Saturday, August 27, 2016

Angela Merkel: A Profile in Failure 

 Angela Merkel: A Profile in Failure


The greatest people in history have been failures. Certainly, we remember these individuals as successes--success stories--and we treat those stories as legends and those individuals as gods. But each of them failed epically and repeatedly, more so than the combined successes of all of humanity.
Failure should not be overlooked in anyone, especially not those we admire. It is through failure that these individuals were able to learn, grow and ultimately succeed. We know this about ourselves but even as we learn to accept our own failures, sometimes we don’t recognize that the most successful people in the world have had an abundance of failure.
Our heroes need to be held to the same standard as the ancient Greek gods: awesome but not infallible. Failure is a humbling exercise, both for the observer and the observed. But learning is a humbling process. Once we realize that our heroes are just like us, we can examine how failure drives success. So I’ve started collecting stories about the failures of successful people, as a reminder that if you’re making mistakes and learning from them, you’re actually on the path to success.
In 2015, Time Magazine named German Chancellor Angela Merkel its Person of the Year, and the cover referred to her as the “Chancellor of the Free World.” It is a heavy title, but incredibly, not a hyperbolic one. Nor is Forbes Magazine’s nine-time declaration that she is the most powerful woman in the world or The New York Timesproclamation that she is “the most powerful political figure” or The Economist’s viewpoint that “one leader stands above the rest: Angela Merkel.” Germany’s leader since 2005, Merkel is responsible, more than anyone, for the success not just of Germany, but the very survival of the European Union and the continued strength of the Euro currency. When the European Union won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, it was lost on no one who really won the award. On the eve of Britain pulling out of the EU, it would seem as if Angela Merkel’s grand plan was in jeopardy. But given her background and approach to leadership, it is highly unlikely that this failure will be anything more than a momentary setback.
Germans endearingly call Chancellor Merkel “Mutti,” which means mother, as she has earned by delicately treating all of her constituents with the same level of balance and patience that a mother affords her children. Merkel has consistently pushed for equality and championed human rights. She acts according to her values, even if it means going against her self-interest, or against Germany’s short-term interests. It often makes for contradictions, but there is always a core purpose being met. She pushed to increase minimum wage while reducing social welfare; she reformed immigrant rights while refusing to limit immigration; she lobbied for austerity measures for Greece while providing financial support for the country; she even advocated for Jean-Claude Juncker as EU president despite being critical of him as an individual. Merkel moves with methodological purpose, like a gardener in a political landscape that needs heavy pruning—often removing the weeds, sometimes removing the flowers as well, such that ultimately the forest may support the heavier timber.
In many ways, Angela Merkel defines what it means to be a leader. But she is anything but traditional in her approach. She is egoless, introverted, and gives little credence to short-term issues if they jeopardize long-term objectives. Her leadership approach is best described as hard and firm, but with an aim toward building consensus, often against the backdrop of virtually impossible situations.
Merkel is not a politician, nor was that ever her goal. Rather, she started her career as a scientist, earning degrees in physics and chemistry before going to work for the Academy of Sciences for nearly 15 years. She expected to focus on science and came to serve in government for the best of reasons—because she truly believed she could add value in a time of crisis. She entered politics just as East and West Germany were reuniting, after the fall of the Berlin wall and the revolutions of 1989. It was a period of enormous strife, fear, and uncertainty.
She put aside her scientific pursuits so that she could help her country heal. Despite having no political aspirations, she was willing to do her part. She first took on a role in public relations for East Germany, which morphed into a series of mid-level roles including running the ministry for women and youth. Moving the young Merkel into this role was a clear political move by then Chancellor Kohl to appeal to the female demographic. It was lost on no one and earned Merkel the patronizing nickname “Kohls M√§dchen” (“Kohl’s girl”). Reputation be damned, Merkel was willing to do what she thought necessary to build greater Germany.
A willingness to sacrifice for a greater good was not alien to Merkel. When she was young, her parents did what many people would consider unthinkable: they moved from democratic West Germany into the Soviet controlled communist East Germany. As migrations go, moving from West to East Germany back then was akin to having polar bears move to the Caribbean. If it happened, there was typically an explanation on the scale of global warming.
Merkel’s parents’ reason for moving was indeed big, but it wasn’t what you would expect. They didn’t make the move to increase their own prosperity; in fact, her parents led a vibrant life and enjoyed the spoils of a democratic nation. They chose to give up there democratic freedom because of religious beliefs, as they were Lutheran in a Catholic dominated country.
Imagine being a child living in a first world country, only to have your parents move the family purely because of principles. Imagine further that the decision took you into a third world communist country, with little freedom or privacy, let alone creature comforts such as running water, toilet paper, and heat. Merkel learned about sacrifice in a way that clearly left a deep and indelible impression. That was the mold from which Angela Merkel was cast.
Given her upbringing, it is less of a surprise that she would impulsively end her scientific career to jump into politics. It is also not surprising that her intrinsic beliefs contributed to her success, and she quickly moved up to positions of real power. This culminated in 2005, when she was elected to be Chancellor, the highest position in all of Germany. At once, Merkel became the first woman, the first East German, and at age 51, the youngest person to ever become Chancellor.
Merkel had clear ambitions to make Germany a better and stronger country, but she also believed in European unification, and she made that a key platform as Chancellor of Germany. She made it clear that she was willing to sacrifice her own ambitions, and maybe even German dominance, to serve the greater good for all of Europe. She became the President of the European Council in 2007 and chaired the G8 in an attempt to generate support for a more united Europe. It is important to remember that, at the time Merkel joined, the EU was incredibly weak, and many Europeans – particularly in Germany – felt that any act towards European unionization was an act against their own country.
