"Polarizing": that was the one word that really stood out in all the news reports and editorials about Margaret Thatcher's death. More than two decades after having been pushed out of office and so many years after fading from the spotlight, she still only had fans or foes. She was loved or hated -- and there was no middle ground.
Thatcher was determined, driven, uncompromising, single-minded, outspoken, stubborn, intolerant, sharp, quick and unquestionably capable of evoking only intense emotions among her friends and enemies. And that's exactly why she was one of the greatest leaders of the past century, regardless of how much we may disagree with her decisions and her values.
In an interview about the controversial legacy of his good British friend, Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney suggested that if a leader left office on a wave of popularity, he or she probably didn't accomplish very much. I think Mr. Mulroney's assertion was bang-on. Great leaders are great simply because they make a real difference. They drive change. They're guided so sharply by their own vision, their passion and often their stubbornness. They may not always be right and they may even be terrible consensus-builders (Madam Thatcher proudly admitted that about herself!) but they're incredibly good at finding ways to push stuff through. What truly sets them apart is that they're never afraid to confront. Thatcher was never afraid. Jack Welch, Winston Churchill, Steve Jobs and Pierre Trudeau all shared that exact same attribute -- they had absolutely no fear of confrontation. They all prodded and angered and disrupted -- and that's exactly why and how they were able to create so much change in our world. That's why we think of them as great leaders, even if we don't agree with everything they did.
We don't celebrate great technocrats, great appeasers, great conformists or great people-coddlers because, when you think about it, they don't really change our world. They're absolutely essential and they're good at keeping the lights on for us. We've all worked with these nice unremarkable types and we've loved and respected them but they never made our blood boil.
It was Thatcher and Welch and Churchill and Jobs and Trudeau who made us feel alive -- because they didn't just keep the lights on for us; they actually turned them on, or off, they installed them, they changed them and they showed (or told) us how to use them properly! They made us question things, they made us proud and anxious and angry. And, whether we admit it or not, they actually inspired us.
Maggie Thatcher's political legacy was controversial, but her leadership legacy was exceptional.