More value of low-level instruction for leadership: Margaret Thatcher

July 19, 2014 by Joshua
in Education, Leadership, Tips

The more I teach and coach leadership, the more value I see in low-level instruction. Possibly because people think of leaders having high-level positions in organizations, I find the expect high-level instruction for leadership. I find beginning with the opposite—low-level instruction—more effective. Like piano lessons begin with scales, dance begins footwork, and many sports begin with basic cardiovascular and strength training.

Sadly, most of what I learned about leadership in school was high-level and abstract, including Columbia Business School’s leadership classes. For someone with little leadership awareness, the classes were invaluable, but looking back, I could have used more basic instruction. Schools seem to leave the low-level stuff for learning on the job, but jobs and managers don’t take a personal interest in you like a teacher or coach can, nor can you expect them to cover what you need personally or comprehensively.

I wrote about this before in “The value of low-level instruction“.

Margaret Thatcher’s low-level training

Whether you like or don’t like her politics, Margaret Thatcher was a historically great leader. The movie The Iron Lady has a great scene showing her receiving low-level instruction in voice and appearance, as well as its effectiveness. The first part of the scene, which includes her political strategist and campaign manager, illustrates the problems with her voice and appearance. By this point, she has had some political success, but doesn’t dream of anything like becoming Prime Minister.

Note how low the level of her instruction, down to what she wears and the tone and pitch of her voice.

GORDON REECE (her political strategist): Well er…For a start, that hat has got to go. And the pearls. In fact I think all hats may have to go. You look and sound like a privileged Conservative wife and we’ve already got her vote. You’ve got lovely hair but we need to do something with it – to make it more-

AIREY NEAVE (her campaign manager): Important.

REECE: Yes. Give it more impact. But the main thing is your voice. Its too high. It has no authority.

AIREY NEAVE: Methinks the Lady doth screech too much.

REECE: People don’t want to be harangued by a woman or hectored. Persuaded yes. That `oh yes’ at the end of the interview, that’s authoritative, that’s the voice of a leader.

MARGARET stares at him.

MARGARET THATCHER: It’s all very well to talk about changing my voice, Mr Reece, but for some of my colleagues to imagine me as their leader would be like imagining, I don’t know, being led into battle by their chambermaid. It’s my background, and my sex. No matter how I’ve tried, and I have tried, to fit in, I will never be truly one of them.

Both REECE and NEAVE are aware that she has spoken very nakedly – and is thus extremely vulnerable.

REECE: If I may say so – I think that’s your trump card. You’re flying in the face of everything the Tories have been thus far. It’s really very exciting. One simply has to maximise your appeal, bring out all your qualities and make you look, and sound, like the leader that you could be.

NEAVE: You’ve got it in you to go the whole distance.

REECE: Absolutely.

MARGARET: Prime Minister?! Oh no. Oh no no no. In Britain? There will be no female Prime Minister here, not in my lifetime. No. And I told Airey, I don’t expect to win the leadership, but I am going to run. Just to shake up the party.

Now the scene shows how deeply this low-level instruction connects to going the whole distance.

NEAVE moves in intently-

NEAVE: Respectfully, Margaret, I disagree. If you want to change this party, lead it. If you want to change the country, lead it. What we’re talking about here today is surface. What’s crucial is that you hold your course, and stay true to who you are. Never be anything other than yourself.

MARGARET, though flattered, looks sceptical.

REECE: Leave us to do the rest.


MARGARET: Gentlemen, I am in your hands. I may be persuaded to surrender the hat. But the pearls were a gift from my husband on the birth of our twins and they are absolutely non-negotiable.

MARGARET smiles at them.

Next we see a professional coach working with her. We see the effectiveness in her husband’s reaction when she succeeds in achieving the change the professional is looking for.

Question: What does the sound of her voice have to do with her ability to lead? What does the sound of your voice, and other properties that might not seem like they should matter, and that few books on leadership cover?

Answer: A lot more than you’d think. Your voice conveys the meaning of every word you say. Whether you like it or not, whether you think it has or should have meaning or not, it does, as do other little details like that. Your appearance, pacing, word choice, and so on mediate the meaning of everything you communicate. If you don’t work at these things, you’re limiting your success.


MARGARET stands humming, a THEATRICAL COACH presses her hand to MARGARET’S stomach.

THEATRICAL VOICE COACH: And…bring it down.

MARGARET hums lower, tries to project her voice.

MARGARET: Maaaaaaaaaaaa.

THEATRICAL VOICE COACH: Good, I think we can loose the handbag, Mrs Thatcher…Hands down the sides…Because this isn’t really about the voice, it’s about belief…A nice deep breath.

REECE and NEAVE are watching and monitoring the performance. DENIS, though present, is having a crafty fag by the window.

