The Most Powerful Woman in the World and the Science of Her Success

by Derek Loosvelt | December 03, 2014

  • My Vault

One of the most interesting details packed into the recent 15,000-word New Yorker profile of German Chancellor Angela Merkel is the fact that Merkel, widely considered to be the most powerful woman in the world, studied physics and earned her doctorate in quantum chemistry. This scientific background of Merkel's interested me so much that it led me to research the academic and work experience of the 43 men who've served as President of the United States. And what I found is that, before serving as POTUS, 25 men worked as attorneys, 10 worked as soldiers, a handful worked as farmers, a few were teachers, and just one worked as an engineer (Herbert Hoover, of Hoover Dam fame). That is, not a single U.S. president has or had the equivalent of Merkel's scientific background, which, according to The New Yorker profile, significantly informs the chancellor's success as leader of arguably one of the best run nations in the world today.

People who have followed her career point to Merkel’s scientific habit of mind as a key to her political success. “She is about the best analyst of any given situation that I could imagine,” a senior official in her government said. “She looks at various vectors, extrapolates, and says, ‘This is where I think it’s going.’ ” Trained to see the invisible world in terms of particles and waves, Merkel learned to approach problems methodically, drawing comparisons, running scenarios, weighing risks, anticipating reactions, and then, even after making a decision, letting it sit for a while before acting. She once told a story from her childhood of standing on a diving board for the full hour of a swimming lesson until, at the bell, she finally jumped.

Merkel, who grew up in East Germany under Communist rule, was a voracious researcher while pursuing her degrees. And, which likely comes as no surprise, she had a tremendous drive to succeed.

Every morning, Merkel took the S-Bahn to the Academy of Sciences from her apartment in Prenzlauer Berg, a bohemian neighborhood near the city center. For several stretches, her train ran parallel to the Wall, the rooftops of West Berlin almost in reach. Sometimes she commuted with a colleague, Michael Schindhelm. “You were confronted every day, from the morning on, with the absurdity of this city,” he told me. Schindhelm found Merkel to be the most serious researcher in the theoretical-chemistry section, frustrated by her lack of access to Western publications and scientists. Whenever her colleagues left the building to cheer the motorcade of a high-profile guest from the Communist world on its way from Schönefeld Airport, she stayed behind. “She really wanted to achieve something,” Schindhelm said. “Others just liked sitting in that comfortable niche while the country went down the drain.”

As for how Merkel has been able to succeed in a man's world, one clue is her ability to restrain herself.

Scientific detachment and caution under dictatorship can be complementary traits, and in Merkel’s case they were joined by the reticence, tinged with irony, of a woman navigating a man’s world. She once joked to the tabloid Bild Zeitung, with double-edged self-deprecation, “The men in the laboratory always had their hands on all the buttons at the same time. I couldn’t keep up with this, because I was thinking. And then things suddenly went ‘poof,’ and the equipment was destroyed.” Throughout her career, Merkel has made a virtue of biding her time and keeping her mouth shut.

Indeed, Merkel knows that the key to leading is listening to others and not to oneself.

“She is a master of listening … In a conversation, she speaks twenty per cent, you speak eighty per cent. She gives everybody the feeling ‘I want to hear what you have to say,’ but the truth is that her judgment is made within three minutes, and sometimes she thinks another eighteen minutes are wasted time. She is like a computer—‘Is this possible, what this man proposes?’ She’s able in a very quick time to realize if it’s fantasy.”

Another important factor in making decisions is keeping emotions at bay, which popular opinion might have you believe is difficult for a woman to accomplish. But Merkel is ice-cool when it comes to directing her country.

“She’s not a woman of strong emotions,” Bernd Ulrich, the deputy editor of Die Zeit, said. “Too much emotion disturbs your reason. She watches politics like a scientist.” He called her “a learning machine.” Volker Schlöndorff, the director of “The Tin Drum” and other films, got to know Merkel in the years just after reunification. “Before you contradict her, you would think twice—she has the authority of somebody who knows that she’s right,” he said. “Once she has an opinion, it seems to be founded, whereas I tend to have opinions that I have to revise frequently.”

But keeping a handle on one's emotions does not mean being overly cautious, nor does it mean not leaping and changing course if opportunity arises.

Merkel’s decision to enter politics is the central mystery of an opaque life. She rarely speaks publicly about herself and has never explained her decision. It wasn’t a long-term career plan—like most Germans, she didn’t foresee the abrupt collapse of Communism and the opportunities it created. But when the moment came, and Merkel found herself single and childless in her mid-thirties—and laboring in an East German institution with no future—a woman of her ambition must have grasped that politics would be the most dynamic realm of the new Germany. And, as Schlöndorff dryly put it, “With a certain hesitation, she seized the day.”

In addition to her gender and scientific background, another key difference between Merkel and the leaders who came before her and those considered her peers today has to do with vanity. Merkel, according to those who know here, lacks vanity, and thus she's able to remain objective. And objectivity is paramount to making successful decisions.

In 1991, Herlinde Koelbl, the photographer, began taking pictures of Merkel and other German politicians for a study called “Traces of Power.” Her idea was to see how life in the public eye changed them in the course of a decade. Most of the men, such as Gerhard Schröder, a Social Democrat who became Chancellor in 1998, and Joschka Fischer, who became his foreign minister, seemed to swell with self-importance. Merkel remained herself, Koelbl told me: “in her body language, a bit awkward.” But, she added, “You could feel her strength at the beginning.” In the first portrait, she has her chin slightly lowered and looks up at the camera—not exactly shy, but watchful. Subsequent pictures display growing confidence. During the sessions, Merkel was always in a hurry, never making small talk. “Schröder and Fischer, they are vain,” Koelbl said. “Merkel is not vain—still. And that helped her, because if you’re vain you are subjective. If you’re not vain, you are more objective.”

Merkel also has an abundance of this virtue: patience. And she's quite a markswoman.

John Kornblum, a former U.S. Ambassador to Germany, who still lives in Berlin, said, “If you cross her, you end up dead. There’s nothing cushy about her. There’s a whole list of alpha males who thought they would get her out of the way, and they’re all now in other walks of life.” On Merkel’s fiftieth birthday, in 2004, a conservative politician named Michael Glos published a tribute: "Careful: unpretentiousness can be a weapon! . . . One of the secrets of the success of Angela Merkel is that she knows how to deal with vain men. She knows you shoot a mountain cock best when it’s courting a hen. Angela Merkel is a patient hunter of courting mountain cocks. With the patience of an angel, she waits for her moment."

Merkel, who won a third term as chancellor in September 2013, has certainly waited for her share of moments. One of which came in the aftermath of the nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011 when Merkel, the only current world leader (as far as I can determine) with a Ph.D. in physics, decided that Germany should ditch its nuclear program. The decision was no minor move, and was called "momentous," a "U-turn," and "like an awakening" by the New York Times.

Today, just three years after that decision, Germany has the world's most energy efficient economy, with nearly 30 percent of its power coming from renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, and hydro. In comparison, the U.S. ranks No. 13 in energy efficiency. 

Follow me @VaultFinance.

Read More:
The Quiet German (The New Yorker)
Obama’s Advice for Would-Be CEOs
Interview Like a Two-Term President

Filed Under: Finance | Job Search | Workplace Issues

Tags: angela merkel | government | new yorker | politics | women in the workplace

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