The Iron Lady: Life and Leadership

by Lyn Boyer —

When Denis Thatcher asked Margaret Roberts to marry him, she made it very clear that she was a very different woman than most. She would not live her life through him, she would not focus on running their house, and she would not stay home with the children. “I will not die washing a teacup,” she said. She insisted that she would make a difference in the world. And, make a difference she did.

Meryl Street as Margaret ThatcherYesterday afternoon, my husband and I viewed “The Iron Lady” in a small, packed theater in Sarasota. Before I saw the movie, I was familiar with Margaret Thatcher’s role as Prime Minister of Great Britain in the 1980’s. I knew very little about Margaret Thatcher the woman. I also knew that I would have made some very different decisions than she did, but I wanted to learn more about her as a leader. I wondered if her position as the Iron Lady is a model for women leaders today. I found a few possible answers but many more questions that I think are applicable.

Her story was told from late in life as she descended into dementia and related hallucinations. Flashbacks show very compelling images of her as one of the most powerful women in history.

Like Ronald Reagan, her conservative counterpart from across the pond, she was a masterful communicator, but that ability to connect was not always the case. One early critic compared her voice to a cat sliding down a blackboard. In the film, Mrs. Thatcher learned how to dress, how to wear her hair, and how to speak in her powerful and compelling manner after jeering men from across the aisle in parliament referred to her voice as screeching.

As with many women in other settings, breaking into the established men’s club was a significant challenge. When she arrived in Parliament, she found an ironing board in the otherwise empty ladies’ room after she mistakenly walked into the very busy and convivial men’s room, and she was met with jeers and smirks during her early speeches in the House of Commons. Margaret Thatcher insisted that she wanted to make a difference. She wanted to move the country in a different direction. Colleagues told her, “If you want to change the party, you have to lead. If you want to change the country, you have to lead. You have it in you.” She ultimately decided she would stand for Leader of the Conservative Party. When her party won a majority of seats, she became Prime Minister.

Extraordinary passion seemed to be her defining characteristic. She fought to change education—some would say for the worse. She held firm on her seemingly solitary position to go to war in the Falkland Islands. She stood against the labor unions, which she said were making the country weaker. She stood up to Soviet leaders and shared credit for breaking up the former Soviet Union. She frequently came under intense criticism from journalists, opposition party members and British citizens. Angry crowds mobbed her limousine. When an Irish Republican Army (IRA) member planted a bomb that exploded at her hotel in Brighton in 1984, she came closer to assassination than any 20thCentury British Prime Minister. However, she held her ground. Mrs. Thatcher showed tremendous passion, but she made it clear that for her, thinking was more important than emotions. When her doctor examined her, she quoted: “Watch your thoughts, for they become actions. Watch your actions, for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become character. Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”

At the same time, she lamented the contemporary focus on feeling and emotion: “It used to be about doing something. Now it is about being someone,” she said.

An underlying theme of this film was the conflict between work and family. Margaret Thatcher stated early on that home and family would not be her priorities, and that position appeared to have taken a toll. In one conversation with Denis, her deceased husband, she mentioned a time that he had gone to South Africa. He asked her how long it took her to realize he was gone. In a telephone conversation with her son, who lived in South Africa, it appeared that he was telling her he would not take time to see her when he was in London. In my opinion, Meryl Streep played this part brilliantly. Apparently, the Golden Globe judges agreed. She won the award for best actor. I was also interested to see that the NBC evening news last night featured a short segment on the controversy the movie has generated in England because of its focus on Mrs. Thatcher’s mental deterioration after she left her very public life. When Meryl Streep was interviewed about the controversy, she said she saw the movie as a story about what this kind of power and responsibility does to you as a human being. Whatever one’s opinion of Margaret Thatcher, it is useful to look at her life and her leadership style and learn from them—if only to decide that one does not want to lead or live the same way.

As I mentioned previously, viewing the film introduced as many questions as answers. In the film, Mrs. Thatcher said, “Many have underestimated me… at their own peril.” I wondered what make her so tough. Did she think she had to be tougher because she was a woman? What does a woman need to be and do today? What are the barriers that women continue to experience today?

What toll did leadership and responsibility actually take on her? How did she experience the conflict between family and work? How do these conflicts affect women today? How do women deal with these conflicts? I would enjoy reading your thoughts and opinions. Lyn Boyer is an author, speaker and leadership coach. Her focus is Affective Leadership™ — expanding possibilities though effective use of mind, body, emotion and language. Her most recent book is Connect: Affective Leadership for Effective Results. Her website is In a previous life Lyn was a school and district administrator. That includes high school principal of a 2400-student school and coordinator of planning and school leadership in a district of 42, 000 students. She also taught Educational Leadership at the University of South Florida, Sarasota-Manatee. She lives on the beautiful west coast of Florida with her husband and two rescue dogs, Sam and Alex.

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