THEATRICAL VOICE COACH (CONT’D): If you’re calling Mr Thatcher, how would you do that?

MARGARET looks over at him.

MARGARET (calls to her husband, Denis): Denis.

He doesn’t react.

THEATRICAL VOICE COACH: Yes, I want more authority, I want conviction, I want –

MARGARET (a little more authority): Denis.

THEATRICAL VOICE COACH: That’s right, one more time, deep breath –

She puts on her new, lower voice.


And DENIS reacts immediately, like a guilty thing surprised, stabbing out his cigarette, turning quickly towards her.


That “Yes MT!” illustrates the new command of her voice and tone. Historically, it made a huge difference.

(I wonder what the actor playing the role of the coach must have felt like, acting like he was coaching Meryl Streep in how to speak,)

Historical background

Vanity Fair’s piece on the movie, “The Invincible Mrs. Thatcher,” described the context and effect of this low-level instruction, including the influence of Laurence Olivier

For any leader of the opposition, as Margaret Thatcher was during her first four years as party leader, public recognition is a problem. Not for the first woman leader in British history. You didn’t even have to name her—you just had to say “she” and everyone knew whom you meant. The world was automatically interested. It did not follow, though, that the world was automatically pleased. Many voters, including female voters, were suspicious of a woman politician, and there was much in the original image of Margaret Thatcher that did not appeal. She was widely known as T.B.W.—“That Bloody Woman”—and was criticized for her voice, considered too shrill, and her clothes, considered too fussy and too dowdy. Even her teeth, slightly protuberant and irregular, were unfavorably noted. Defects that in a male politician would not have excited comment were fastened upon.

All of this brought out Margaret Thatcher’s professional, carefully self-critical side. She was always proud of her looks and once defiantly told me, “You don’t have to be aristocratic to have beautiful blue eyes.” But she also judged her appearance by high standards. One day, when we were talking about her courtship with Denis, I made some gallant remark about her looks at that time. “No,” she said firmly, “I was too fat.” When the carping about her appearance began, her reaction to it was extremely practical. Under the guidance of Gordon Reece, a jolly, champagne-drinking former television producer with a knowledge of television sorely lacking in the Tory Party, she set out to change her appearance. The fussy bows gradually disappeared, the teeth were straightened, the hair was made more elegant. Hats, except on the most dramatic and ceremonial occasions, were cast aside. By the time of her middle period in office, she had become an outstandingly elegant “power dresser”: with her high collars, she was lampooned by some as “Gloriana,” a modern version of Queen Elizabeth I.

Traveling on the train from Brighton when the Tories were still in opposition, Reece had bumped into Laurence Olivier, Britain’s greatest actor, and raised with him the problem of Mrs. Thatcher’s voice. Olivier arranged for her to have lessons with the speech coach at the National Theatre, and soon the hectoring tones of the housewife gave way to softer notes and a smoothness that seldom cracked except under extreme provocation on the floor of the House of Commons. Once, in the twice-weekly Prime Minister’s question time, which became the greatest show in the West End, Margaret Thatcher got so angry with her opponent that she relapsed into the Lincolnshire dialect of her youth. “He’s frit,” she shrieked, meaning that he was frightened. But, by and large, she retained the ladylike modulations she had so carefully acquired.

The voice coach, actually a woman named Kate Fleming only revealed after her death, worked with Laurence Olivier, Sir Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen. This article, “Hollywood vocal coach helped Margaret Thatcher lose her ‘shrill tones’,” describes more details, including the problems before coaching and other low-level instruction and its impact, as well as Thatcher’s humility in realizing her limitations without help.

Thatcher turned to Fleming when she was dropped from a party political broadcast in the early 1970s, because her voice was too harsh.

Having not long been appointed to Ted Heath’s cabinet she was keen to address the problem.

Speaking to the Times advertising executive Barry Day, who was there when she was dropped from the broadcast, said ‘We filmed in a a park with some children, but there was clearly a problem with her cutting accent and the fact she looked as if she feared the children would be sick over her dress.

‘Thatcher knew she was not good and made it clear she wanted to learn, unlike other members of that Government.’

As a result of her snub Baroness Thatcher was recommended to go to Fleming by Laurence Olivier, who had turned to her to help lower his voice to play Shakespeare’s Othello.

According to the archive she then went on to have lessons from Fleming for the best part of four years, from 1972 to 1976, and Charles Moore, Thatcher’s official biographer told the Times ‘She realised she had to reduce her annoying shrieking.

‘Her voice was then changed not just for television and for the house, but changed altogether, for all time.’

Although Fleming died shortly after in 1978, just one year before Thatcher became Prime Minister, her work with the Iron Lady helped to turn the politician from a snubbed cabinet member to a confident leader.

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