Lacking Leadership

Being German in Davos

Donald Trump,Joe Kaeser,Kirstjen Nielsen
German leadership (background, center right). Source: AP

Here at the World Economic Forum, I was talking to an academic last night who has done extensive research on the question of leadership. “Who is the best leader here in Davos?” I asked her. Without hesitation she pointed to Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister. “What about Merkel?” I asked. As a German, I’m interested in how my chancellor is perceived. Angela Merkel did okay, the expert said. But overall she didn’t impress her audience.

I have been to Davos for its annual snow powwow for 10 years now. And I have always felt that Germany was missing out on this world stage. For example, there was only one session on Germany in Davos this year, and it was called the “German gamble.” Sure, there is huge interest in my home country, but I don’t recall people coming out of a session and saying: “Wow, these Germans are really cool.”

Maybe there is one exception: the former German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, who is now president of the German parliament. He was a rare German character on the Davos stage, managing to be authentic, thoughtful and humorous all at the same time. This is probably the biggest compliment you can give a German.

In good German tradition, they kept a low profile on stage.

Despite Schäuble’s “Denglish” – or perhaps because of it – people loved his insights not only on financial matters but also on international affairs generally. But this year Mr. Schäuble didn’t come. So it was up to Chancellor Angela Merkel and her ubiquitous defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, to hold up the German flag. The consensus is that they did fine, but said nothing memorable. Faint praise indeed.

On the corporate side it is a different story. German CEOs were all over the place and causing a stir. The bosses of Siemens and SAP, Joe Kaeser and Bill McDermott (who is American), were seated right next to President Donald Trump at a dinner (pictured) with European CEOs last night. But in good German tradition, they kept a low profile on stage. If you ask them about current affairs, they all have informed and often sophisticated views of what is going on around the world. Too bad they didn’t share those views more with the Davos community. Sharing is caring, you know.

Maybe we have to wait for a new generation of German leadership to make the German point of view more audible in Davos. One of the up-and-coming politicians in that generation is Jens Spahn, who is considered a potential successor of Chancellor Merkel. But he canceled his attendance in Davos on short notice.

Oh, how I miss Wolfgang Schäuble.

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