Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel confronting Donald Trump at a G-7 meeting in 2018

Leadership reimagination in practice: Lessons from Angela Merkel

The spate of public corruption in Jamaica continues to pose an existential threat. Over the past year there have been at least two major corruption scandals each month. In one highly publicized case, a former Minister of Education who has been charged with major crimes involving public funds, was able to secure a golden handshake from the board of the school at which he served as principal and from which he had been seconded to serve as Minister.

The golden handshake followed his resignation which became necessary because the board did not wish to have him resume duties and his leave of absence having ended and was not extended. Reports indicate that the Cabinet played a pivotal role in securing the outcome for the former principal, despite making claims to the contrary. The handling of this matter resulted in major public dissent and opprobrium, with references being made to the deprivations being experienced by vulnerable sections of Jamaican society including under-served and needy students.

The most recent acts of corruption reported on Sunday December 5, 2021, involved, in one case, some $13B. This is frightening. Added to the previous corruption acts reported, Jamaica is on course to exceed in 2021, the $100B lost annually to corruption.

Injustice in the USA

The contradictions of the American justice system continue to puzzle and perplex many. There are many parts to this. One part is the consideration by the US Supreme Court of the case brought by the state of Mississippi, which if successful could result in the overturning of the 1973 Roe v Wade decision on abortion. The three most recent conservative justices on the court had all declared, at their confirmation hearings, that Roe v Wade is “settled law”. While a court’s line of questioning is never a sure guide on how it may rule, the line of questioning of these conservative justices is ominous.

The other part of the contradiction of the American justice system is the speed with which charges are proffered against some individuals, including some public officials and the seeming delay against others. In this regard I am simply shocked that nearly a year after Donald Trump left office, the state of New York has yet to bring him to justice for crimes of which he has been accused. This failure, which also exists in other states in which Trump has been accused of crimes, has, in my view, undermined trust of the American public.

Common threads

Four inter-related themes are highlighted in the two examples above. These are:

  1. Roots of, and contributors to, public mistrust
  2. Discrimination in the administration of justice
  3. The power of determination and diligence (even if the cause is questionable)
  4. The disproportionate share of dislocation which the vulnerable in society are often called upon to bear.

The difference quality leadership makes

The foregoing issues invite a single question: Are there leadership examples from which we could draw insights to address these concerns? Here we have public mistrust and the cruel reality of injustice sitting side-by-side with the human quality of determination. Curiously, this quality of determination is manifested in part in the resilience of the vulnerable in society.

As I reflect on the foregoing question, my thoughts turned to Angela Merkel, the four-term Chancellor of Germany, whose consistent demonstration of superior and impactful leadership qualities has positioned her and her country Germany as a global leader.

(Having celebrated the leadership qualities of (female) Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Mottley in a previous article, and now discussing another female leader, I am constrained to assert that I am not “feminist” in my thinking, but rather a strong believer in leadership gender-neutrality. I believe both genders have skills that are needed for leadership, and neither gender is inherently superior to the other. There are, obviously, situations in which some skills are needed more than others).

Leadership qualities of Merkel

Angela Merkel will leave office in December 2021 after serving for sixteen years as Chancellor. Much has been written about her leadership qualities. There are two contributions to this issue which I found most appealing. The first is a speech by then head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde who, in the August 31, 2019, commencement address at the HHL Leipzig Graduate School at which Merkel conferred with an honorary doctorate, described Merkel as possessing four main qualities: diplomacy, diligence, determination, and a sense of duty.

Merkel, German Chancellor since 2005, leaves office this week

The second contribution is a June 23, 2021, article by Jessica Robinson. The article is entitled “Leadership Lessons of the Highest Order from Angela Merkel”. In this article, Robinson noted that Merkel was one whose leadership was characterized by resilience, vision, selflessness, and critical thinking.

The qualities identified by Lagarde, and Robinson are diligence, determination / resilience, sense of duty / selflessness, and critical thinking. The interplay of these qualities in the execution in the job of leading a country or company, is a strong and secure recipe for success as has been the experience of Merkel.

