The Real World

May 2013 The Psychologist, 26 (5), 321.

We are late writing this month's column. We were going to write on... but no matter.  It is the day after the deadline. Thatcher is dead. Everything else pales by comparison. For, whatever you think of her, who and what else has had such an impact on the real world in which we live today? Indeed the very reason why there are such strong and polarised reactions to Thatcher's death is because all agree that she was so effective.

Not her alone, of course, but the social forces she mobilised and shaped and used to reshape our society (even if she claimed that there is no such thing). 

I (Reicher) recall watching the film Gallipoli in early 1982 and marvelling at the scenes of troopships carrying troops to their doom while ecstatic crowds waved Union Jacks. How could people be so wildly enthusiastic about the prospect of slaughter? It seemed an anachronism, a portrayal of world that no longer existed. But a few weeks later I saw identical scenes on the television news as the Queen Elizabeth and other ships set sail from Southampton for the Falklands.

It wasn't so much that Thatcher spoke for the nation as she assembled the task force. It was more that she created a sense of nationhood from which she could then speak. Thatcher made the Falklands an emblem of Britishness (having downgraded their citizenship status in the previous year's Nationality Act). She transformed their cause into our cause, the yardstick against which our status and moral worth would be measured. By nationalising the issue she engaged a national congregation and created nationalist passions — which she subsequently redirected from the Argentinian enemy without to the enemy within during the 1984-5 miners strike.

In her days of pomp, Thatcher well understood that her power came from her ability to define a sense of us and to represent that sense of us. It was a function of the relationship that this forged between her and the people.  But over time, her very success led that sense to atrophy.  On the day of Thatcher's death, April 8th, Geoffrey Howe commented in the Evening Standard on: "the recklessness with which, towards the end, she sought to impose upon others the sovereignty of her own opinions".

Here, he captures precisely what we have called 'the leader trap'. This refers to the process whereby leaders whose success comes from harnessing the power of their group gradually become seduced into thinking that their achievements derive from themselves alone. They stop attending to their constituency, and thereby lose their connection — and hence their capacity to influence — those who are the source of their power. 

In Thatcher’s case this meant that the housewife gave way to hubris. She forgot that sovereignty comes through people and that you can only rule over people for so long. 

But in politics and elsewhere, she is far from the only leader to fall by forgetting this cardinal rule of leadership.  It just that in her case the fall, when it came, was from an exceptional height.