American politics are, to say the least, highly contentious. The ascent of Donald Trump to the presidency, the mudslinging emanating from left and right, and the segregation of Americans into distinct and tribal political camps is jarring. The time feels existential. Has democracy failed us? Is compromise an idealistic remembrance of the past?
I find it useful in moments like this to look away from my own country; to recognize that we are not the epicenter of world politics and to see examples of hope abroad. In doing so, I could not help but fixate on the inevitable yet perhaps premature departure of Angela Merkel as Chancellor of Germany. Best summed up by Time Magazine in 2015 when she was named “Person of the Year”; Angela Merkel ruled with Die Politik der Kleinen Schritte (the politics of baby steps). She was simultaneously a monumental and unassuming figure on the world stage. Angela Merkel redefined strength for a generation of Germans — fortitude based on compromise and understanding. A strong juxtaposition to the arrogance, bravado, boastfulness, and ability to intimidate that epitomizes archetypal examples of strength and leadership.
It was the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, who said, “thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.” Such a maxim lays the groundwork for much of the way Angela Merkel treats problems — first get the facts. Foreign Affairs Magazine referred to her as taciturn, while I might say pragmatic, they were not wrong in their assessment. Angela Merkel, they wrote, “rarely jumps into a contentious debate until public opinion has firmly swung in one direction or another — but then she acts in a decisive manner.” As with everything, there is a German word to describe her demeanor, vorsichtigkeit, roughly prudence.
Angela Merkel has a doctorate in Quantum Chemistry. She was born in Hamburg Germany but grew up east of the Berlin Wall, making her a foreigner in Western Germany. She came into politics with no understanding of it or the machinations it necessitated.
She was, by all accounts, an outsider. However, it is this foundation that established her resolve and ability to lead Germany so effectively. From the beginning of her political career, Angela Merkel approached situations with the open-mindedness and rigor that she learned in her scientific training. Moreover, because of her background as a political outsider, she cultivated an ability to be understandable and reasonable. She had very few political allies and could not afford to make many enemies.
Grand speeches would have eaten up her power reserves just as quickly as superfluous feelings, meaningful revenge, or an excess of personal loyalty.
By no means is Angela Merkel infallible. Her handling of the refugee crisis while generally laudable, fueled the nationalist out-lash that is, in part, leading to her resignation. Her handling of the euro-crisis perturbed the economic solvency of many European nations. However, while recognizing her failures, her leadership style can still be a breath-of-fresh-air when presented as an antithesis to the leadership styles of the United States and the recently populist nations of Europe.
It was not that she was always right, it was that you could depend on her to take a holistic view of a situation before she acted. She was not rash or quick-to-act. She was exacting in her demeanor and thoughtful in her actions. Moreover, it was her ability to compromise and uphold liberal values that gave her broad appeal in Germany while remaining a centralist conservative.
It was her thoughtful deliberations that led to the passing of the Lisbon Treaty, the decision to keep Greece in the European Union, and the sanctions that fronted the West’s response to the Russian annexation of Crimea.
Furthermore, while I presented her handling of the refugee crisis as an example of her failing, it also stands as one of the starkest examples of her generosity and compassion. In a time where talk of building walls was on the forefront of our minds, Angela Merkel tore down a symbolic one. It was a heartening reminder of the humanity we should expect from our leaders. The communication and defense of the decision to the public left something to be desired, but her decision was commendable nonetheless.
Leaders are tested only when people don’t want to follow. For asking more of her country than most politicians would dare, for standing firm against tyranny as well as expedience, and for providing steadfast moral leadership in a world where it is in short supply, Angela Merkel is Time’s Person of the Year.
Angela Merkel’s leadership style is not uniquely hers. I see it in the likes of Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and occasionally Barack Obama. In the United States, we might classify it as leading from behind. I think this mindset places a meekness of sorts onto the style, where it instead deserves to be characterized as exacting. Perhaps it would be better to classify it as leading by the facts. Before jumping into any issue, before resolving to any position, it is critical to examine the empirical evidence first.
Far too often our solutions are recalcitrant to change, our beliefs ideological and unwavering, and our demeanors sclerotic to the necessities of the time. Rather than approaching situations with a mindset of problem-solving we approach them with a predetermined solution. This is not how we should lead.
Leadership can at times call for someone to take charge. It can call for someone to claim the podium, to energize a group. However, that is only one minuscule, facet of leadership. Far more often, leadership is contrived in the careful and deliberate machinations that occur out of public view. These moments require less arrogance than they do understanding. It is imperative that as a leader we are open to changing our minds, to shifting our beliefs when the facts of a situation pull us one way or another. We do not look up to leaders because of perfection, but because of their ability to weigh the facts and to make rational decisions. We need careful examination, not ego.
I look up to Angela Merkel as a leader not because I always agreed with her decisions but because of her tenacity to confrontation and her undying commitment to the truth. I look up to her because of her tact, because of her ability to disarm a situation and to leave her ego at the door. She could appeal to all while refraining from appearing sycophantic. She fought tirelessly for what she believed. And she committed herself every day to the improvement of Germany.
Her way of leading will never be easy to copy. It takes constant deliberation and presence of mind to push emotions out of situations. One must work tirelessly to look past the flaws of others and attempt to forge relationships with them. It is better to have friends than enemies. However, acting upon such ideals has never been so easy. Most of us are never as rational as Immanuel Kant hoped we would be.
But perhaps Angela Merkel stands as an example of what is possible. As an example of what we can achieve if we check our arrogance at the door and work from the facts. Many will remember her for her flaws. But I hope we remember her for how she tactfully led a nation. We could all achieve a great deal by trying to act more like her. It will never be easy, but as Angela Merkel once said, “I have asked a lot of you because the times have asked a lot of us — I am well aware of that. And I cannot promise you that there will be fewer demands in the future, because we must do what the times demand of us.” From this, I hope we can all act like the leader the current times demand of us.