Margaret Thatcher didn’t know when to quit

The Iron Lady

Knowing when to quit is the most difficult thing for a leader

When she came to power Margaret Thatcher was the only person who had the strength, and the mandate, to deal with the crises that the United Kingdom had come to face. Industrial unrest had brought the economy to its knees, public spending was out of control, inflation was crushing any chance of recovery and it needed an iron will, and an “Iron Lady”, to exert the changes needed. I recall her being asked, on the doorstep of Number 10 Downing Street, a few hours after the election, who was going to be in her cabinet. She replied “I know where I am going and I know who is going with me.” And she did; she had a very clear agenda, she knew where she was going, what needed to be done.

The events that led her demise as Prime Minister and Leader of the Conservative Party were rife with intrigue, backroom deals and inventive use of parliamentary processes and procedures. To the world at large it was the normal journey of political life running its course. For those that cared to peel back the layers they found barely shielded schisms rife with animus, long standing rivalries acted out with a veneer of civility, grudges turning into retribution, scores being settled, alliances being forged and fractured and all the seedy, distasteful, nastiness we call politics.

But what is often missed in all the analysis and speculation is that it was simply time for her to go.

She had gone from culture shifting visionary implementing programs that affected the entire society to bickering with her European counterparts over whose head should be on the currency. She had shown herself to be an indomitable stateswoman and fought and won a war half way across the world and now she was trying to scrimp and scrape with massively unpopular taxes.

All her big ideas were implemented: she was done. It was time for her to go. But to her shame she stayed and dragged her once loyal colleagues through the angst of a very public and very messy leadership competition. She sullied the reputation of the party and of those around her.

Knowing when it is time to leave a position of power is not easy. We tend to always look for reasons to stay in our position of authority not for reasons to be done. But we need to read the signs. And the signs are, Jim:

  • Internal strife in the organization
  • Massive public criticism and questioning and distrust, even if it is unjustified
  • Spending more time with attorneys that with business advisors
  • Issuing more public statements than usual
  • Having to retract statements and revisit decisions
  • More time spent on procedural matters than on doing the job
  • Schisms and cadres forming
  • People openly talking about legal challenges
  • People openly talking about constitutional challenges
  • Dramatic and public resignations of once trusted advisors
  • Dramatic and public resignations of once trusted employees
  • Having to justify every decision in public
  • More time in secret meetings than in public ones
  • Your term of office is remembered for the crises it endured

But the number one reason you know it is time to go:

  • You have no passion for anything other than getting through the current crisis

Thanks for your service.

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