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Mushaben discusses Merkel’s transformative leadership style

The crowd gave a chuckle as Joyce Mushaben flipped to her first slides, quipping about the formality of her introduction. “When you first hear these kinds of introductions, first of all, you understand why you’re really really tired, and secondly you think ‘oh, this is what they’re going to say about me when I’m dead!’”

As a curators’ professor of comparative politics who is fluent in German, Mushaben is just as impressive as she is humorous. She is currently teaching and directing the Institute of Women and Gender Studies at the University of Missouri in St. Louis. Her book publications include From Postwar to Post-Wall Generations, Identity Without a Hinterland, the Changing Faces of Citizenship, Integration, and Mobilization Among Ethnic Minorities in Germany, and the brand new Becoming Madame Chancellor: Angela Merkel and the Berlin Republic, the first study in the English language on the world’s most important female politician. The Cambridge–Press published book was also a centerpiece for Mushaben’s Friday afternoon lecture on Angela Merkel, who was elected last month to serve her fourth term as Chancellor of Germany. Mushaben has also published essays in various journals and serves as the editorial board member of multiple political science journals.

Mushaben first decided to explore German national identities in the 1980’s when she saw that generational change of West Germans had already triggered fundamental changes in West German political culture and identity. In addition to researching, she interviewed prominent journalists in 1986, received a fellowship, and began to investigate what was happening on the other side of the wall. This project was soon overtaken by the fall of the Berlin Wall, but she carried on with her access to a new demographic. One of her discussion partners was a woman her age, who had decided to switch from physics to politics as a deputy press speaker for the newly elected German prime minister, Lothar de Maizière. This woman’s job was to explain the process of the disintegration of the Free Democratic Party to hoards of foreign journalists, domestic journalists, and foreign academics, an eye-opening experience for someone unacquainted with a free press or contentious democracy. Little did she know that her first interviewee would move on to become Chancellor of Germany.

Merkel has accrued a long list of political firsts. Not only did she stand out as the first post-War politician who ascended the party ladder unusually quickly, but she was also the first woman, eastern German, physicist, and the youngest person to lead the German nation. By the end of her first term, she had already been designated the world’s most powerful woman by Forbes Magazine.

At the same time, her adversaries kept insisting that she lacked vision, charisma, and leadership skills. Looking back, Mushaben points out that it seems her early awards had a lot more to do with the fact that she was the first female chancellor running a very big country with a very strong economy. Merkel did not emit the same leadership skills back then compared to now, as the previous three terms were extraordinary learning experiences to make a significant difference in the country.

Mushaben then pulled the audience through her book’s outline, covering her personal experiences to her seminal decisions with the refugee crisis. She narrowed down to focus on six policies Merkel has shaped: religious freedom, family and education policies, active labor market strategies, research and technology promotion, health and pension policies, taxation issues, and anti-terrorism measures and federalism reforms. Paradoxically, Merkel has become the embodiment of the old feminist mantra, “the personal is the political,” even though she refuses to label herself a feminist.

Gender factors, combined with her post-German Democratic Republic antipathy towards rigid ideological positions, has factored into Merkel’s leadership styles, and her physics background proved useful in matters of program design and evaluation. Gender matters, but “context is crucial.” While she never lived up to the traditional, male, command-and-control model of leadership, Mushaben describes that Merkel performed a transformational leadership style: leading from the middle, with multiple stakeholders. This took Germany in a different and desirable direction that the circumstances also required. Her policy achievements involve her national energy turnaround and her proactive stance on immigration and integration.

Women now comprise nearly 50 percent of the Federal Chancellor’s office. With improved childcare reforms under Merkel’s office and expanded pools of eligibility, Merkel was able to utilize her substantive representation to reshape legislative policies based on the presumption that women are the natural experts in areas of health, education, welfare, family matters, etc. Is this fair that Merkel must be more gender-sensitive to policy consequences than all of her predecessors just because of her sex? Before she began her third term, she said that real equality “will only be achieved when both men and women change their roles in behavior.” It is indisputable that Merkel has done more to advance gender equality in united Germany than all of her predecessors combined. Leveraging some E.U. mandates, she has compelled lawmakers to guarantee infinite childcare and paternal leave, to adopt corporate quotas, and to fund special programs for women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math fields. Most importantly, she has pulled off an astonishing modernization of a conservative party whose views on women were outdated and contrived.

Of course, Merkel’s creation of opportunities for intercultural openings is unprecedented. Her proactive stance has allowed people of migrant descent to enter the political arena and take action themselves. She has even given many Germans the right to identify emotionally and positively with their own nation, an ability limited for 70 years since World War II. However, more important than a personal and political label is the ability to think holistically, long-term, and to upload ethics and responsibility. Merkel is proof that a woman leader does not need to openly declare herself a feminist in order to make a difference. She entered national politics with a faith in dialogue and practices that had been lost among political elites on both sides, and her political experiences have made her more cautious about articulating policies, but they have not tempered her belief that Germany can overcome its unique challenges. Merkel has proven that she could lead at many levels, and to evolve the republic into a space that’s stronger, more tolerable, ecologically stable, and equal. “It’s not about parties, careers... it’s about something else. We want to serve Germany. I want to serve Germany. Germany can do this. Together we can do this.”