Margaret Thatcher and leading by autobiography

Margaret Thatcher and leading by autobiography

My last post closed with the observation that Margaret Thatcher is the best example I have ever found of one of the core concepts of my leadership teaching and coaching: leading by autobiography.

So, what exactly do I mean by this term? In essence, leading by autobiography involves learning use the most powerful communication device known to man: personal storytelling. Winning leaders explain their values and beliefs, they reveal who they are, by telling their own personal stories of identity. And, they engage others with their stories of a collective and meaningful future.

In general, those who lead by autobiography seem to share four fundamental attributes.

1. Self-knowledge: These transformational leaders develop clear ideas of who they are, what they believe, and what they stand for. It is only from this firm base of self-knowledge that they can effectively lead others.

2. Ongoing self-discovery: Their sense of self is so clear because they are exceedingly good at processing the lessons of their own life experiences.  Learning is a constant, ongoing, and lifelong process.

3. A longing for self-expression: More than a desire to lead per se, they develop the yearning to express themselves, to speak from the heart about matters of deep importance to them.  It is through this authentic self-expression that they touch the hearts and minds of others.

4. An ability to use their personal stories of identity to move their followers to action: Not only do the most effective leaders speak from the heart, they live their stories in ways that make them credible and inspirational to others.

A story of returning to traditional British values:

Mrs.Thatcher used her personal stories of identity frequently and dramatically during her election campaigns. Her stories spoke clearly of who she is, where she comes from, and what her formative years taught her.  As the daughter of middle-class shopkeepers from a small and traditional English town, Thatcher’s vision was that her own story and values could become a model to help Britain find its way again.  The virtues of self-reliance, initiative, and basic human decency that she had absorbed from her upbringing were just the remedies for what ailed her nation.

Her ability to use her autobiographical tales to influence the electorate was particularly evident the first time she ran for prime minister, in 1979. At that time, the dominant view inside Britain was that the national interest was best served by a moderate form of socialism, strong trade unions to protect the nation’s jobs and industrial backbone, minimal international involvement, and government intervention to regulate markets. Thatcher’s story was extraordinarily simple and powerful. Britain had lost its way; the soft socialist consensus was wrong.

The story she forged and told so brilliantly was one of a return to individual initiative, to free markets, to a strong and proud Great Britain. Her story was all the more effective because she appeared as a symbol—the grocer’s daughter, the self-made person, the no-nonsense, straightforward, rugged individualist—of the change she proposed for her nation. In the end, her personal story, and her complete embodiment of it, changed the way her fellow citizens perceived their world and their nation.

As such, Margaret Thatcher is the most compelling case study I have ever seen in leading by autobiography. Whatever one’s political views, one cannot help but admire this remarkable woman’s ability to lead by using her personal stories of identity.  In effect, Thatcher transformed a nation by presenting herself as a change agent whose personal values mirrored precisely the principles necessary for putting a “lost” Britain back on course.

Thatcher’s speech upon her 1979 electoral triumph shows that she was entirely conscious of the role her personal stories played. Having convinced the British to vote for a change of direction in government, Thatcher emphasized the connection between her personal story and her story for a new Britain: “The passionately interesting thing to me is that the things I learned in a small town, in a very modest home, are just the things I believe have won the election.”

Britain’s Iron Lady is such a striking example of leading by autobiography because her stories of identity were so clear, and because she embodied them so completely. When the public listened to her, they understood the origin of her values and beliefs, why she did things the way she did, and where her vision for her nation’s future came from.


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