Angela Merkel and the myth of charismatic leadership

In Britain, no politician, least of all an ambitious woman, would get far if their profile included unassuming, private, dutiful and a very mediocre debater


She may be Europe’s most powerful woman, but well, boring, snoring doesn’t come close, does it. She’s so cautious she has the exact same jacket in at least 70 unadventurous shades and wears an identical outfit (one of the jackets with dark trousers) every day. Her rise to power as a woman, a chemist born in the GDR, a Lutheran in a party dominated by West German Catholics was highly improbable and makes her personal story fascinating. But asked once what her biggest youthful mistake was, she could only recall the day she climbed a tree and ruined a new tracksuit.

Her public speaking style is as inspiring as the eurozone quarterly growth figures. If Angela Merkel was a British shadow minister and went on Newsnight, Ian Katz would surely be retweeting “boring, snoring” so many times with so many added zs there would have to be another BBC inquiry – not into how embarrassing his indiscretion was, but for letting such a disaster anywhere near the cameras.

Yet the German Chancellor has an extraordinary personal popularity rating – as high as 70 per cent according to one poll. Barring last-minute upsets she is a shoo-in to be returned to power for a third term when Germans go to the polls on 22 September even if the arithmetic means her party the CDU will still have to form a coalition. The less star quality this 59-year-old exhibits, it seems, the more popular she becomes.

How does Merkel do it? In Britain, no politician, least of all an ambitious woman, would get far, let alone to a third term, if their profile included unassuming, private, dutiful and a very mediocre debater who doesn’t give many speeches. Voters here want their candidates to ooze energy, ¬action, drive. We want slick performers and plenty of fine talk. Credible policies are desirable. But what we really yearn for in the figure running the country is that they have “charisma”.

I suspect the reason Labour handlers were irked was because in Britain it is almost a bigger failing to be judged a “boring” performer than to be judged incompetent. Alastair Campbell was this week lamenting the current lack of “big characters” in British politics. And while Ed Miliband gets a rough time from within his party for solid policy reasons, the nagging doubts that persist about his electability are really presentational, he’s too geeky, too serious and his speeches… well, snooooozerama, innit, to paraphrase Katz.

That Merkel projects an image which seems the antithesis of what we understand by charismatic doesn’t, of course, actually make her a great German chancellor. She is rightly accused of letting events dictate the course of her ¬actions like canning the German nuclear power programme after Fukushima. The German federal system requires her to be a master tactician with regional opponents and rivals and that’s what absorbs her energy more than leading Europe out of the economic crisis or, for example, searching for peace in Syria.

At the G20 summit in St Petersburg, she embodied the reluctant German superpower idea, refusing to come off the fence and back a Syria statement signed by other EU leaders including David Cameron and François Hollande. An insular, parochial-minded German Chancellor, however “iron” her reputation in dealing with her adversaries at home, has negative consequences for Europe if not the world.

But the point to ponder is that Merkel manages to be perceived as “boring” by modern standards and at the same time to connect effectively with her electorate. This must be an interesting thing for democracy at a time when anti-politicians, populists and outsiders are feted and when so many people reject all politicians as corrupt or just “all the same”.

Germans of course, have good reason to disdain showy, flashy people and clever talkers in positions of power. Look at what happened when they last elected somebody with an abundance of charisma. With one or two ¬exceptions, cautious types have run the country since the war. Helmut Schmidt once ¬remarked that a politician who says they have a vision should see a doctor.

And it could be argued that Germans are just being pragmatic and thinking about their pockets. Why would they want to replace Merkel for a more excitable character when she has been such a safe pair of hands in keeping their economy on track and in demanding that other euro nations fall into line with the austerity that Berlin demands of them?

Maybe there’s something else at play. In her fascinating book Quiet, Susan Cain traces the relatively recent origins of -“personality” as the ideal in business, in politics and in life. It is, she points out, an early 20th- century invention of American self-help gurus like Dale Carnegie, who taught us to celebrate qualities like “magnetic” and “fascinating” over dutiful or honourable. In the course of her ¬research, Cain visited Harvard Business School whose alumni include George W Bush and a long list of US Treasury Secretaries, World Bank presidents and the like.

“No one ambles, strolls or lingers. They stride, full of forward momentum,” says Cain. The highly influential leadership model taught here is built on showing an ability to deliver certainty even without all the facts, because quiet, slow decision-making causes the morale (of customers or voters) to ebb away. Yet,Cain pulls together convincing evidence to argue that “charisma” in the sense of being alpha, loud and a great talker does not lead to greater insight or effectiveness, indeed the opposite.

Even Germans are not immune to the attractions of personality-driven campaigning and so Merkel’s only distinctive gesture, the way she places her hands together, fingers pointing downwards to create the shape of a diamond, is now being used as a symbol on the CDU campaign posters: “The hands of power”. How ¬refreshing that she punctured this image-making nonsense by telling the women’s magazine Brigitte that it meant “nothing”, and that she adopted the gesture only “because I never knew what to do with my arms”.

The difference here is that awkward political performers are pressured to project themselves as something they’re not naturally. The resulting inauthenticity is probably a bigger turn-off than the real Miliband or Reeves or even the real Cameron (not the man in those awful staged holiday pictures) might be.

It is possible that Germans have grown to love Mutti (mummy) because, as some claim, she’s a blank canvas. Or, could it be they have unconsciously developed a more evolved way of thinking about leadership than our US-inspired political culture allows. Wouldn’t it be healthy for our democracy too if we could bust the myth of charismatic leadership. Good performers make great television but we might do better to put our trust in conscientiousness, tenacity, the ability to take heed more than risk and in a leader more comfortable in their office boringly solving problems than glittering in the spotlight.

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