Germany’s Leadership Question on the Eve of Elections

By Megan Doherty

In the run-up to federal elections, Germany confronts a leadership problem. In the 19th century, Germans debated their unification and role in Europe. Today, journalists, commentators, and policy experts across Europe and the world have reframed the German Question, arguing that a lack of decisive leadership during the euro crisis is now the biggest threat Germany poses to its neighbors. 


Yet with less than a month before its elections, what is Germany’s leadership question really about? “I will probably be the first Polish Foreign Minister in history to say so,” Radek Sikorski declared in November 2011, “but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity." The German commentator Jakob Augustein concurred, calling his countrymen “stubborn and egotistical.” The crux of “the reluctant hegemon’s” problems, argued The Economist, stems from discomfort with the very idea of leadership: “Germans are deeply ambivalent about their growing role in Europe and generally uncomfortable talking about leadership. The mere vocabulary is fraught with historical echoes."


With recent history weighing on Germany’s collective psyche, it is hardly surprising that there is little support in the country for a leadership role in the euro crisis, of the kind the United States—often the world’s most enthusiastic hegemon—adopted in the aftermath of World War II, resulting in the creation of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and fixed interest rates. More revealing insights might come from investigating the ideal of effective leadership that commentators regularly invoke, but often fail to define. 


In the 20th century, scholars within the fields of business management and psychology—taking their cue from the turn to scientific management—began to formulate theories of leadership development. “Great man” and “trait” theories, which argued that some people were simply born to lead or innately possessed leadership traits, prevailed early on.  Contingency theories, which bear the mark of 1970 and 1980s postmodernism, argued that effective leadership spoke to its specific context. A group of soldiers will respond to a “command and control” style, a group of social workers to someone more nurturing.  Participative and relationship theories—in which the ideal transformational leader, driven by high ethical standards, uses motivation and service to inspire teams to collaboration and high productivity—generally prevail today.


Regardless of the model, these theories posit that successful leaders must meet two key criteria. First, leaders must act. A leader aims to chart new ground; anyone else is simply a manager or a steward. To do this, the successful leader requires a second condition: followers. Supporters might be won though authority, as in the case of the command and control type, or through encouragement, as in the case of the transformational leader.  Regardless of the style, leaders can only be effective when they are perceived to be effective—when people believe in them and offer their support through words or deeds.


And herein lies the crux of Germany’s leadership problem. German leadership meets the first criterion. While Germany may not have supported widespread privatization, championed a full single market for services, or advocated for the creation of a banking union, its insistence that fiscal discipline be applied across southern Europe and its reluctance to pursue policies that would lead to greater debt and inflation are, in fact, forms of action. 


Germany’s problem is that outside the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund, and a few countries like Austria and Estonia, no one trusts these policies. During the economic bailouts of Greece and Cyprus, Germany appeared to impose its will rather than collaborate. Its leaders have done little to reshape the common perception in Germany that southern Europeans’ laziness triggered the crisis, without which they lack a mandate at home that would allow more radical reforms across Europe. And perhaps most telling, Germany has not tried to reverse the perception that it has a leadership problem, suggesting an obliviousness altogether.


Yet some high level German officials have started to speak out. Thomas Bagger, head of Policy Planning at the German Federal Foreign Office, recently argued that breakthroughs in collaboration between Germany, Poland and Russia could become a model for a more sensitive and image-conscious German leadership across Europe. Germany, he argues, must employ “empathy and solidarity with EU member states, [be] ready to go the extra mile in consulting with all members… in order to forge consensus, and always [keep] in mind that leadership for Germany axiomatically needs to be a ‘negotiated leadership’ with partners." That is a precise definition of the participative, relationship-driven leadership model ascendant today. Bagger is right. Image, consent, and collaboration matter. Recognizing and acting on this may provide the answer to Germany’s leadership question.


Megan Doherty is a Program Officer, Transatlantic Leadership Initiatives for the German Marshall Fund of the United States.