The Iron Lady and The Lady appeared within days of each other. These two newly released films, one about Great Britain's Margaret Thatcher, the other about Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi, consider the lives of two extraordinary political leaders. In terms of production and acting, there is no real comparison between the films. Michelle Yeoh as Aung San Suu Kyi is very good but Meryl Streep as Maggie Thatcher is, as ever, in a league of her own. But the films raise questions for us other than artistic excellence. What, for instance, is the type of leadership that we are seeking today for our nations and our world?
Strength of character is a prominent feature in both of these women. Margaret Thatcher again and again took risky decisions, sometimes against the advice of her closest colleagues, hard decisions about going to war with Argentina in 1982 or using force against her own people in the miners' strikes of 1984. Aung San Suu Kyi has also had to make hard choices, refusing to be intimidated by the Burmese Junta's use of military force against her or choosing to be separated from her family, even at critical moments in her husband's fatal journey with cancer, in order to remain deeply present to her nation's struggle for freedom. So, both women show extraordinary courage. But their courage is linked to radically different visions of leadership.
Margaret Thatcher led from above. She believed that the truth of her vision was what the nation needed. The way forward, whether for the nation as a whole or for her own party at times, was to persuade others about the rightness of her political vision. Aung San Suu Kyi, on the other hand, has always led from below. She believes that the truth of her vision is already in the people. The way forward, both for her nation and for her colleagues, is to articulate that vision and embody it in ways that will further release awareness and courage in the people.
These different styles of leadership produce very different patterns of relationship, whether with political colleagues or political opponents. In The Iron Lady there is the excruciating cabinet ministers' scene in which Margaret Thatcher belittles her faithful Chancellor of the Exchequer, even exposing his spelling mistakes. What she essentially says to her entire cabinet on that occasion is that she alone is carrying the vision. What they need is her vision and her commitment. This way of relating becomes more extreme in her treatment of political enemies. The Argentinian leadership, like the miners' union, is demonized. In her eyes there is no truth in them. They must simply be forced to capitulate.
In Aung San Suu Kyi, however, we see a deep belief in collegiality and a dignity of respect offered even to political opponents. Not only are her closest colleagues regarded as her equals in vision and commitment. She views many of them as her teachers, her exemplars. And when they are imprisoned, she, under house arrest, begins a hunger strike to help relieve their prison conditions. This is not simply solidarity. It is her belief that their wellbeing is her wellbeing. Her commitment to them is an essential part of her commitment to the country and to herself. And when it comes to dealing with political enemies, including the military junta that has so violently used force to maintain power, she refuses the way of demonization. Their violent actions she denounces. Their betrayal of the nation's freedom she names unequivocally. But always she recognizes that the germ of the evil that has infected them is also in her. The way forward is never to treat the other as beyond hope. The way forward is to awaken the truth that lies deep in them.
For Aung San Suu Kyi the democratic movement for Burma's freedom is essentially "a revolution of the spirit," as she describes it. It is an attempt to bring about change by releasing the spiritual power of the people, their deep yearnings for dignity and true relationship, their innate knowledge of fairness and justice. It is what Mahatma Gandhi, one of her principal influences, calls "truth force" rather than "brute force." Usually it is when leaders doubt truth-force, or fear it, that they resort to brute-force. It was because Margaret Thatcher doubted that truth of spirit could be found in the heart of her opponents, whether domestically or internationally, that she resorted again and again to forcing her way.
It was precisely this feature of Margaret Thatcher that led both to her rise to power and her fall from power. Her forceful ways rallied support for many years under the guise of decisive leadership, clarity of direction and a revived sense of nationhood. But in the end it was unsustainable because it depended so heavily on might. And in the end it was her own colleagues who turned against her because she so bullied and disrespected them. The Iron Lady is a tragedy because in the last years of her life Margaret Thatcher is seen to be alone, not because of her isolating dementia but because of how she exercised leadership in the prime years of her power.
We do not yet know what the end will be for Aung San Suu Kyi. We can, however, be fairly sure that her people will not abandon her when she is old. The revolution of spirit that she has led is with the people, not above them. We could imagine her being isolated, under house arrest when she is old. But she will never be alone. Maybe this is the way we should discern who our true leaders are for today.
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