#SmallChange: We’ve had Thatcherism and other “isms”. Is it over the top for you, as a business leader, to claim an “ism”?


I am writing a book. It’s called Small Change: how to work, lead and follow in the 21st. Century. I am blogging draft synopses of sections of the book as I write it. I would be grateful for comments, questions and feedback as I proceed.

Below is a draft section. You can see an Introduction and other draft sections on my blog or on LinkedIn Pulse.

Your “ism”

Not long after Theresa May became Prime Minister of The United Kingdom, The Observer newspaper ran a piece encouraging her to define “Mayism” lest she fall into the trap of being defined by others.

I was pleased to see that a high-quality newspaper was ready to believe, not only that she could have an “ism” but that she could have it at the start of her term of office despite the arbitrary rules of “ism”.

Margaret Thatcher famously said, of her successor John Major, that there “isn’t such a thing as Majorism”. Leaving aside the arch nature of the comment it raises the question of who decides who should have an “ism”.

I’m interested because for some time I have used the concept as part of my work with leaders. If I’m working with Joe Bloggs, I say: “what is Bloggs-ism?”. They say: “what do you mean?”.

I say “there is only one you and, even though you may be similar to other leaders, nobody can lead the way you can. So what defines your leadership?”. Usually, they start by saying and I paraphrase: “I don’t know and, frankly, I don’t see myself as very unique”.

I counter this with a point of grammar which may appear pedantic but isn’t: you can’t qualify the word unique. You’re unique, or you’re not. You can’t be very unique. And since everyone is unique then, er, you’re unique.

“So what?” they ask. I answer: “If you’re unique then your leadership is unique, whether you like it or not. Therefore, you have a choice: to lead consciously or unconsciously.

By leading unconsciously, I mean that you do not give the matter much thought. You feel that anything else is an exercise in management speak or mumbo jumbo. You just get on with it.

But what if you knew that you would have better personal and organisational outcomes by consciously accessing your unique leadership behaviour? Would it not be worthwhile to use it? Conversely would it not be an opportunity cost to avoid it?

So what is your “ism”? It’s about your objectives and the principles you use to achieve them. If you take the time to clarify these and apply them, daily, you and those around you will notice the difference. Start by making small changes in how you do what you do and see what happens.

Your “ism” is like a personal Target Operating Model or TOM. Most businesses have a TOM. It usually has three elements: a market need; strategic resources and processes by which the resources are applied to meet the market need.

Likewise, your TOM is about your needs, the resources you have at your disposal and the processes you use to deploy those resources to meet your needs.

But what if you don’t know what you need; are drifting or are driven by unclear drivers, some from your formative years?

In which case, it might be useful to you to figure out what you need, not what you want. There’s a difference. You may need to change your job because you drifted or were driven into it, but you may not want to do so.

I acknowledge that all this “ism” and TOM stuff sounds like hard work. It does because it is. Even the small changes required to shift your needle in a better direction is challenging. But the return on the effort invested is worthwhile.

The reason Thatcherism went into history and Majorism didn’t was not because his leadership behaviour was worse than hers. It was because she, rightly or wrongly, was clear about what she wanted to achieve and she articulated these objectives continually. I can’t remember what Majorism was because he didn’t.

That doesn’t mean there was no Majorism. It was he, not she, who was integral to the Irish Peace Process. It was also Thatcher’s outstanding behavioural weakness at work that brought her down. She was a bully. She bullied once too often. Thatcherism and bullying were synonymous. Her Target Operating Model included thuggery as an essential process in the execution of her plans.

I use the word thuggery deliberately. It means being cruel or vicious. She was, at times, very cruel and vicious. Many of her lieutenants were afraid of her. This occurs in business as well as politics. How many senior leaders are terrified of their bosses? I meet them regularly. But leadership by fear lasts only for a short time. Sooner or later the terrified will find a way of fighting back.

That said, Margaret Thatcher and all those given to bullying do so because they see no other way of behaving. For them, there is no midpoint between bullying and being bullied. Often they were bullied at home and or at school.

What if Margaret Thatcher had found a way of leading without bullying? I believe she could have achieved greatness beyond her marmite reputation had she done so. Some of her social policies might even have changed, unbelievable as that might sound.

In The Fenton Model®, our behavioural weakness is a “lid” on our hidden talent. Start making small changes in your behavioural weakness and you will begin to reveal your hidden potential. Then tell everyone where you are now and why, where you are going and how you’re going to get there. Then you can claim your “ism’ with as much right as Thatcher.

Ciaran Fenton

August 2016


Want to talk leadership? Contact me through my LinkedIn profile or call me on +44 (0) 207 754 0335


For aspiring Non-Executive Directors

The 7 Deadly Sins of Nascent NEDs – A One Day Workshop at the IOD, London

Seven New Year Decisions for Business and Professional Leaders…

#SmallChange #FentonModel

1. To stay or leave your current role. Don’t go back to work passively.

2. If you stay, to decide how your organisation’s strategy fits with your own personal career strategy.

3. To decide what, precisely, you want to achieve by the end of 2015.

4. To decide how you are going to create an atmosphere in which your best people will help achieve that outcome.

5. To decide who is ambivalent about you and your plans and how you are going to take responsibility for persuading them.

6. To decide who is against you and definitely not for turning and what you are going to do about them.

7. To decide and clear contract what behaviours you and your team could change by just a small factor of say 5%-15%; that is only five to fifteen actions or statements out every hundred. That’s small change. But the impact of a small change in behaviour by you and your direct reports can, in aggregate, be the difference between achieving your goals and not.

#SmallChange #FentonModel