Angela Merkel—Striking the Right Note on Leadership

August 31, 2019

As Prepared For Delivery

1. Introduction

Dean, Honored members of the faculty, Prime Minister, First Mayor, Class of 2019, Ladies and Gentlemen, and, of course, my dear friend Chancellor Merkel—good morning, ein herzliches Guten Morgen.

It is a great pleasure to be here to honor Angela Merkel, who will soon be awarded the degree of Doctor Honoris Causa for her accomplishments in leadership.

Thirty years ago, when the Berlin Wall came down, few would have predicted that a young woman from East Germany could become a four-term Chancellor of Germany and the longest-serving leader in the European Union.

Few would have predicted that Angela Merkel could become one of the most broadly influential and widely respected leaders of our time.

In many ways, of course, this is only part of her story. As one of her favorite philosophers, Karl Popper once put it: “ The future is wide open and depends on us, on all of us.” [i]

So it is not surprising that Angela Merkel recently described her own future as being “completely open.” [ii]

And the future is wide open for you, the 220 graduates—from 65 nations—who can be proud of what you have achieved at HHL Leipzig Graduate School of Management. To the class of 2019—congratulations!

As one of the world’s oldest business schools, HHL confirms my belief that there must be “something in the water” here in Leipzig.

Think about it: Leibnitz, Goethe, Nietzsche, Wagner, and—of course—Angela Merkel: they all were drinking from the deep well of academic excellence in this beautiful city.

And think of the class of 2019—an incredibly diverse group of future business leaders and entrepreneurs who are full of energy and creativity. They are about to step into a world that has been shaped—in no small measure—by the extraordinary leadership of Angela Merkel.

She is an exceptional person— eine Ausnahmepersönlichkeit.

Surrounded by the sublime sounds of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in this magnificent opera house, we are also reminded of the fact that Angela Merkel is a big music fan. And I will tell you more about her favorite opera.

2. Angela Merkel’s early life and career

But first, I would like to remind all of us just how remarkable her story is.

Angela Merkel was born in Hamburg, the daughter of a pastor and a teacher. She grew up in East Germany in the days of the Communist government. And for her, family was a source of immense comfort.

She once said that “no shadow had darkened her childhood.” [iii]

She was a star student in mathematics and Russian, and went on to study physics at Leipzig University. In time, she earned a PhD in quantum chemistry, and worked as a research scientist in East Berlin—and she lived near the Berlin Wall.

She recently said that she had been walking home every day, feeling frustrated and despondent that the wall had limited her life.

All of that changed overnight when the wall came down in 1989. Having spent the first 35 years of her life on one side of the divideAngela Merkel embraced her wide-open future in a united Germany.

As she put it: “ I experienced firsthand how nothing has to stay the way it is…Anything that seems set in stone or inalterable can indeed change .” [iv]

In December 1990, she won a seat in the Bundestag, and her rise in politics began: Minister for Women and Youth, Minister for the Environment, Secretary-General and later leader of the CDU, the Christian Democratic Union.

In November 2005, she was elected to her first term as Chancellor of Germany.

But that was only one of many “firsts”:

Angela Merkel became the first female German Chancellor, and thefirst to have grown up in East Germany. She became theyoungest German Chancellor since the Second World War, and the first born after 1945. She was also the first female leader of a German political party, and the first German Chancellor with a background in natural sciences.

What an incredible achievement, what an immense responsibility!

By breaking the mold, by helping to modernize German society, Angela Merkel has been creating new perspectives, new certainties—especially for women. For her, gender parity in all areas is simply self-evident, eine Selbstverständlichkeit. It is no accident that some of her closest, most trusted advisers are women.

So how did she do it?

Well, if there is “something in the water” in Leipzig, then there is definitely something in the DNA of Angela Merkel. Or to put it in the management terms of this school, there must be a “Merkel Leadership Model.”

3. Angela Merkel’s leadership—personal reflections

Let me offer a few personal reflections on her extraordinary leadership.

As I said at the beginning, Angela Merkel is not only a music fan, but she is an opera fan. Serious opera, especially by Richard Wagner. Her favorite work is Tristan and Isolde, a tale of doomed love set to bold and sweeping music.

But she also enjoys listening to Johann Sebastian Bach, who created some of his greatest works here in Leipzig. And so when it comes to Angela Merkel’s leadership style, I am reminded of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Das wohltemperierte Klavier.

Why? Because this collection of preludes and fugues has not only been hugely inspirational—for Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven—but it also captures Angela Merkel’s approach—one that is measured, methodical, and well-tempered.

She knows how to strike the right note, and she is especially skilled at playing what I would call the Four D’s: diplomacy , diligence, determination, and duty.

(a) Diplomacy

Let me start with diplomacy. By this I mean Angela Merkel’s relentless commitment to bringing people together. As she once put it: “ I seek cooperation rather than confrontation.”

That is always the starting point of Angela Merkel’s leadership—especially on the global stage.

Whether it is climate change, migration pressures, trade tensions, or concerns about data privacy, Angela Merkel understands well that we cannot play alone, that we need to be part of a modern, “international orchestra.”

