Tear down the Walls in our Minds - Leadership Lessons from Angela Merkel

A huge wave of excitement went through Harvard Kennedy School’s graduates at this year’s Commencement when German Chancellor Angela Merkel mentioned the course “Exercising Leadership” in her graduation speech. This course, originally developed by Ron Heifetz more than 35 years ago, and now also taught by KONU Partner Tim O’Brien, has been the cradle of the Adaptive Leadership framework, from which KONU draws much of its work.

Angela Merkel didn’t mention the class on accident. Both, her legacy and lessons, are filled with Adaptive Leadership principles. Here are six highlights that stuck out to us. The quotes are all from her speech which you can see in full here.  

Adaptation is Human

“Nothing has to stay the way it is. Anything that seems set in stone or unalterable can indeed change.”

Merkel, who grew up surrounded by the Berlin Wall, reminds us that change is possible. 35 years ago, it was hard to imagine a Europe free of borders and today, only a generation later, former enemies live in peace and prosperity, sharing a single market and freedom of movement and residence. This is not an exception. Going back in history, people have survived and thrived through fundamental social and technological transformations. Adaptation is inherently human.

Heifetz actually borrowed the metaphor of “adaptation” from nature, drawing connections between evolutionary biology and social systems. In order to survive and thrive all life needs to adapt to changing conditions.


In Adaptive Challenges, People are the Problem AND the Solution

“[Protectionism, Wars, Digitalization and Climate change …] are caused by humans. Therefore, we can and must do everything humanely possible to truly master this challenge […] each and every one of us must play our part.”

Climate change and digitalization would not exist without people’s creative genius nor would they be issues without people’s faults. The global, systemic challenges we are facing are the product of people’s behaviors, of our inability to respect our differences, our inability to acknowledge the difficulties that come with innovation. These challenges have in common a requirement for us to adapt, to respectfully challenge each other’s values, to discuss how we want to move forward. This is only possible if we all take on responsibility.

Heifetz reminds us that overdependence on authorities is one of the most common defense mechanisms that prevents groups from adaption. Merkel’s take is that politicians only hold one piece of the puzzle. Yes, climate change can be battled with regulation and legislation. But it also needs people to change their mindset around energy consumption, nutrition, and mobility.


Get on the Balcony! (And Listen!)

“I have found that we can find good answers even to difficult questions if we always try to view the world from the eyes of others. If we respect other people’s history, traditions, religion and identity. (…) And if we don’t always act on our first impulse when there is pressure to make a snap decision. But instead take a moment to stop, be still, think, pause.”

One of the biggest criticism Merkel faced throughout her time as Chancellor was the fact that she didn’t always act fast. We, however, think this might have been her biggest asset and one of the reasons that kept her in power and gave her a tremendous diagnostic advantage. Who wants a doctor to go straight to surgery without a proper diagnosis?

The Adaptive Leadership framework states that people far too often leap to action and don’t take enough time to “get off of the dancefloor and onto the balcony”. Progress requires deep compassion and curiosity – to see the world with different perspectives. You can’t do it when you are in the midst of action, nor when you are doing the talking the whole time.


Crossing the Frontier of Competence is Risky and Requires Courage

“So let’s not start by asking what isn’t possible or focusing what has always been that way. Let’s start by asking what is possible and looking for things that have never have been done like that before. […] The moment when you step out into the open is also a moment of risk taking. Letting go of the old is part of a new beginning.”

Tearing down the Berlin Wall was an act of courage. The courage of Eastern Germans standing up to the authoritarian governments that built and secured the Wall. The courage to imagine a world without it and leap into the unknown. Letting go of the known is hard because it requires us to cross our frontier of competence and risk a lot – our careers, our relationships, or even our lives.

Leadership is the activity of getting people to confront hard realities, to resolve conflicts of values, to question privileges and manage losses, to build new capacities on behalf of improving the human condition. This can only be achieved if we cross our frontier of competence. And this makes leadership is an act of courage.

When Merkel allowed over 1 Million refugees into Germany in 2015, both German citizens as well as local and federal government had to move beyond their frontiers of competence. Despite a lot of challenges and some mistakes in the process, mainly people still agree that these actions were grounded in deep humanitarian values and worth the effort. Yet, it cost Merkel some popularity put both her government and her party at risk.


Don’t Do it Alone!

“Changes for the better are possible if we tackle them together. If we want to do it alone, we cannot achieve much.”

While Angela Merkel was referring to multilateralism, this lesson holds true for adaptive challenges not only at the global level, but also for organizations, communities and teams. Far too often we think of leadership as a heroic act of a single person. But adaptive challenges are deeply systemic. They require changes in values and behavior of entire groups.

That cannot be done by a single man or woman.

Partners are essential to help us see more, to show us where we are wrong or ignorant, and finally to take care of us if things get a little too hot. Partnership is the only way ahead.