As a leadership trainer, I am always interested in current thinking on how to be an effective leader.  The age old conundrum of “are leaders  born or  made” confounds me daily.  With the resignation of Sir Alex Ferguson and the recent death of Margaret Thatcher, I am utterly spellbound by the success of our most high profile leaders.Capturing the essence of an effective leader

I wonder what it is and how  I can capture the essence of an effective leader?  Is it the way they think or the way they are?  Whilst preparing for the day I was listening to Radio 4 and heard a Sir Alex fan say that he would have been successful in any business.  Is this actually true?  Could he have been effective at rallying the troops to sell photocopiers or office stationery?  If he worked in the Healthcare sector, could he engage a clinician to act with a blast from his famous ‘hairdryer’?  I am not so sure.  I do think that leadership style needs to be flexed, and cultural fit is often everything in organisations, but both Sir Alex and Margaret Thatcher were possibly culturally right but certainly offered little or no flex in their style.

Sir Alex Ferguson

For Sir Alex we know that his autocratic style of management shouldn’t work, we tell our delegates that this style is so old fashioned.  If we tell our followers what to do they won’t think for themselves, we coach managers to coach, to lead situationally (reference Hershey and Blanchard, Situational Leadership.)  If our people are skilled and competent, hands off, leave them to it. Eric Berne, psychiatrist and now adopted by the Leadership Development world as a leading thinker on effective communication, in his book “Games people play,” proposed that we must empower the individual to behave in an adult manor.  He said that if you treat people like children, you will only get childish behaviour (sometimes even malicious childish behaviour). If you engage your people, create a vision and listen to them to help you realise that vision, you will lead your team to great victory.  “Empower your people” we say in our Leadership Development Programmes, “understand them, meet their needs and they will walk over hot coals for you.”  On paper, Alex Ferguson’s leadership style should not work, yet it did, and successfully for 26 years.

He has an army of ex-players all attesting to his greatness. David Beckham is, to this day, appreciative of Sir Alex, despite having a boot kicked at his head following a defeat to Arsenal in 2003.  In media coverage after the event Sir Alex remained steadfast in his refusal to apologise even though this fracas left David requiring medical treatment. Sir Alex’s view that David should not have discussed the issue in the press because disagreements raised in the dressing rooms are sacrosanct was his overriding belief and drove his behaviour that saw David exit the club soon after.  Yet David remains a loyal supporter saying that this kind of treatment made him successful as a player beyond Manchester United. Despite or even because of this SAF’s style truly worked and his legacy is that he successfully delivered a team to be admired the world over which is indeed remarkable. Ferguson led the club to an astonishing twelve league titles and two Champions Leagues.

Baroness Margaret Thatcher

Similarly Margaret Thatcher was unwavering; her ability to be totally uncompromising in her approach gained her great respect on the world stage, informing a very powerful Mikhail Gorbachev, on his visit to Britain, that she hated communism before proceeding to create a relationship that broke down walls and boundaries like no other.  Yet in the same breath she was unfaltering in her view and often followed a course of action, just because she felt it was the right thing to do regardless of others’ view to the contrary. This was evident no more so than in her 1980 speech at the Conservative party conference when, in response to calls for the liberalisation of the economy because of rising unemployment she said, ‘To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the ‘U-turn’, I have only one thing to say: ‘You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.’ Her style was not conciliatory in anyway, autocracy was the leadership style she favoured. Her style exerted power over her followers and she had no time for deliberations of others ideas.  Margaret Thatcher’s style of leadership should not have achieved results.  We are led to believe that an autocratic leadership style is useful for leading unskilled workers who do work that is largely unskilled, but she wasn’t leading unskilled workers, she was leading a nation and had, in her ranks, some of the countries most educated people, Geoffrey Howe was educated at Trinity College Cambridge and read law before coming a QC.  In the 15 years he worked alongside and for her, he remained loyal.

Geoffrey Howe’s resignation speech was largely blamed for Margaret’s downfall, yet following her death he remained devoted and supported his former leader fervently.  In an article in the East Grinstead Courier Lord Howe said Baroness Thatcher’s sudden death had come as a shock to him, and was a great loss. He praised her as “remarkable”, saying her legacy will be hard to beat and added: “Margaret Thatcher was indeed a great Prime Minster.   His unwavering confidence in her abilities and the ability to drive through change without others’ consent was both her success and downfall, yet it took a good many years for that downfall to happen, she was more successful than not successful and whatever our individual political beliefs, her leadership capability is in no doubt.

Replicating success – leadership styles

So what is it, what do we need to do to create a leader that can replicate the success of MT and SAF?  Or do we even want that?   Can we break it into its component parts and tell our future leaders that this is the way to go, a sure fire way of absolute success?  Tony Blair was seen retrospectively as weak because, although he tried to emulate aspect of Margaret Thatcher’s style of leadership, in that he tried to be unfaltering and uncompromising, but it’s my guess that it just wasn’t him.  Left to his own devices I have visions of him sat around a peace pipe nodding his head and being totally swayed by whoever spoke last. My view of Mr Blair’s natural leadership style is more conciliatory, a charming man that had some great successes in his term in office, although history has largely vilified him now. I favour the conciliatory style of leadership as it is more akin to my own, I prefer harmony and building relationships above the task and I simply cannot align the leadership style of Sir Alex or Margaret Thatcher with my own. So perhaps this is the heart of the issue?  I could be directive, I could be unfaltering in my view and not hear the view of others, but that just isn’t me.  Margaret Thatcher and Sir Alex Ferguson both had a style of Leadership that worked for them, it did engage their people, and it did create a legacy for them to be proud of. They were authentic and true to who they were, the autocracy coupled unfailing charisma for both allowed them to lead the way in their fields.

The need for confidence and inner conviction

MT is famously quoted as saying:

“Watch your thoughts for they become words. ‘Watch your words for they become actions. Watch your actions for they become habits. Watch your habits for they become your character. And watch your character for it becomes your destiny. What we think, we become.’

Profound indeed, and what strikes me about what I can learn from this statement is that perhaps I have been the one holding me back! MT had a confidence in her own capabilities like no other and often this is a rare quality.  I have spent time over the years thinking that maybe someone knows more than me, is able to input more effectively than me and do you know what perhaps I was wrong, perhaps I can bring something to the table just as valuable as any other leader, or maybe they are feeling just like me? If that’s the case and if we are all nursing our own insecurities what opportunities are we missing? All my own doubts and worries over failure might have driven the choices I have made in my life and I now realise it’s my thoughts that drive some of my good and bad decisions in my life and perhaps I can learn something from MT and SAF.   I cannot be as forthright as these leaders, it just isn’t me, but inner conviction and staunch resolution to get where I need to be is my real takeaway from this. My question to you is, if what you think you become, how does this shape you and how you are today?

Debs Barker

Note: There are many models of leadership to follow and there are many, many sites to reference.  I cannot list them all, however this site will offer you a simple overview of the styles talked about in this article.  Go to

Thanks to the Estate of Graham Kingsley Brown for use of the copyrighted image.