The Leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel

About two months ago, I was asked by a university in Germany to write a document about the leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel. Today I am posting the document as a blog because just a few hours ago Chancellor Merkel was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree by my own University, Harvard.    


As I have written elsewhere, leadership is not a person. Leadership is a system comprised of three parts, each of which is of equal importance. The first is the leader. The second are the followers – others that leaders that must bring along in order to be effective, especially to create change. And the third are the contexts, the multiple contexts within which leaders and followers are situated.

This document then will address Chancellor Angela Merkel’s leadership in three different contexts. This is not to claim that these are the only domains in which her leadership was in evidence. Rather it is to suggest that her place in history will be determined by her leadership in Germany; her leadership in Europe; and, inevitably, her leadership as a woman in a world in which the number of women at the top remains still strikingly low.

Angela Merkel – Leadership in Germany  

Years before the chaos and confusion sowed by the persona and presidency of Donald Trump, and years before the dissention and disruption triggered by Britain’s decision to quit the European Union, observers remarked about German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s preternatural calm. No matter the circumstance or situation, her hand on the tiller was steady, and her presentation of self, devoid of all theatrics, a physical manifestation of her political positions.

Style – leadership style – matters. It matters especially when the leader’s style mirrors the leader’s substance. In this case, the fit was perfect: Merkel’s personality and her politics intersected, they matched. Though there was at least one major exception, about which more below, if there has been a defining characteristic of Merkel’s chancellorship it is seriousness. This was a serious leader who led her country with seriousness of purpose.  Moreover, there has been no distraction. Chancellor Merkel has been able steadfastly to maintain what Hillary Clinton once referred to as a “zone of privacy.” Merkel herself is unfailingly contained if not constrained. Additionally, her family and friends, and her staff, completely eschew publicity. In consequence, Merkel has remained on a personal level enigmatic, which, in turn, has enabled her followers, broadly the German people, to focus on the work. To focus on Germany’s domestic policies/politics. And on its foreign policies/politics. And on their chancellor’s capacity first to chart and then to follow the course that collectively was set.

The barest statistics speak for themselves. Angela Merkel was leader of the Christian Democratic Union for some eighteen years, and at the end of her current term as chancellor she will have been leader of Germany for some sixteen years. Given the challenges that all liberal democracies now face, many of them unimaginable a generation ago, Merkel’s longevity as a leader is itself an accomplishment. Much was made of the fact that by 2018 her approval ratings were dropping. But the real story is not that after well over a decade in office Germans were tiring of a leader who had become overly familiar; the real story was that she had appealed to them for so long, That for so long they had trusted their chancellor personally, professionally, and politically.

Though you cannot be chancellor for any length of time without navigating some choppy waters, it is also the case that for roughly the first decade of Merkel’s chancellorship Germany was a country largely content and nearly quiescent. Merkel and the German people rather reflected each other: both seeming to feel competent and confident, both seeming to revel in the peace and prosperity that was their achievement.

This famously came to something of an abrupt stop in 2015, when virtually single-handedly Chancellor Merkel decided to admit into Germany approximately one million immigrants, mainly from the war-torn Middle East. Germans’ response, initially, albeit briefly, was almost euphoric. Press coverage of “good” Germans apparently authentically welcoming very large numbers of very miserable migrants was heartwarming. However, we now know that not long after was a backlash that led in short order to a new political party, Alternative for Germany, that was unsettlingly right-wing, including being anti-Islam and anti-immigrant.   

Immigration has become a dismally divisive issue world-wide – no reason to exempt Germans from the contentiousness that now almost invariably complicates the problem. Suffice to say here that whatever the views on Merkel’s dramatic decision, or the opinion on why she reached it, it was a disruptive departure. It was a personal and political departure from the leadership she had evidenced up to then.

Perhaps paradoxically, though perhaps not, this late-career deviation from what had been Merkel’s life-long pattern of caution is almost certain to burnish her legacy as a leader. I write this not so much because I am predicting an easy trajectory or even a happy end. Indeed, in recent years every one of Merkel’s positions on immigration has hardened. Clearly, she has come to understand that this is not, alas, simply a matter of extending a helping hand.  That there are consequences to attempting to integrate large numbers of outsiders into a country and culture historically comprised of insiders. Still, had Chancellor Merkel not taken this step, made a move that deviated so sharply both from her style and substance, she would have been much less interesting a leader, and less great.

