial funeral of Baroness Thatcher at St Paul’s Cathedral, it seems apt to consider her style as a leader and her legacy to the world in which we now live and work.  Love her or loathe her and, as certain songs show, feelings run high on this one (there is an irony to the fact that her words, on entering Downing Street, were “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony”) most people have an opinion about her.  The schism in public attitude has remained long after her retirement and looks to continue for years to come.  However, whatever your personal opinion, no one can deny that she had presence and made an impact that has endured.

Coffin of Baroness Thatcher in the Crypt Chapel of St Mary Undercroft
beneath the Houses of Parliament
on the night before the funeral
What most people forget is that, like many new leaders, she was slow out of the blocks.  In the late 1970s the UK was heavily unionised and the unions wielded considerable power (during Heath’s leadership 9 million working days in the UK were lost to strike action, and that is not counting the impact of those employees who were “working to rule”).  I can remember from my childhood the repercussions that strikes had on the world around me  - piles of stinking rubbish in the streets, exciting evenings when we used candles for light and ate sandwiches because the electricity was off, queuing for hours for petrol.  It was a tough environment: inflation was high (over 20%), VAT had just been introduced (much to the concern of my father), taxes were high and the UK was in the grip of a severe recession.  Yet, when Margaret Thatcher came to power she was initially very cautious - her 1979 manifesto made no mention of privatisation nor union reform (indeed initially her government was highly supportive of the public sector unions, awarding them increased funding) and in her speeches she sounded very pro-Europe.  It is not uncommon for a new leader to do little at first, preferring to assess the environment for a while, to gain a better understanding before starting to make their mark.  Many have criticised Obama for doing too little too slowly during his first years after election – he had so much to contend with and comprehend on attaining office that delay was inevitable.  The reality of what is possible is often different from that which a new leader anticipates before appointment and almost everyone needs some time to acclimatise when starting a fresh challenge.

It took an unexpected event, in the form of the Argentinean invasion of the Falklands, for Thatcher’s approach noticeably to alter.  It is easy to speculate that Mrs Thatcher’s confidence in her own capabilities and resolve to change Britain came as a direct result of her burgeoning popularity.  Post the Falklands she was vaunted as a Churchill-esque leader who had saved Britain’s honour and restored its pride.  Her determination to introduce what she saw as beneficial change could have been fuelled by the apparent nationalistic pride and confidence shown in her, which seemed to give her licence to do as she saw fit.  Certainly, it was not until she was buoyed up by public sentiment and media accolades (following the successful regaining of the Falklands) that Thatcher really started to drive through change.  I may be being controversial, but I suspect that, like many leaders whose confidence is reinforced after a high profile success, Margaret Thatcher considered herself more talented than those who worked with and for her.  I doubt Dennis whispered in her ear to discourage hubris.  Many leaders fall into the trap of believing the hype and sycophancy that often surrounds them (and some deliberately enfold themselves with adulation because of how good it makes them feel to have their ideas praised and encouraged).  Many leaders often only achieve results after their confidence is bolstered by knowing that they are supported and deemed capable. 

In her early years Margaret Thatcher was neither well known nor popular and throughout her career there was open hostility to her from a number of quarters.  (Prior to becoming Prime Minister, when she was appointed into Edward Heath’s cabinet as education minister it is reported that Willie Whitelaw said “if we take her we’ll never be able to get rid of her” – hardly the words of a supportive colleague, even if surprisingly accurate.) Many of the House of Commons’ members behaved as if in an ill-mannered bear-pit during the 1970s and early 1980s (the BBC was not the only institution to suffer from a misogynistic culture at this time) – Thatcher as a junior cabinet minister was regularly greeted on the floor of The House to chants of “ditch the bitch” ,as the parliamentary opposition viewed her as a weak link in the government’s team, even after becoming Prime Minister there were cat calls of “Here’s the Immaculate Misconception” in an attempt to put her off and to raise a laugh from others in Parliament.  As a side note - she was not noticeably supportive of other women - during her 11 years in power Margaret Thatcher only appointed one other woman to the Cabinet (Baroness Young).  That aside, it must have been tough and unpleasant being jeered at – to survive she had to be resilient and to develop an unswerving sense of her own self-worth to counter balance the taunts.  Being able to remain resolute, with conviction, in challenging circumstances is a prerequisite for most leaders.