Merkel’s diligence, resilience, and selflessness

Merkel’s diligence is encased in her quiet but ferocious patience and sense of purpose. These qualities were largely chiseled in her early life growing up in East Germany in then divided Germany. The manifestation of these qualities was most potent in her handling of two major crises which rocked Germany and the united Europe, the European Union (EU). The EU may be described as a seventy plus-year experiment which had substantially contributed to global stability. (While there was never a cessation of conflict across the globe there was nothing compared to the war of 1939 – 1944). The first crisis related to the EU currency and the second to migration.

Greek riot police set up a blockade near a refugee camp in Diavata, a suburb of Thessaloniki, on Friday.Credit…Sakis Mitrolidis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Karl Vick, in his 2015 Time Magazine article in which Merkel was named person of the year, discusses these crises. In the case of currency, the nineteen countries which shared the currency the euro, faced an existential crisis and the flattening of their economies due to the threat of default posed by Greece. An EU economic crisis would have spelt doom for many countries, if not the entire global economy. In what is believed to be one of the most patient, skillful, and delicate negotiations, Merkel led the EU and Greece to a resolution which though painful to many, especially the citizens of Greece who protested, but which opened the door to a new future. The slow and patient pace towards a resolution of crisis led to the creation of a new verb in the political and cultural lexicon of European society – merkeling.

The second crisis was Merkel’s unprecedented decision to open Germany to one million asylum seekers from the strife-torn Middle East. According to Vick,

“It was an audacious act that, in a single motion, threatened both to redeem Europe and endanger it, testing the resilience of an alliance formed to avoid repeating the kind of violence tearing asunder the Middle East by working together”.

With a country characterized by high levels of employment, social stability, and generally high standards of living, welcoming these migrants was a major act of selflessness. In 2014, the year before the crisis, Germany’s per capita income was just under $48,000.00. In 2015 it fell to just over $41,000.00 and did not return to the pre-migration crisis levels until 2018.

For Merkel, the existential question posed by the migrant crisis was simply, (yet profoundly) “what does it mean to live well?” Her answer to that question was reflected in the selfless decision to expose her country to the risk of instability by welcoming foreigners. But her rationale for this she located in what may be described as her sense of duty. She argued that Germany could not claim to be “living well” in the face of the death and hunger in places like Aleppo and Mosul. But Merkel who knew the damage which dividing walls could do, felt that inviting migrants was the only morally correct thing to do.

When the COVID-19 global crisis hit in 2020, Germany was one of the first countries to reopen schools, which they did in May 2020 targeting those schools predominantly serving migrant populations. This decision was based on the consideration that migrant students were more vulnerable than others to learning losses, which would then trigger other social problems.

Lessons from Merkel’s leadership

Merkel’s leadership holds many lessons for a corruption worn Jamaica and an American society steeped in injustice and inequity. Throughout her time as Chancellor, Merkel lived in the same apartment at which she lived prior to becoming Chancellor and is reported to have done her laundry and grocery shopping as she always did. While moving about as freely is not recommended in violence-prone places like Jamaica and the USA, the deeper lessons are that Merkel’s leadership has engendered trust.

Interestingly, in her farewell address to Germans ahead of her departure from office (later this week), Merkel had a simple lesson for Germans, “trust one another”. That advice coming from her is authentic as she has not only shown that she was willing to trust others but is exceedingly trustworthy.

Being trustable, trusting, and trustworthy, are central qualities of reimaginative leadership. The level of trust Germans had and continue to have in Merkel is in the large part based on their recognition of the fact that she was not seeking to use public office to advance her own interests.

Anthony Harriott and colleagues in a 2013 publication entitled “Political Culture of Democracy in Jamaica and the Americas…”, published by USAID, found that citizens’ lack of trust in political parties resulted from the perception that politicians are only interested in serving themselves. Jamaica’s spate of corruption makes trust in public officials even more unlikely.

Merkel’s determination to be just and her insistence on caring for the less fortunate in German society are not mere metaphors of vision, courage, and compassion but living testimonies of reimaginative leadership that other leaders would do well to embrace as their countries and companies face existential and life-threatening threats.

Canute Thompson`

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