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Column: Coming face to face with Thatcher

Editor's note: This is adapted from an essay first published in the Times last year.

With the death of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, we are reminded anew of the pivotal role she played on the international stage in the 1980s. We are reminded of her trailblazing status as the first and only female prime minister of Britain, her special relationship with President Ronald Reagan and her unique brand of leadership that left an indelible mark on Britain and the world.

As a college student studying abroad 34 years ago, I came face to face with her.

My semester in London was highlighted by my many walks through a city that was vibrant and alive with a diversity of people, sights and sounds. One day I passed by No. 10 Downing Street, home of the prime minister. A large crowd had gathered, craning their necks and jockeying for better positions along the rope line. Two elderly women — one wearing bright blue and the other in bright pink — walked right past the guards and were ushered into the residence. They were quite noticeable and I wondered who they were — government officials, perhaps dignitaries? They certainly didn't look very official.

Several hours later, I saw the same two women in their distinctive, colorful attire near Westminster Abbey. I walked up to them and asked, "Didn't I see you entering the prime minister's home?"

"Oh, yes," they replied. "We're her friends."

We talked for several minutes. I shared with them my interest in politics and the details of my semester abroad. They could not have been nicer. I learned these women had helped Prime Minister Thatcher when she began her political career. They asked if I wanted to meet her.

"Well, of course I'd like to meet her!" I said. I gave them my address but I didn't expect anything to happen.

Much to my surprise, I received a beautiful handwritten note a few weeks later inviting me to a reception for Prime Minister Thatcher in Finchley. I attended and met the prime minister and her husband, Denis.

Despite the many people in the room vying for her attention, the prime minister spent several minutes with me inquiring about my studies, and the differences between the British and American political systems. With her intense blue eyes never wavering she acted as though I was the most important person in the room. Here I was, an American student studying abroad with no influence in British politics or in her life, yet she conversed with me with genuine interest and attention.

Margaret Thatcher taught me an important lesson that day, and the trait she exhibited is one that I have observed in straightforward leaders throughout my life — she treated every person as important, worthy of her time and attention. I continue to carry this lesson to this day.

True leaders believe every person is important. Your life is lessened when a person is only significant to you because of their wealth, position or ability to help you get ahead. When I am with an individual who treats people in the service industry poorly, I know he is not leadership material. Restaurant staff, taxi drivers, lawn maintenance workers, cleaners — I have seen them all treated in ways that I consider disrespectful, and the person who treats them that way is always diminished in my eyes.

Margaret Thatcher made an impact on me not by her politics, but by the honest, direct way she showed respect and interest in every person. She demonstrated to me an essential trait for effective leadership.

Pam Iorio is the former mayor of Tampa. She is currently a leadership speaker and the author of "Straightforward, Ways to Live and Lead." She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Column: Coming face to face with Thatcher 04/09/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 9, 2013 3:58pm]
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