There are reasons that history will treat her kindly. That history will recognize her as someone who has done more to shape Germany than any other postwar leader with the exceptions of Konrad Adenauer and, arguably, Willy Brandt. These reasons include the capacity to rise to the occasion – especially when what’s involved is an element of surprise. For the capacity to surprise – recall Nixon’s overture to China, or Begin’s accord with Sadat – is one of the most underrated of all leadership attributes.

Angela Merkel – Leadership in Europe

From the vantage point of this moment, mid-2019, the role of Angela Merkel in the European experiment has been reduced. Some of the reasons for the reduction are, relatively, objective: they seem to have little or no connection to the longtime chancellor. These include first, the emergence in Europe and in the United States of a new band of nationalist, populist leaders with whom Merkel has little in common, either ideologically or temperamentally. These include second, Brexit, which has effectively eliminated Britain as a practical, pragmatic, partner. These include third, followers, noisy, participatory citizens everywhere in Europe, for example, in France, the Yellow Vests, whose prolonged protests impaired the Euro-centric leadership of Emmanuel Macron. Finally, the reasons for Merkel’s reduced role in Europe include the weakening of the multilateral, supranational organizations that for decades have undergirded the continent, most obviously NATO and the EU.

But, when we analyze leadership, we analyze a system in which everything is connected to everything else. Therefore, the explanations provided above, which appear, on the surface, to be more objective than subjective, that is, relatively unrelated to the German chancellor, are in fact not, or, at least, not entirely. They are, to some indeterminate degree, also subjective. That is, they also relate certainly in some ways to who Angela Merkel is and to what she believes, as they do also to Germany, its past and its present, and to the German people, who for the last three quarters of a century have generally preferred to stay out of the fray, not to embroil themselves in it.  

This is not the place for judgement; rather it is for assessment. Let it simply be said then that for better and worse Angela Merkel’s leadership style – her generally cautious and conservative choices, and her Germany-first preferences – have had consequences. There are two junctures at which these were most obviously in evidence. The first was the European debt crisis, during which her insistence on austerity had a significant negative impact, especially on countries along the southern tier, Greece perhaps the most prominent. Circa 2012 criticisms of Merkel in many circles were loud and unrelenting, especially the charge that she was prioritizing German interests, manipulating markets and banks and European institutions to protect Germany’s place in the firmament, literally and figuratively.

Clear conclusions about the impact of Merkel’s interventions, or lack thereof, will never be conclusively drawn. Some still argue that had Merkel been more flexible, recovery in Greece for instance, would have been faster and stronger. Others still argue the contrary – that Merkel’s fiscal conservatism saved the European currency. Still, no less close or astute an observer of Europe than Oxford professor Timothy Garton Ash has concluded that the crisis presented an opportunity that Merkel missed. Her absence of vision in that moment is, in his judgement, “the biggest minus on her record.”[1]

The second charge against Merkel as a leader is, tellingly, similar in nature: it relates to the tension between caution on the one hand and vision on the other. A German leader who was bolder than Merkel, more inclined to lean in and less inclined to hold back, might have seen Trump’s desire to weaken NATO, even to fracture it, as another opportunity to be taken rather than foresworn. Instead of doubling down on Germany’s past reticence, Merkel could have gone in a different direction. She could have seized the day, tried to bring the German people to the point where they would have joined her in seeing the virtues not just of shoring up the venerable Atlantic alliance, but of expanding Germany’s role in undertaking the task.

Germany has gotten accustomed to depending on NATO, a multilateral organization underpinned by multilateral aspirations. But under Chancellor Merkel Germany has not only not led, it has withheld. Current German spending on defense as a percentage of its gross domestic product is 1.2 percent. The NATO target is 2 percent.  For this gap there is no obvious fiscal reason – which means there is a political reason. Merkel made the decision, the calculation, that it was not worth the political risk, to her, of taking Germany in a new and different direction. She would stick to the pattern of the past, one in which her primary task was to keep Germany stable and strong – and the rest, including keeping the continent stable and strong, would, it was presumed, follow.

