Angela Merkel having – rightly in my view – been named Time Magazine ‘Person of the Year’, I thought I would post the mini-profile of the German Chancellor I wrote in WINNERS AND HOW THEY SUCCEED. This was written before Ukraine, the continuing fallout from the Greek/Eurozone financial calamity, and the migration crisis were all added to Merkel’s in-tray. But though these are all substantial problems, and though she will be facing difficulties on migration at her upcoming party conference, her handling of all three in my view adds to the positive analysis rather than detracts from it.
She certainly stands as something of a contrast to our own dear leader, still dithering on Heathrow, making a mess of his EU negotiations and presiding over what appears to be the not so slow death of the NHS and the welfare state.
Angela Merkel seems, in some ways, an unlikely leader of the EU’s most powerful nation-state. The German Chancellor places pragmatism ahead of grand gestures, and values political and administrative competence above bold statements about changing the world. She lacks Obama’s soaring rhetoric or Clinton’s charisma. She doesn’t enjoy – hates, even – big set-piece speeches. She does not inspire outbursts of hysterical enthusiasm. Nor, at the opposite end of the spectrum, does she provoke the sense of apprehension or fear that Putin can produce when he enters a room, with or without the dog to unleash the canine phobia Merkel developed as a child. In other words, she resembles a competent manager rather than a great leader. One wouldn’t speak of her in the same breath as, say, an Abraham Lincoln or a Nelson Mandela.
But she is a winner, with three federal election victories behind her. She is also rare in modern politics in being both successful and widely respected by public opinion and by her peers. And when many of her character traits are examined closely, they turn out not to be dull or ordinary but carefully considered and brilliantly used. Let’s start with the seemingly trivial. For women leaders – to the irritation of someone serious like her – there is a greater focus than with men on how they look, how they dress. Yet when was the last time you saw a feature on Merkel’s fashion choices? You don’t. You may be surprised to know that she travels with a stylist, a key member of her fairly small and extraordinarily tight-knit entourage. But it is more to avoid comment on how she looks than to inspire it. The stylist’s task is to make sure the Merkel look is unchanging, same hair, same make-up, same style; it is a deliberate tactic that speaks to her strategic seriousness. She has a wardrobe of different-coloured jackets and trousers of the same design. Her look reinforces her political and strategic message – steadfast, serious, constant. It is also very hard to imagine her stylist recom- mending – or Merkel ever agreeing to – the cosmetic surgery or Botox use that some male politicians have indulged in, especially in the US, though Putin seems to get younger with age too.
A scientist by training, Merkel is also a gifted linguist, speaking fluent Russian and excellent English. This too surprises people, as she usually speaks German in public, which means that most people in the world know her through an interpreter. That approach, though, has served her well on the world stage: it has proclaimed that what she does is more important than what she says or how she says it, but what she says about a topic is more important than what others say about it.
Merkel is conscious of her strengths, and of her limitations. She will watch Barack Obama give a speech and be as moved as the next spectator by the power of his voice and the beauty of his lyricism. She doesn’t waste time wondering whether she could develop such oratorical powers, because she knows she can’t. But she has been known to reflect that, though she cannot orate like Obama, she is pretty sure she could get more through a seemingly gridlocked political system than the US president has done. And when she feels the CIA overstep the mark in spying on her, she does not hesitate to expel their Berlin station head, forcing a bigger power to face up to principles she appears to believe in more strongly.
Merkel, then, gives the lie to the generally accepted assumption that great leaders have to be clearly extrovert or compellingly charismatic. This fits with Jim Collins’s view of leadership in business. In Great by Choice, the renowned author on management describes as ‘an entrenched myth’ the idea that successful leaders are always risk-seeking visionaries. ‘Actually the best leaders we studied did not have a visionary ability to predict the future. They observed what worked, figured out why it worked, and built upon proven foundations.’ You only need to see the way Merkel behaved during the eurozone crisis, putting the long term ahead of the short term, whatever the criticism and unpopularity this approach provoked, to appreciate the thoughtful concentration that goes into her decision- making. Here, even allies like David Cameron and Barack Obama were urging her to speed up, think bigger, be bolder – classic leadership responses. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown would have done the same. But she would not be rushed; nor would she lose sight of her own, and Germany’s, character and strategic priorities. If the price was deep unpopularity in some of the poorer countries of Europe, not to mention headlines, even in serious UK publications, denouncing her as ‘a threat to the world’, she would rather have the short-term opprobrium than live with – or let others live with – the long-term consequences of failing to do what she considered to be the right thing. She gives the impression of someone who is not going to be rushed. Whereas in Britain a coalition government was formed in five frantic days after the 2010 election, after the German elections of 2013 Merkel took a calm and orderly two months to form her ‘grand coalition’ with the SPD. Coalition government is, of course, a way of life in modern Germany and not in the UK, but that considered approach is telling. In this ever more frenetic world she sees the role of leadership as calming things down, focusing on the big things, taking the time needed to see them through, and – this part is not to be underestimated – to get her way.
Historian turned Labour MP Tristram Hunt says: ‘There is little doubt that this period of European history will become known as the Age of Merkel. There is a dignity to her. She regards the role as significant and gives it stature; she is capable of ruthless political management to public finances and strategy but she is also there at the World Cup Final and she knows how to mix it, the dignity and the person. There is nobody else quite like her. She has elevated herself beyond others. That is quite an achievement, as is her power, considering she actually runs a coalition government.’
There have, of course, been plenty of leaders from the charisma/ visionary camp who have won, from Gandhi to Clinton, but the fact that an Angela Merkel can be so successful – or for that matter, a geeky Bill Gates or a chilled Joachim Löw – shows that something else is at work in a successful leader that is more profound. Yes, they may well have that indefinable air of authority, or immense private charm, or even a slightly controlling manner that compels attention, but that’s not what sets them apart. What makes them remarkable is that they possess the ability to focus ferociously on the things that matter. Or as the American economist J. K. Galbraith put it: ‘All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.’