What was it like to work for Margaret Thatcher? As she is mostly famous for ‘handbagging’ her political opponents, it’s nice to know that Maggie also had a soft side. According to former bodyguard, Det Sgt Barry Strevens, whose story is serialised in The Sun this week, Maggie was a boss who inspired loyalty with small acts of kindness. On one occasion, a member of her protection squad was expecting a rollicking for tramping dog poo over her pristine white carpet at her weekend retreat in the country. Instead, Maggie calmly filled a bucket with soapy water and scrubbed away the mess, saying, “never mind, we’re in the country now”. At Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country residence, Strevens had to spend Christmas away from his own family in a grim outbuilding. But Maggie made sure his room was decorated and left him a flask of hot coffee, a miniature bottle of whisky and a card thanking him for ‘all that you do.’ It was this simple gesture that convinced Strevens he would not hesitate to ‘stand in the way of a bullet’ for Maggie. Although this sounds dramatic, you have to remind yourself that taking ‘a bullet for your boss’ is part of the job description for a bodyguard.
The story reminds me of one told to me by a personal friend who is a quadraplegic. While attending a charity function at 10 Downing Street, he entered the wrong lift and exited to find his path blocked by a small staircase and unable to reenter the lift. Calling for help, my friend was slightly horrified when the first person to respond was none other than Tony Blair. Blair was completely unfazed. Rather than summon flunkeys, he asked how he could help. As my friend did not want to risk causing the Prime Minister to put his back out by lifting a wheelchair, he asked him to press the down button on the lift, which of course Blair happily obliged. This is a true story and for me, shines a light on the real Tony Blair and why he inspires the people around him.
For anyone who aspires to be a great leader, the lesson is that it’s often the small gestures and not the grand ones that inspire genuine ‘bullet-taking’ loyalty. We expect leaders to do the big things, but somehow we’re surprised and touched when they take the trouble to do the small things. That’s why a simple handwritten thank you note can have more power for an individual than public recognition, which so often comes across as being phoney.