Standing firm in times of adversity
Margaret Thatcher was a swift learner - although only in Heath’s cabinet for three and a half years she observed some significant events that influenced her actions as a leader: namely Heath’s highly confrontational manner and refusal to listen to others that resulted in his downfall; the potential damage of U-turns; and the impact of strikes (based on her exposure to the 1973-74 Miners’ strike).  Thatcher was intelligent and capable of applying on-going learnings to achieve her aims.  Rather than being directly confrontational with her Cabinet, she devised approaches to ensure that she could get things done.   She introduced a system that helped her to have policies adopted, despite the reservations of her Cabinet members.  She established committees populated by sympathetic back benchers and external experts who shared her views.  These committees devised and put forward policies which she then asked The Cabinet to approve.  Simple ratification is easier to achieve than having to argue each point along the way.  She was an excellent orator and good at winning audiences over to her way of thinking.  Despite not being popular within the centre of the party (she had been voted into the leadership initially more because of a desire to oust Heath than due to support specifically for her and her policies), she was highly effective at building a significant following within the Party roots.  Her attitude towards U-turns is now legendary, as is the war she waged against the Miners (few people mention that Thatcher closed 154 mines between 1979 and 1990 - less than Wilson, who closed 211 in the five years from 1965 - 1970).  Although her policy of shutting down unproductive industries was painful, and has in part led to the high unemployment we suffer today, it is clear from her actions that she was a keen observer, a swift learner and apply to use knowledge to frame her actions.  Notable leaders are able to learn and use understanding, gained from events they experience, to inform and help them to achieve goals.

Anti pit closure badge - Goldthorpe 1984/5
Like many leaders who start enjoying a streak of successes and the resultant adulation, Thatcher didn’t always seem to consider broader repercussions before forcing through what seemed to her to be desirable change.  Her policy of selling council houses was motivated by a desire to reward effort and industry and to enable individual free choice, but there was no plan nor apparent interest in building affordable housing to replace the buildings that were sold.  Similarly, having defeated the minors, little was done to revive and develop industries in the impacted areas - this resulted in huge damage to communities and even now the legacy of poverty and unemployment cannot be shifted from certain formerly industrial towns and regions.  I started my post legal career in The City, shortly after the 1986 Big Bang reforms, because there were opportunities for people prepared to work hard.  Deregulating Financial Services and thereby propelling London into a globally dominant role within the financial markets, resulted in a surge of talent and capital coming into the City.  Being a grocer’s daughter, one should not be surprised that Thatcher was influenced by consumerism and interested in the markets.  She professed to wanting to enable to transform lives and futures, by giving people ownership and individual control.  Yet again, the repercussions were not thought through and many of the shameful and scandalous occurrences, involving banks and bankers, that have dominated the media since 2007, can be traced back to the risks of deregulation and greed.  Once in power it is tempting to forge ahead, to try to get things done - but to do so without thinking things through can be very damaging and cause dreadful repercussions.    

Thinking things through
It would be easy to write pages on the lessons (both good and bad) that we can learn from Mrs Thatcher.  She possessed enviable energy, didn’t suffer self-doubt, was tenacious to a flaw and proud to fight for what she believed in.  She was not always right, nor was she always wrong.  We all need to remember that she, like us, was a human.  Certainly an extraordinary woman with the ability to lead and inspire others, but also to invoke intense hatred and distrust.  Whether you adore or detest her, it cannot be denied that she has left a lasting legacy as a leader that will be contemplated long after most of us have been forgotten.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Transcending Trouble

It may not feel like spring, but the year is on the turn - delicate crocuses have thrust their way through the iron-hard soil in my garden and the blackbirds have commenced building a nest in the ivy on the back wall.  Even without the external indicators, it is impossible not to think of renewal and growth - since last weekend I have been surrounded by eggs and images of chicks and ducklings.  To escape the traditional Easter chocolates, we had some eggs with small cardboard figurines inside, which grew crystalline “fur” and “feathers” once a solution was drawn up through the paper by capillary action and then evaporated.  

Outside, the roses are beginning to awake, small scarlet leaves sprouting from what only a couple of weeks ago looked like dead twigs (more capillary action as they begin drawing nutrients from the soil up through their stems).  Given the burgeoning new-life surrounding me, I would not have be overly surprised if a Phoenix had flown across the the garden on its pilgrimage to Heliopolis.  As it was, I had to make do with a sparrow-hawk, that settled on a branch near the bird-feeders, much to the concern of the blue tits.  An extraordinary sight in central London.

However, despite the signs that spring is finally on its way, the seemingly never-ending snow and cold is wearing.  Just like the grinding impact of the current economic environment within the UK - the austerity measures that have been introduced are impacting on all and some will feel it even more keenly as from today when major changes to the UK benefits and tax system are introduced ( ).  We need to be resilient - both in and outside work.  No wonder I have been thinking of the Phoenix - the mythical bird that rises from ashes to thrive.  It is perhaps the archetypal symbol of resilience.  Interestingly, like many resurrection legends, the myth of a bird that is reborn after cremation is a global phenomenon - although the story and the attributes of the bird itself vary slightly from continent to continent.   

