Leadership As An Exercise In Ego Suppression: Discovering Angela Merkel's Brilliance

"It is possible that Merkel may not be remembered as a pioneer, but as the last example of an idea that feels increasingly old-fashioned when political tribes are built around personal identity"

Leadership As An Exercise In Ego Suppression: Discovering Angela Merkel's Brilliance

The year was 2015 and I heard and watched two speeches on the refugee crisis by the then German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The first speech was before the European Parliament on 7 October 2015, which she gave alongside François Hollande, is remarkable in every way. Besides being a symbol of an intervention by France and Germany – which may not in fact have been the best signal to send to those whom they were trying to convince – the speech before the representatives of the peoples of Europe made good sense.

It was, therefore, natural to take her speech as the first subject of this article dedicated to European immigration and asylum law, sharing Jürgen Habermas’ sense of being “as surprised as delighted” by the German position on the refugee crisis in the European Union.

Indeed, the German Chancellor’s speech reflects a consistent policy that deserves respect, but also announces technical developments that raise some questions.

In the second speech on 31 December, 2015, which was a televised address: She said that “countries have always benefited from successful immigration, both economically and socially” and asked Germans to see refugee arrivals as “an opportunity for tomorrow.” She urged doubters not to follow racist hate-mongers. The past year – when the country took in more than a million migrants and refugees – had been unusually challenging, she said in a pre-released text of the speech, also bracing Germans for more hardships ahead. But she stressed that in the end it would all be worth it because of the benefits that it would bring. With a view to right-wing populists and xenophobic street rallies, she said “It’s important we don’t allow ourselves to be divided.”

These two remarkable speeches in those turbulent times, created a volcanic impact not only in Germany, but across the globe. She emerged as the only leader who spoke with clarity, remained consistent and shower her firm commitment. Despite the continuation of sheer criticism on her stance, she was being embraced with more respect from all over due to her courageous stance. My journey started to learn more about her, and for that purpose, I began to collect some books and also kept on watching different German news channels, while also reading that country’s newspapers.

In search of that journey, I came to know about a book, The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel written by Hungarian-American author and journalist Kati Marton. In fact, a brief introduction was written by our dear friend and renowned columnist Rauf Klasra on Facebook, and he also shared the front cover of the book. I bought that book and began to read it, finishing in four days. I still remember the joy that I felt by reading each word of it, exploring the new world filled with passion, courage, boldness and the other phenomenal qualities of Angela Merkel.

I must recommend this work to those interested in global politics, as an intimate and deeply researched account of the extraordinary rise and the political brilliance of the most powerful and elusive woman in the world. Angela Merkel’s marathon tenure as Germany’s leader may have officially crossed the finishing line with September’s federal elections, but her final lap of honour could take some time. Depending on the pace of coalition talks between the politicians hoping to fill her shoes, she may yet give one more of her annual TV addresses in a caretaker capacity this Christmas.

Still, as a new generation of German leaders rises to the fore and Merkel recedes into the background, the contours of her legacy are becoming easier to distinguish. There are quantifiable historic firsts: 16 years in office make her the joint longest-serving chancellor of the postwar era, equalling the record of her former mentor Helmut Kohl. She is the first German chancellor to have the wisdom to step down of her own will, at the end of a full term. Moreover, she is the first female German head of government, the first with a scientist’s training, and the first to have grown up in a socialist command economy. She may go down in history as a once-in-a-century political adaptor, connecting two differently hardwired systems kept apart by the Berlin Wall.

Yet it is also possible that Merkel may not be remembered as a pioneer, but as the last example of an idea that feels increasingly old-fashioned in an age where more and more political tribes are built around personal identity: leadership as an exercise in ego suppression, and holding high office as tantamount to covering the very traits that make you unique.

Hungarian-American author Kati Marton is especially fascinated by this aspect of Merkel’s tenure: the intense privacy of a woman who rose to power in an era of oversharing. “After several decades, Germans are not tired of her image, her voice, her looming persona – because Merkel does not loom.”

Angela Dorothea Merkel is a retired German politician and chemist who served as Chancellor of Germany from 2005 to 2021. A member of the Christian Democratic Union, she previously served as Leader of the Opposition from 2002 to 2005 and as Leader of the Christian Democratic Union from 2000 to 2018. The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 served as the catalyst for Merkel's political career. Although she did not participate in the crowd celebrations the night that the wall came down, one month later Merkel became involved in the growing democracy movement.

On 18 March 2020, Merkel gave a widely publicised speech on the COVID-19 pandemic, comparing its challenges to the Second World War:

“Please also take this seriously. Since German reunification, no, since the Second World War, there has not been a challenge for our country in which action in a spirit of solidarity on our part was so important”

The speech was well-received both nationally and internationally, receiving widespread attention and an award for "speech of the year." While ending this piece, let me share below some key quotes from Angela Merkel:

“Let us answer the terrorists by living our values with courage.”

“I'm someone who is very supportive of us eliminating all discrimination.”

“You can much better have an influence on the debate when you sit at the bargaining table and you can give input.”

“Whenever you have political conflict, such as the one that we have now between Russia and Ukraine, but also in many other conflicts around the world, it has always proved to be right to try again and again to solve such a conflict.”

Angela Merkel was an outsider. A pastor’s daughter raised in Soviet-controlled East Germany, spent her twenties working as a research chemist, only entering politics after the fall of the Berlin Wall. And yet within 15 years, she had become the Chancellor of Germany and, before long, the unofficial leader of the West. Her achievements are testament to her vision and courage.

The author is a singer, blogger, human rights activist and film critic