What a true leader looks like
“I have always wanted to conduct my government and my party roles with dignity, and one day to leave them with dignity. Now is the time to open a new chapter. Today in this hour, in this moment, I am overwhelmed by one feeling: Gratitude. It has been a great pleasure for me, a great honour. Thank you very much.”
These were the words spoken by the Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel as she stepped down as leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Her speech in December 2020 was met with rapturous applause and a standing ovation that lasted over six minutes.
Some members of the party held placards saying “Danke Chefin” (thank you, boss), others had tears in their eyes. It was a poignant moment for the party, as Merkel had served as leader of the CDU for the past 18 years. She announced that she would not be seeking a fifth term as chancellor of Germany, already having served from 2005, but would finish the remainder of her tenure.
This was in stark contrast to the departure of the 45th president of the US. Given the four very long years of a Trump presidency which has been fraught with scandals, blatant racism, sexism, abuse of power, nepotism, disregard for facts and propagation of lies, he could have learned a lesson or two about how to lead “like a pro” from the German chancellor. Rather than leave office graciously and with dignity, words not often associated with Trump, he chose to cry election and voter fraud in a desperate bid to hold onto his role of commander-in-chief.
Trump’s final act as president was to instigate a mob of his supporters, who have been labelled insurrectionists and domestic terrorists, into storming Capitol Hill in an attempted coup to try and overturn the election results.
After the riots in Capitol Hill, Merkel condemned Trump’s role in the events by spelling out the basic rule of democracy: “After elections, there are winners and losers. Both have to play their roles with decency and a sense of responsibility, so that democracy itself remains the winner.”
The first female chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel has weathered many a crisis with a steady hand and analytical mind. She earned the nickname “Mutti” (mum) for being straightforward and reliable, though this moniker is rarely used these days. A no-fuss no-frills leader, she instils a sense of quiet authority and competence.
During the early days of her leadership, the great financial crisis in 2008 struck, threatening the global economic system and driving many economies, including much of Southern and peripheral Europe, into debt from which there seemed to be no way out. At this time, Merkel adopted a tough position, prescribing unpopular budget cuts and fiscal austerity to tackle the debt crisis -- policies which were particularly keenly felt in Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Spain.
Despite detractors claiming that her initial unwillingness to assist debt beleaguered countries weakened the Eurozone’s credibility, Germany was ultimately pivotal in the bailouts to these countries. She led Germany through the financial crisis and back to growth and emerged as the de facto leader of Europe.
In 2011, following the crisis at the Fukushima plant in Japan, Merkel took the controversial stance to end nuclear power in Germany. Her decisions seemed to stem from what she deemed was right rather than what was expected of her. She did this again when she decided to open her borders to over a million Syrian refugees in 2015, which at the time had a detrimental effect on her popularity. But despite this setback, she regained her footing and was elected for a fourth term.
According to Forbes, in a survey carried out in October 2020, 75% of adults in 14 European countries trust Merkel more than any other leader in the region. I would like to add my name to that list.
In 2020, when Covid-19 brought the world to its knees, numerous leaders and heads of state downplayed the severity of the pandemic and wasted precious time posturing. While Trump lied calling it a hoax by the Democrats, Bolsonaro deemed it “a small flu,” Magufuli called the coronavirus “a devil,” Boris Johnson dithered, the German chancellor stayed true to character and did what a crisis leader would do -- tell people the truth and give them the facts stating: “The situation is serious; take it seriously.”
From the early stages of the outbreak, Germany has systematically tested, tracked and treated to combat Covid-19. The most populous country in the EU, Germany has had 50,000 Covid-related deaths, half of the staggering 100,000 fatalities in the UK, a country with a population only 75% as large.
Whatever critics may think of her policies, she has shown us what a true leader looks like, and has fulfilled her duties with grace and dignity. She is the antithesis to the populists, ideologues and self-styled strongmen of recent years. Angela Merkel has been and remains a leader of substance and integrity guided by a strong moral compass.
The big question on the minds of the German people as well as many across the globe is who will come after Merkel steps down as chancellor later this year, and what that change will bring with it.
Nadia Kabir Barb is a writer, journalist, and author of the short story collection Truth or Dare.