Which returns us to Merkel’s strength as a leader. Likely no single source of her power, authority, and influence stands out as much as the degree to which she has, consciously or unconsciously, embodied the German people. Germans have not clamored for a larger role in NATO, or for that matter in the European Union. Nor did they exactly insist on helping the Greeks in their moment of need. Rather Germans have generally been content with the many blessings bestowed on them by the status quo: a remarkably stable democracy, a generally thriving economy, and a strong social fabric that largely protects them from the frustrations and agitations bedeviling many if not most of their European counterparts,

Angela Merkel – a Woman Leader in a Man’s World

“Mutti” was what Angela Merkel was sometimes called. (The word means “Mom” or “Mommy.”) Now, not so much. Now “Mutti” has receded in favor of the recognition that probably it’s inappropriate to pin it to a woman who has been called the most powerful in the world, and certainly it’s misguided. In fact, Merkel has never had a child. Nor are Germans, the German people, her children. Many or most have been her followers, her constituents, her supporters to the point of voting for her for chancellor for no fewer than four consecutive four-year terms. Merkel even beats out that other formidable female leader, another modern European, Margaret Thatcher, who served as prime minster of the United Kingdom for eleven years.   

But to understand Merkel’s singular status as a woman whose tenure in Germany’s highest elective office has been characterized by, among other things, extraordinary longevity, better to set her in a larger, global context. For example, the United States has never had a single American president who was other than a man. Or, currently there are some 195 countries in the world – less than 13% have a woman at the helm. Or, assuming Merkel concludes her current term in 2021, she will rival if not beat the record of the handful of other women who have similarly served for so long, such as Indira Gandhi. (Gandhi was prime minister of India from 1966 to 1977, and again from 1980 until her assassination in 1984.) Or, of the current Fortune 500 chief executive officers, less than 5 percent are women. Or, black women govern only 4 percent of America’s largest cities. Or, women constitute only about 30 percent of members of the German Bundestag. Or, women constitute only about 23 percent of the U.S. Congress.

One could of course go on – but the point is made. The number of women at the top is still exceedingly low: no matter public sector or private one; no matter region or religion; no matter 1999 or 2019. To be sure, in general the numbers are inching up. But that’s precisely the point. They are inching up; they are not climbing up. For various reasons the so-called pipeline – which implied that women down below would make their way up in a reasonable span of time – has been largely illusory.

Given the multiple manifestations of women’s movements; and given the recent realizations that diversity is an attribute; and given that women themselves profess to want to rise to the top; why equality at the top remains still so elusive is not completely clear. (I have argued that childbearing along with childrearing weighs more heavily on the problem than generally is appreciated.) Whatever the explanations, a woman in high office is a nut Merkel has cracked. She has found a way – a way for a woman to lead without seeming to be too feminine, too caring and communal; and without seeming to be too masculine, aggressive and proactive. Interestingly, it’s a delicate balance, difficult for a woman to strike. What’s required is splitting the difference. To state it more baldly, “successful female leaders generally find a middle way that is neither unacceptably masculine nor unacceptably feminine.” [2]


As this document suggests, as a leader Angela Merkel has been imperfect. She has not walked on water. But, as this document further suggests, she has been among the most admirable and accomplished leaders in German history, not just postwar German history, German history period, European history period. Setting aside the specifics of her accomplishments, these two are overarching. First, when she is done with her leadership work, she will leave Germany a strong liberal democracy, this during a time when illiberal forces threaten from all sides. Second, when she is done with her leadership work, she will leave Germany testimony to taking responsibility, this during a time when evading responsibility is every day more in evidence. For her steadiness, steadfastness, and strength, and for her sensibility and sensitivity, Chancellor Angela Merkel merits the Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree that was bestowed on her today by Harvard University.


[1] Quoted in Katrin Bennhold, “’Already an Exception’ Merkel’s Legacy is Shaped by Migration and Austerity,” The New York Times, December 5, 2018.

[2] Alice Eagly and Linda Carli quoted in Barbara Kellerman. “Leading Androgynously” in Women’s Policy Journal of Harvard, 2013. t 4;

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