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‘European history will see this as the age of Merkel’

Posted on 11 December 2015 | 9:12am

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.’

  • Gillian C.

    This woman has wrecked the demographic make up of Germany.
    A once fine European country is being turned into a third world hell hole.

    • Michele

      How recent was that period you describe as ‘once fine’?

      How come you deem it the fault of someone alive today if their home country is ‘a third world hell hole’ and how much should it swell the head of someone living somewhere more prosperous?

      How much is it the responsibility of someone alive today if their homeland is a mess and to whose credit is it if they were simply born somewhere more prosperous? Some bigheadedness is just incomprehensible. Pride in your country does not mean you need to think ‘sod every bugger else’..

      I am not for an open door but I DO acknowledge how much of what WE have we took from others and how much more ‘gentle’ our climate is than half the world’s.

      I’m bemused by the ‘stranger likes’, how would those strokers come to know of your post?

      • Gillian C.

        “I’m bemused by the ‘stranger likes’, how would those strokers come to know of your post?”

        They are not strangers to me and that’s the way that Disqus works.

        • Michele

          Nope for sure they are not strangers to you; they usually reside on blogs where posters (including, shockingly, you) use words like ‘kike’ and enjoy suffering the delusions of superiority that only racism can endow someone with.
          You really are utterly dumb if (actually AS) you deem yourself superior by a mere accident of birth.

        • Michele

          Oh I know how Disqus works and I daresay you flog around licking the posts of fellow racists (or is the shared loathing about people’s religion/s?).

          Prejudice is a choice, you seem to have come to it.

    • Ehtch

      They still makes the best washing machines, even through the door has just gone on our ten year old Bosch, first thing ever gone wrong, due to my cack handed leftie pawed father, opening it strange, and busto eventually. And cars, even if they are diesels. And prefab houses. And all sorts of things. So I think Germany is doing OK. Immigrants will increase their economy phenomenally, that these German picture postcard towns and villages will soon find out. Never ever hear of floods in Germany, because they never fly by the seat of their underpantied knickers. Christ almighty, thank God we don’t have Alpine like mountains, or Cameron will have piles of avalanched snow coming down on our heads. We live in a village now.

  • Gillian C.
    • Michele

      Doesn’t that link have a bit of a Nazi stink for you?

      Again I’m struck by the incongruity of the pwetty little subject of the avatar combined with the crap it’s wrapping.

    • Michele

      Crikey if you look at the input elsewhere of some of your lickers you might not be utterly chuffed :-s

    • Ehtch

      I think you want us to continue to be poodles to the US. What have they ever done for us recently, apart from cheap burgers and fried chicken? Global financial instability is an asset to some, read the trails to 1914,1939 and of course 2008. I say 1914 too, where US banking reform in the first decade of the twentieth century had effects, but OK, a bit of a circuitous route to the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

      • Gillian C.

        “I think you want us to continue to be poodles to the US.”

        Don’t be daft Huw 🙂

        We are ‘not poodles to the US’ and never have been. Appearances can be very deceptive.

        The UK the US Europe, well pretty much the whole of the western world is being run and controlled by the powerful dominant minority.
        AKA, the ones we are not allowed to criticize.
        “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize” – Voltaire (?).

        • Ehtch

          Ohhh! Of course we are Gillian! Brit PMs since WW2 have cum in their pants/knickers whenever they can visit the White House and have one on one talks with their President, or dance with them, in Thatcher’s case ,even when the senile cretin stepped on her toes when they stepped out…

  • Copyright101

    You’re joking right?

    Lets hope history will see this as the age of Le Pen.

  • Ehtch

    Cameron et al with their delay on the delay to the delay, delayed. Bluddy ‘ell, have they forgotten what their job is? Oh yes of course, PR press releases each day to the media full of nothing, flannel – each day is a surprise what comes out of their empty heads. Pooley Bridge’s 250 year old bridge in the Lake District gets washed away due to it not being cleared of rubble underneath it for years, while the World moves on and leaves us behind due to these incompetent shallow unimaginative prats.

    Anyway, Putin is my hero, I like the style of his walk, he treads the thin line and that is what is needed as a leader. He dares, he wades. But Merkel is Germany’s Mandela, while we in memory had Thatcher, our Vlad the Impaler.

    Merry Christmas to you and all Alastair, have a good one.

  • Ehtch

    By the way Ali, a bit of humour for Xmas. Remember my Irish mate James, the builder, lives in North Kent, in the Trollstation collective London pranksters? Anyway, I edited a vid for him the other day on his latest appearance for them, I edited and added different music, and tings and things…

  • Ihateglobalization

    Angela Merkel will go down in history as the woman who Africanized Germany

  • gunnerbear

    “The German Chancellor places pragmatism ahead of grand gestures, and values political and administrative competence above bold statements about changing the world.” Wow…I had no idea she was so competent…what with flooding Germany with immigrant rapists and the like. If that’s German efficiency, I’ll stick with British chaos thanks.