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Angela Merkel’s Vision Thing

CAMBRIDGE – 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 energize 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 organization.”

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 H.W. 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.”