Learning from The Iron Lady

Times of crisis almost always create memories we look back on as defining moments in leadership. They send us on a trajectory, either good or bad, towards some destination. Many of us realize our “life purpose” through this kind of an experience.

I’ve always loved this quote by Winston Churchill:  “There comes a special moment in everyone’s life, a moment for which that person was born. That special opportunity, when he seizes it, will fulfill his mission—a mission for which he is uniquely qualified. In that moment he finds greatness. It is his finest hour.”  Based on my experience, Churchill was exactly right, and today I’d like to explore the concept of leading through adversity by looking at the story of another British leader: Margaret Thatcher.

On April 2, 1982, Margaret Thatcher faced a crisis when Argentinean forces invaded the British-administered Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic Ocean. Britons were outraged to have their territorial sovereignty violated. However, others questioned the wisdom of going to war over tiny islands located halfway around the world.

Thatcher’s own party was divided as to whether the UK should send forces to reclaim the Falklands. To further complicate matters, military experts disagreed on the viability of conducting a coordinated attack 8,000 miles from London. Even those optimistic of British victory knew conflict would be a risky venture. Additionally, some in the press questioned whether a female leader would have the fortitude to commence military operations. “Does she have the stomach for it?” asked one newspaper headline.

Committed to protecting the residents of the Falklands and resisting Argentina’s aggressive takeover, Thatcher quickly ordered her military commanders to win back the islands. The next months were excruciating for Thatcher as she received updates on naval engagements in the South Atlantic. When Argentinean airplanes sank the HMS Sheffield, she had to deliver the news of the sailors’ deaths to British public. Emotionally she was devastated, and later she recalled the difficulty of maintaining her composure when speaking to the nation on television. The whole ordeal was traumatic for her, with the war’s outcome hanging in the balance for several weeks.

Finally, after 74 days, the British liberated the Falklands, and Thatcher celebrated the end of a successful military campaign. Her popularity soared following the conflict as she earned praise for her unwavering conviction and firm leadership. Indeed, the war marked a turning point in her political career, propelling her to reelection.

What can be learned from the way Margaret Thatcher handled the Falkland Islands crisis?

1) When going through crisis maintain a united front on your leadership team.

Margaret Thatcher did not allow internal dissension within her party’s ranks to persist. As soon as the decision had been made to go to war, she made certain that everyone within the Conservative Party publicly backed it. In this way, she inspired a sense of unity in support of the war effort.

2) When faced with difficult choices during a crisis, consult your conscience and  values. Then act decisively.

Inundated with advice from all sides, Thatcher easily could have become paralyzed. Instead, she took a stand on principle and guided Britain steadfastly in accordance with her sense of right and wrong.

3) Respect is most often gained on difficult ground.

No leader relishes crisis. However, Margaret Thatcher found out that hard times can actually be an opportunity for leaders to prove their merit. The war allowed Thatcher to demonstrate her character and competence, and she gained influence as a result.

How have times of crisis shaped your leadership? What advice would you give to others who may be presently facing a critical moment in their leadership? I encourage you to join in the conversation by sharing your comments and questions about handling crisis.

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