Where would Europe be without Angela Merkel? The staid force in global politics, who’s headed up Germany for twelve years, has earned the nickname mutti (“mommy” in German) and won countless accolades for her political savvy. But her particular brand of leadership remains elusive.
On the eve of Germany’s national election, which she’s widely expected to win, the burning question is how leaders can emulate her success. As Deutsche Welle aptly put it, for the last decade it’s been “Merkel here, Merkel there, Merkel everywhere.” The German chancellor has faced a barrage of crises, often all at once. And yet she’s always managed to come out on top. Whether it’s the never-ending euro zone crisis, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, Germany’s energy crisis, the refugee crisis, or Brexit, she’s stood confidently at the center of it all as “Europe’s crisis manager.”
Her leadership prowess—a curious combination of flexibility, patience, understatement, and cunning—isn’t just enviable in political circles. It can serve as a template for managing crises in any field.
Bide your time
During a crisis, hasty reactions are hard to avoid. But Merkel “turns procrastination into an art form,” says Matthew Qvortrup, professor of political science at Coventry University and author of Angela Merkel: Europe’s Most Influential Leader. While global politics is largely dominated by politicians who feel they need to be a man of action (“man being the operative word here,” Qvortrup says), Merkel revels in waiting. So much so that Germans have a word for her style of leadership: Merkeln. “You gather all the facts you could possibly find, you mull over it, you look at the prose and the cons, you take your time,” Qvortrup explains.
This was a crucial negotiating tactic during the sovereign debt crisis, says Holger Nehring, a history professor at the University of Sterling, specializing in German politics. Merkel would “wait and then see what are the options on the table,” he says. That way she could determine the best position nationally and internationally, and then she would strike.
Merkel repeatedly resisted rescue packages for struggling country governments, waiting instead until the final hour to agree to a compromise. The strategy earned a name, asauf Sicht fahren (“driving by sight”), a German term for drivel safely in fog by slowing down to see what’s ahead. And it proved incredibly popular with voters.
Many biographers believe Merkel’s decision to open Germany’s borders to one million refugees during the refugee crisis also fits this mould. Though the crisis came to a head in 2015, some suggest Merkel had been methodologically analyzing the problem since 2011. Only when the issue threatened the underpinnings of the EU and its open borders agreement did she suspend the Dublin Protocol (a constraining immigration policy) and allow Germany to bear the brunt of the crisis while finding a European-wide solution.
Gay marriage in Germany is another example. Long opposed to gay marriage, she decided to call a vote on the matter in the run up to the national election, knowing that her opponents were preparing to use the issue against her. She waited to act until public opinion overwhelmingly favored gay marriage, especially within her conservative base (73% of her conservative supporters now back gay marriage). Merkel abruptly called the vote knowing it would pass, and was widely praised as a champion of liberal values when the measure passed, even though she herself voted against it to placate her more conservative backers.
Plan for the future
Merkel factors in the long-term in her response to crises. This also featured prominently in her response to the sovereign debt crisis. She addressed the immediate issues of solvency while keeping her eye on the euro’s integrity and the potential for future crises, says Morgen Witzel, a management historian and consultant at the University of Exeter. The strategy “may not work—many will argue that it should not work—but that escapes the point. That is how Merkel thinks,” he says.
By contrast, other EU member states like Greece that only considered the short-term paid the price (its debt reached €300 billion during the crisis, the highest in modern history). Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister, hotly opposed austerity measures in the face of jittery international creditors and EU member states. Some would argue his harsh response (he said he would “prefer to cut my arm off” than sign a new accord that didn’t include a debt write-off) only worsened his position, and forced him to eventually cave to Germany’s demands. Varoufakis resigned several months after taking on the role.
Don’t be afraid to change tack
Merkel “deals with every case on its own merits,” says Witzel. She keenly understands that there is a time for appealing to conviction, and a time for ruthless pragmatism. “There is very little sense of ideologically driven decision-making,” Witzel says.
When it came to the Greek debt crisis, Merkel stuck with a fiscally conservative stance that played to her base at home (more than half of Germans supported her tough stance on Greece in 2015).
But the Christian conservative shifted course when it came to the refugee crisis. In opening Germany’s doors to refugees, she stuck to her humanitarian convictions, even when it proved wildly unpopular. Her later decision to rein in immigration kept voters on her side. “I would make all of the important decisions of 2015 the same way again,” Merkel said during the election campaign, while assuring Germans that the country “should never again witness” such a crisis.
“She does what she believes is right, and is prepared to take the consequences,” Witzel says. “It is hard to think of another political leader at the moment who is courageous enough to do this.”
Merkel made another sharp U-turn after the crisis in Fukushima, when an earthquake in Japan resulted in a nuclear accident. She had initially planned to extend the life of the country’s nuclear reactors by an average of 12 years, which proved deeply unpopular among Germans following Fukushima. Merkel then made a surprise announcement that she would phase out nuclear power by 2022, which stunted the German Green party that had been capitalizing on anti-nuclear sentiment. While the move enraged staunch right-wingers, it allowed Merkel to “occupy the center ground of German politics,” Nearing says.
Yet the lack of pizzazz is precisely what makes her popular. “She comes across almost like a technocrat,” says Nehring, one with an extraordinary attention to detail. Her calm, rational, even-handed, and experienced demeanor leaves voters feeling she will “get Germany through this dangerous period of world politics,” Nehring adds.
Merkel isn’t a good public speaker, but over the years she had used this weakness to her advantage. Linguistic experts now point to (paywall) her “cautious, detached and unvarnished speaking style” as the secret to her success. This was on full display during the national election’s only TV debate, in which Merkel refused to attack her opponent. Instead, she agreed with him on a number of points, her voice always soothing, her body language calm and collected. Merkel was declared the winner (paywall), despite her opponent, Martin Schulz, generally being viewed as a better public speaker.
Despite her stern demeanor, Merkel also manages to sprinkle in glimmers of warmth. At the height of the refugee crisis, she often agreed to take selfies with refugees. The photos went viral, furthering her persona as a genuine humanitarian. In a time of deep tragedy, she knew how to expose her human face.