Angela Merkel’s ‘vision thing’

Beyond implementing day-to-day policies, leaders need to communicate their “big ideas” if they want to inspire people.

 Angela Merkel’s plan to bail out Greece resulted in her party losing state elections  [GALLO/GETTY]

As Europe struggles to save the euro, the chorus of complaints about weak leadership in the world’s major economies grows louder. Many have singled out German Chancellor Angela Merkel for failing to promote a vision of Europe similar to that of her predecessor and mentor, Helmut Kohl. Are the critics right?

Part of what effective leaders do is communicate a vision that gives meaning to policies and inspires others to support these policies (and those who propose them). It is one of the ways in which leaders help to create shared objectives and energise common action. Usually, such a vision provides a scenario for the future that is meant to encourage change, though it may also portray the status quo – or the past – as attractive, thereby encouraging resistance to change.

Either way, without a vision, it is difficult to lead others anywhere. Frederick Smith, CEO of Federal Express, has argued that “the primary task of leadership is to communicate the vision and values of an organisation”.

But one must be cautious about visions. Sometimes leaders think that vision can solve most of their problems, but the wrong vision – or an overly ambitious vision – can do damage. George HW Bush was faulted (and faulted himself) for not having what he called “the vision thing”. When pressed by his staff to speak more boldly and expansively, he replied: “It’s just not me.”

After the shock of the September 2001 terrorist attacks, his son, George W Bush, developed a far more ambitious vision. As one former adviser put it, he was “irresistibly drawn to Big Ideas like bringing democracy to the Middle East, Big Ideas that stood in sharp contrast to the prudent small ball played by his father”. Yet the elder Bush turned out to have had the better foreign policy.

Some aspiring leaders think that they must proclaim a vision that overawes their followers. In practice, however, a successful vision often arises from the needs of the group, which are then formulated and articulated by the leader. The vision that Martin Luther King Jr expressed in his “I Have a Dream” speech, for example, was deeply rooted not only in America’s professed values of equality and inclusion, but also in African-Americans’ experience of subordination and exclusion.

Seeing clearly

At the same time, the pressure to articulate a vision can get a leader into difficulty. As one university president put it: “Everyone asks, ‘What’s your vision?’ But you offend many people and get into trouble by answering too quickly. The smart response at the beginning is, ‘What do you think?’ and then listen before you articulate your vision.”

A successful vision has to be attractive to various circles of followers and stakeholders. What plays well with one group may not sit well with another. And, to be sustainable, a successful vision must also be an effective diagnosis of the situation that a group faces. Leaders must get the question right before proposing answers. To choose goals and articulate them in a vision, they need not only to solicit input from their followers, but also to understand the context of their choices. They must be able to assess reality accurately.

The boldness of a vision varies with the type of leadership involved. Leaders of social movements can call forth larger visions than public officials can. A movement leader can promote a vision that is miles ahead of his followers, while a prime minister with multiple objectives and responsibilities must maintain a continuous dialogue with the public, which keeps him or her from moving too far ahead of citizens. After former US Vice President Al Gore lost his bid for the presidency in 2000, he became a leader of the social movement to combat global climate change, and his style changed from pragmatic to inspirational and prophetic.

Analysts judge a government leader’s vision in terms of whether it creates a sensible balance between realism and risk, and whether it balances objectives with capabilities. Anyone can produce a wish list, but effective visions combine inspiration with feasibility.

Critics of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, for example, acknowledged that his ability to articulate a vision was one of his great strengths as a leader, but complained about his lack of attention to detail. Similarly, two twentieth-century US presidents, Woodrow Wilson and George W Bush, were good at articulating an ambitious foreign-policy vision, but were poor at refining and reshaping their vision when they encountered implementation challenges. Both promoted democracy, but both did so in a manner that generated a backlash against democracy promotion.

Of course, prudence is not enough. Sometimes leaders need to stretch the boundaries of realism to inspire their followers and call forth extra effort, as Winston Churchill did in Great Britain in 1940. But, without a degree of prudence based upon comprehension of the context, visions turn from grand to grandiose and undercut the values that they seek to promote.

Like Franklin Roosevelt, who acted very cautiously in trying to persuade US opinion to abandon isolationism in the 1930s, Merkel has proceeded cautiously on saving the euro. She faced public scepticism about using German funds to bail out the Greek economy. Her coalition was divided on the issue, and her party lost state elections. If she had acted more boldly, she might have lost even more support, but the steps that she agreed to remained insufficient to reassure markets.

At the end of October, however, she finally articulated a vision of the future of Europe that persuaded the German Bundestag to agree to a package of measures to save the euro. Whether she waited too long – and whether her vision will prove convincing – will be determined in the coming months.

Joseph Nye, a former US assistant secretary of defence, is a professor at Harvard and the author of The Future of Power.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

A version of this article was first published by Project Syndicate.

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