Phoenix depicted in 12th century Aberdeen Bestiary
The Phoenix is universally depicted as a solitary and wonderful bird.  In Western Europe we usually think of the Phoenix as described by Ovid:

"Most beings spring from other individuals; but there is a certain kind which reproduces itself.  The Assyrians call it the Phoenix.  It does not live on fruit or flowers, but on frankincense and odiferous gums.  When it has lived five hundred years, it builds itself a nest in the branches of an oak, or on the top of a palm tree.  In this it collects cinnamon, and spikenard, and myrrh, and of these materials builds a pile on which it deposits itself, and dying, breathes out its last breath amidst odours.  From the body of the parent bird, a young Phoenix issues forth, destined to live as long as its predecessor.  When this has grown up and gained sufficient strength, it lifts its nest from the tree (its own cradle and its parent's sepulchre), and carries it to the city of Heliopolis in Egypt, and deposits it in the temple of the Sun."
Belgian €10 coin to commemorate 60 years of peace in Europe

and Tacitus adds to this:
"The first care of the young bird as soon as fledged, and able to trust to his wings, is to perform the obsequies of his father. But this duty is not undertaken rashly. He collects a quantity of myrrh, and to try his strength makes frequent excursions with a load on his back. When he has gained sufficient confidence in his own vigour, he takes up the body of his father and flies with it to the altar of the Sun, where he leaves it to be consumed in flames of fragrance."
Ancient Egyptians revered a Phoenix-like bird called the Benu, whose name means "to rise".  In appearance it resembled a heron or stork with long legs and it was associated with the Sun god.  There is speculation that the myth of the bird rising from ashes originated from people observing flamingoes in East Africa - they live on salt flats, where the searing heat is too severe for eggs to survive if laid on the ground.  The birds build high mounds on which to raise their offspring.  Although the knoll-top is marginally cooler than the parched surface below, the shimmer of heat around the hillocks can resemble smoke and give the semblance of fire.  Flamingoes are part of the family Phoenicopteridae, from the generic name Phoenicopterus or "phoenix winged".

In Chinese mythology the Phoenix, called the Feng-huang or Fung, which translates as the "vermillion bird" or the "substance of flame", was the symbol of the Empress (usually when depicted in conjunction with the Emperor's dragon). It is formed of various elements and is highly symbolic - its pheasant's head with a cock's comb symbolises the sun, its back (supposedly that of a swallow) represents the moon, its wings are the wind, its tail the flowers and trees and its feet the earth.  In addition it is used to represent the five virtues - its comb is for righteousness, its tongue utters sincerity and, according to ancient Chinese ritual, 
"its voice chants melody, its ear enjoys music, its heart conforms to regulations, its breast contains the treasures of literature, and its spurs are powerful against transgressors" 
Chinese embroidery of a Phoenix, c1860
It is not just in oriental mythology that the Phoenix is used to symbolise ideals.  In the West the Phoenix has been used both as a image for renewal and immortality and also to depict the “exceptional man”.  For much of the past month I have been researching one such person, Sir Ernest Shackleton.  I will be presenting him as a case study on leadership at an executive development programme at the end of this month.  

One of the things that made Shackleton an exceptional leader was his ability to adapt and change his plans when the situation demanded it.  His initial mission was to walk across Antarctica but, once it was clear that that goal was impossible, he embraced the new challenge of getting his 27 companions safely back to civilisation.  He focused entirely on the new objective, even ordering his men to abandon scientific equipment (such as microscopes and tools for collecting specimens) that was heavy and cumbersome to transport.  He involved his men in decision making, kept the potential trouble makers close to him (even sharing the same tent) and was creative in devising solutions to obstacles.  I believe that part of the reason for his success was that he demonstrated almost indefatigable focus and energy to achieve his goal.  His commitment and his mens’ trust in his intention and efforts to get them home safely must have inspired the weaker men to keep going.  According to witnesses at the time he never expressed any doubt - it is only later, on reading his personal diary, that it is clear that he had some concerns.  On the destruction of his ship, the Endurance, by pack ice, he commented to the men
"Ship and stores have gone - so now we'll go home."
but in his diary he wrote, 
" a man must shape himself to a new mark directly the old one goes to ground, I pray God, I can manage to get the whole party to civilisation."
Like Tacitus' Phoenix, Shackleton applied himself to the task ahead.  He overcame daunting obstacles and distances, to achieve his objectives and care for his men.  He epitomises the Japanese Phoenix, a symbol of fortitude, rectitude and fidelity. 

Phoenix, Image from Imari Porcelain ware
Photo courtesy Nihon Toji Taikei magazine, Vol. 19 (Imari Ware)

So, as you admire the scarlet leaves of the roses, challenging the cold and commencing regrowth for this year, contemplate their flame-coloured sprouts and be inspired by Shackleton and the Phoenix...

(but don't symbolically give them wood ash to encourage them.  Roses prefer acidic soil and hence are more likely to appreciate coffee grounds to perk them up.) 

young rose leaves

Embroidered silk panel with Phoenix