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How important is it to be popular?

I once sat down on one of London’s landmark big bridges. Right on the road, I mean. During rush hour.

I was sitting with my fellow students from university to protest the stand of the government of the United Kingdom, and in particular that of its leader at the time, one Margaret Thatcher, on the issue of apartheid in South Africa.

As I write this, Baroness Thatcher is being laid to rest in a state funeral. She remains, in death as in life, a figure of controversy. It is almost not possible to have a balanced opinion on the ‘Iron Lady:’ you are either her devotee or her sworn enemy.

This lady caused more division of opinion than I have seen from any other leader I have studied. In my student days, my fellows and I were against anything she said or did: her assaults on the state and the poor; her unyielding belief in capitalism of the crudest type; her lamentable dismissal of African freedom fighters and support for brutal dictators.

Her fans are just as strident in pointing out that this leader rescued her nation from the throes of a failed socialism, and gave her people belief and purpose again. With the benefit of more years of experience today, I can see the truth in much of this.

Yet the people of Britain remain divided to the core on what Margaret Thatcher’s true legacy is. The vitriol emerging on social media and the streets after her death is truly shocking; a hate-filled song is even being promoted to record her passing.

I come here this Sunday neither to damn the late leader nor to praise her. I wish simply to comment on her leadership qualities. Even her most bitter enemies would agree that this was a lady of unique courage and determination, and a formidable adversary.

Where did this determination come from? If there was one thing I appreciated in Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, and do so even more strongly now, it is this: she did not care about being popular.

Think that over. Most of politics is about getting votes, and most politicians bend over backwards to propose things that they gauge will be popular. Margaret Thatcher, from the get-go, was just not like that. She didn’t care if you liked her. She gave not a damn if you thought she was right. She knew she was right, and she was bloody well going to show you and convince you.

This is a forgotten attribute of leadership. These days, PR advisors and market research firms run politics via focus groups and policy testing. We are approaching the dumbest level of democracy, where things are done simply because most people want them to be done.

The lady herself was unpopular as a minister and even more so as a premier, as her strident cost-cuttings and bold privatizations ignited massive opprobrium. She faced riots and protests throughout her early days, as well as the distaste of the aristocracy and the disdain of the intellectual class.

But the lady, as she declared proudly, was “not for turning.” She plunged on regardless, and won two more terms, having convinced an initially reluctant electorate that she was doing the right thing.

This is something to think about in leadership. Too many leaders are way too concerned about being popular, or even about being liked. Too often, the need for applause prevents us from doing our best work in life, for we keep looking over our shoulders for approval from a crowd that knows little about what is needed.

Absolute conviction can be a terrible thing when the convictions are unsound and dangerous. Margaret Thatcher had many of those. But a weak-kneed need for popular applause is as much a danger in leadership, for it generates only timidity, populism and banality.

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