Margaret Thatcher and the Power of Asking

Margaret Thatcher, whose passing is not just in the news but almost all the news today, famously said: “in politics if you want anything said ask a man. If you want anything done ask a woman.” The occasion was a speech to National Union of Townswomen’s Guilds Conference, in 1965. The remark was almost prescient: for the next twenty five years, Thatcher would make a career of doing things in politics.

While she was a gifted speaker, she often expressed impatience with the speechifying politicians who served with her: “she developed abrasiveness into an art form. She despised, above all, consensus,” wrote Hugo Young in The Guardian a day after her resignation as Prime Minister, in 1990. Eventually, of course, that inability to compromise would be her undoing: “Just as her triumphs were often rooted in her zest for combat, her refusal to listen to advice and her unwillingness to admit that she could be wrong, so were these the sources of her last predicament.”

Young applies the word “hubris”:

she saw too little value in the art of compromise. Leadership, for her, was equated too often with the satisfaction of her will. How often, when challenged with being overmighty, did she deride the notion of a leader who gave precedence to other virtues than strength. She was a conviction politician, but too often scorned the reasoned statement of different convictions, sometimes by her closest colleagues. Argument she relished, as long as she won, but persuasion she neglected. Give-and-take and the other techniques of sweet reason were alien to her nature. This made for abrasive and often decisive government, but it was fatally disabling for any kind of collective leadership.

Sometimes the exercise of soft power is the hardest thing of all, especially for an Iron Lady. Thatcher knew how to do what she thought politics or history required of her, and rarely yielded to others. Maybe, as Young would have it, this was some kind of tragic flaw. In any case, in the coming days we can expect more talk about her virtues as a leader; but let’s also pay attention to Thatcher’s shortcomings, her failure to appreciate the power of “give-and-take.” I would say that kind of power — the power we achieve, and share, when we ask, listen and yield to others — matters as much, if not more, than the power to command.

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