The linchpin behind strengthening the EU was to link currencies, and therefore economic markets, together through the Euro, which most member countries have since adopted as their primary currency. Under Merkel’s leadership, the EU was formally expanded through the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, in what we now know as the European Union, with Merkel leading the charge without actively taking a leadership role. They called her “the Decider” in a show of respect for the intense influence she yielded during this process, as well as the authority she had over what was quickly becoming a European empire.
In the history of humanity, empire building is a common phenomenon. It is a theme that often defines an era—Roman, Byzantine, Ming, Judeo-Christian. In each case, land is conquered in the name of a higher power and much blood is spilled, but history remembers the victors kindly. Rarer but not uncommon, are peaceful nations that coexist with others—Australia, Qatar, and Canada come to mind today, but there are numerous other historical examples 
What is virtually unheard of is a peaceful empire. It is almost anathema to human nature. Once in power, it is rare for anyone to want to give it up, even over time. The EU may in fact be a singular example, an outlier of sovereignty willingly subjugated. It has not come easy of course. For nearly half a century, the European Commission stood with no legs and bit with no teeth. Yet in the few years that Merkel has been in a leadership position, she has flexed her power by yielding it, and in so doing, she has convinced others to do the same.
To build the EU to its current state, Merkel had to pull together countless nations, leaders had to give up authority, and everyone needed to put aside their ego. She led by example, putting herself and her country behind the goals and needs of the EU, despite the fact that Germany was a much stronger county than anyone other EU nation. Perhaps it would have been in her best interest to let the EU fail so that Germany could stand apart and be stronger relative to all others. Instead, she went with the greater good and led by example. Merkel has placed the Euro and the EU above all and has been willing to compromise positions on virtually any subject to protect the empire she helped to build.
A test of that resolve came in 2007, at the cusp of the global financial crisis. Merkel was focused on building the EU at the time and was close to having broad agreement on the Euro. When the crisis hit, it was clear that some European countries would fare far worse than others. It was largely believed however, that Germany would remain in strong financial shape, having been adverse to debt, immune to the real estate bubble, and fiscally powerful given its profitable industrial firms. Inside Germany, it seemed obvious that the right course was to abandon the Euro so that Germany could thrive. Merkel was not even willing to entertain the thought.
At the time, several Eurozone countries looked likely to default on their loan obligations and the EU needed to decide whether to support those countries, remove them from the EU, or disband the EU altogether. Merkel staunchly supported keeping the EU together at all costs. She was even willing to have Germany personally guarantee loans, well above what the EU or other member countries were willing to do. Politically, this was career suicide for Merkel back in Germany but her goal was to save the EU, not her job.
Throughout the financial crisis, Germany remained financially strong due to prudent decision-making, but watched as many of its European Union sisters collapsed (Greece, Iceland, Ireland) or were seriously crippled (Italy, France). The poor fiscal policymaking of those nations led to a weakening of the entire Euro currency. As the strongest member of the EU, Germany was forced to finance much of the bailout to keep the EU intact.
Merkel may have been the perfect person to navigate the European financial crisis. As the leader of the strongest economic country in the EU, all other countries took direction from her. And she refused to waver, even in the most drastic of situations.
During the financial crisis, the most drastic situation turned out to be the collapse of Greece’s economy. Greece was especially affected by the global recession starting in 2007 because its main industries are shipping and tourism, both of which are highly dependent on the strength of economies across the world. Greece’s reaction to the crisis was to incur more debt. By 2010 the country was broke and in April it asked the EU and the IMF for 45 billion euros to meet its expenses through the end of the year.
It was a huge crisis, but one not completely foreign to Merkel. She had learned from her experiences in East Germany, which were eerily similar: when the East adopted the West’s deutschmark, economic chaos ensued and many fought against it. “I come from a country in which I experienced economic collapse,” Merkel said in 2012. She felt that if Greece did not reduce its debt with a sustainable, long-term strategy, “Europe simply will no longer be the prosperous continent that the world listens to and that gets people’s attention.”
In saving Greece—and thus the European Union—Merkel had her work cut out for her. While the 19 countries of the Eurozone were connected by a common currency, they had drastically different political systems and fiscal policies. Germany and Greece were in many ways polar opposites: Germany was the buttoned-up conservative and Greece was the free spirit, often spending money it didn’t have without regard for the future.
It was Merkel who insisted that Greece change its ways if it was to receive bailouts. Many of the other member countries wanted to drop Greece out of the currency union and let it go back to its old currency at a massively downgraded exchange rate. To complicate matters, many Greeks were in favor of this plan as well, including a good portion of the government. But Merkel fought hard to keep Greece in the Eurozone. And she insisted on austerity measures in exchange for German aid. She vowed that Greece would stay, and that it would shape up. And ultimately, despite riots, protests, and backlash from within and without, Merkel won. Through this victory, more than any other, she became the de facto leader of Europe, the Chancellor of the Free World.
In her ten years as the leader of Germany, she has put out one European fire after another. Britain yesterday voted to secede but it is unlikely that will dissuade Merkel. It is merely another fire drill and there is undoubtedly a contingency plan up her sleeve. She has already helped keep Greece and other countries from leaving the European Union, not to mention saved the currency union from collapse. Merkel also did more than her share to ease the refugee crisis, welcoming 1 million refugees from the Middle East into Germany and encouraging other EU nations to act similarly. She was one of only a few leaders brave enough to impose sanctions on Russia for its bad behavior, and according to The Economist, Vladimir Putin considers her “the only European leader worth talking to.”
There are countless examples where Angela Merkel has placed her principles above all else. In doing so, she often persuades the rest of the world to follow suit. 

Source: Jeff Stibel  Vice Chairman at Dun & Bradstreet

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