She understands that the multilateral system has been critical in helping billions of people to become healthier, wealthier, and better educated.

She also understands the limitations and challenges: there is no conductor with a magic baton; different peoples and cultures will play their own instruments; and there is more dissonance in the form of populism and nationalism—in part because not everyone has benefited from the current system.

This is why Angela Merkel has been working hard over so many years to build support for more cooperation and less confrontation —for a better multilateral system. And she deserves enormous credit for that.

It may sometimes feel as if she is playing in a solo. After all, she dislikes an excess of emotion; her fine sense of humor is rarely heard in public, and she does not seek out the limelight. But she never plays alone. We are all playing with her, and following her lead.

(b) Diligence

This brings me to the second “D”—diligence—which informs her well-tempered diplomacy. What do I mean?

Angela Merkel is always the best-prepared person in the room, always on top of her briefing material. She works methodically and patiently through a problem, splitting it into its various parts, weighing up pros and cons, and crafting a solution step by step, bit by bit.

In fact, her diligence goes well beyond productivity numbers, climate statistics, and all the other issues of the day. Here I am talking about the fact that Angela Merkel is a big football fan.

She admires football managers, such as Jürgen Klinsmann, who can turn a logical approach into effortless team performance. And of course, audiences love to see her special way of cheering when Die Mannschaft, the German national team, scores a goal.

A former England team player once said: “ Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end the Germans always win .” [v] Well, in terms of recent World Cup performance, it is actually the German women’s team that has been more on the winning side—but I digress!

The question is how Angela Merkel can win over people who do not share her logical approach, people who do not want to play in the orchestra.

(c) Determination

This is where the third “D” comes in—determination.

We all know that Angela Merkel has an extraordinary drive and staying power, an incredible inner strength that allows her to stay at the table and push the negotiations over the line.

Her objective is always to reach that all-important compromise which, by definition, leaves everyone a little bit dissatisfied but vastly better off. That spirit has helped reshape our world, especially over the last decade.

In the early stages of the global financial crisis, Angela Merkel told the American President [George W. Bush] that “ this international crisis requires an international response.” [vi] It was her unwavering determination—especially within the G20 Group of Nations—that helped the world to find that response and prevent another Great Depression.

And perhaps the biggest test of all came during the Euro Area sovereign debt crisis, with its seemingly endless crisis negotiations and the constant whiplash of negative financial and political news.

It was—in the words of Angela Merkel—“ like being in a dark room, so dark you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face .” [vii]

We know that Angela Merkel was working hard to bring the European orchestra together in this dark moment. In time, she helped galvanize joint efforts to provide unprecedented support to crisis-hit countries. Fiscal rules were strengthened, and new vital institutions were created—think of the European Stability Mechanism.

And yet in all this, one thing is clear: determination, diligence, and well-tempered diplomacy would not have been enough to meet that kind of challenge.

(d) Duty

So what is the missing link? What is the ultimate leitmotif of Angela Merkel’s leadership?

The answer is simple: every day Angela Merkel is drawing strength from her deeply felt sense of duty—the final “D”.

For all her methodical work and rational thinking, Angela Merkel is guided by this sense of duty. Why? Because she knows that some things are what she calls “matters of the heart.”

For her, Europe is ultimately a matter of the heart—and so is her deeply held conviction that Germany’s destiny lies in a prosperous and peaceful Europe—one that has learned the lessons from the horrors of the 20 th century, one that is committed to diversity, freedom, and tolerance.

For her, human dignity is a matter of the heart—and so are the big questions that come with it. How can we address the causes of displacement and forced migration? How can we ensure that digital transformations benefit all people? How can we fight the existential threat of climate change?

4. Conclusion

Angela Merkel is facing up to these questions with an abiding sense of duty, with great humility, and a profound optimism.

As she once put it: “ Let us not ask what is wrong or what has always been. Let us first ask what is possible and look for something that has never been done before.” [viii]

Over the past thirty years, Angela Merkel has embodied this spirit of courage and leadership. By striking the right note, by writing her own well-tempered music, she has shown us that we, too, can step into a wide-open future.

Nobody can see through the veil of time, but I sincerely believe that the music of Angela Merkel’s life will not only resonate with this generation, with these graduates, or even with Germany only, but with generations of people from all over the world.

Thank you.

[i] Karl Popper (1992): The Lesson of this Century.

[ii] Angela Merkel: Commencement Address at Harvard University, May 30, 2019.

[iii] Interview by the photographer Herlinde Koelbl, 1991.

[iv] Angela Merkel: Commencement Address at Harvard University, May 30, 2019.

[v] Gary Lineker, former professional footballer and sports broadcaster.

[vi] Angela Merkel: Speech at the Global Solutions Summit, Berlin, March 19, 2019.

[vii] Stefan Kornelius (2014): Angela Merkel: The Chancellor and Her World.

[viii] Angela Merkel (2005): first policy statement as newly elected Chancellor, German Bundestag.

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