Chapter 18


The height of cultivation runs to simplicity.


Angela Merkel is the antithesis of nearly every assumption we make about a head of state—especially a German one. She is plain. She is modest. She cares little for presentation or flash. She gives no fiery speeches. She has no interest in expansion or domination. Mostly, she is quiet and reserved.

   Chancellor Angela Merkel is sober, when far too many leaders are intoxicated—with ego, with power, with position. This sobriety is precisely what has made her a wildly popular three-term leader and, paradoxically, a powerful, sweeping force for freedom and peace in modern Europe.

   There is a story about Merkel as a young girl, at a swimming lesson. She walked out on the diving board and stood there, thinking about whether she should jump. Minutes ticked by. More minutes. Finally, just as the bell marking the end of the lesson began to ring, she jumped. Was she afraid or just cautious? Many years later, she would remind Europe’s leaders during a major crisis that “Fear is a bad advisor.” As a kid on that diving board, she wanted to use every allotted second to make the right decision, not driven by recklessness or fear.

   In most cases, we think that people become successful through sheer energy and enthusiasm. We almost excuse ego because we think it’s part and parcel of the personality required to “make it big.” Maybe a bit of that overpoweringness is what got you where you are. But let’s ask: Is it really sustainable for the next several decades? Can you really outwork and outrun everyone forever?

   The answer is no. The ego tells us we’re invincible, that we have unlimited force that will never dissipate. But that can’t be what greatness requires—energy without end?

   Merkel is the embodiment of Aesop’s fable about the tortoise. She is slow and steady. The historic night the Berlin Wall fell, she was thirty-five. She had one beer, went to bed, and showed up early for work the next day. A few years later, she had worked to become a respected but obscure physicist. Only then did she enter politics. In her fifties, she became chancellor. It was a diligent, plodding path.

   Yet the rest of us want to get to the top as fast as humanly possible. We have no patience for waiting. We’re high on getting high up the ranks. Once we’ve made it, we tend to think that ego and energy is the only way to stay there. It’s not.

   When Russian president Vladimir Putin once attempted to intimidate Merkel by letting his large hunting dog barge into a meeting (she is reportedly not a dog lover), she didn’t flinch and later joked about it. As a result, he was the one who looked foolish and insecure. During her rise and especially during her time in power, she has consistently maintained her equilibrium and clearheadedness, regardless of the immediate stressors or stimuli.

   In a similar position, we might have sprung into “bold” action; we might have gotten angry or drawn a line in the sand. We have to stand up for ourselves, right? But do we? So often, this is just ego, escalating tension more than dealing with it. Merkel is firm, clear, and patient. She’s willing to compromise on everything except the principle at stake—which far too many people lose sight of.

   That is sobriety. That is command of oneself.

   She did not become the most powerful woman in the Western world by accident. More importantly, she’s maintained her perch for three terms with the same formula.

   The great philosopher king Marcus Aurelius knew this very well. Called to politics almost against his will, he served the Roman people in continually higher offices from his teens until his death. There was always pressing business—appeals to hear, wars to fight, laws to pass, favors to grant. He strove to escape what he called “imperialization”—the stain of absolute power that had wrecked previous emperors. To do that, he wrote to himself, he must “fight to be the person philosophy tried to make you.”

   This is why the Zen philosopher Zuigan is supposed to have called out to himself everyday:



   Then he would add:



   He would conclude by saying:



   Today, we might add to that:


   We have to fight to stay sober, despite the many different forces swirling around our ego.

   The historian Shelby Foote observed that “power doesn’t so much corrupt; that’s too simple. It fragments, closes options, mesmerizes.” That’s what ego does. It clouds the mind precisely when it needs to be clear. Sobriety is a counterbalance, a hangover cure—or better, a prevention method.

   Other politicians are bold and charismatic. But as Merkel supposedly said, “You can’t solve . . . tasks with charisma.” She is rational. She analyzes. She makes it about the situation, not about herself, as people in power often do. Her background in science is helpful here, surely. Politicians are often vain, obsessing about their image. Merkel is too objective for that. She cares about results and little else. A German writer observed in a tribute on her fiftieth birthday that unpretentiousness is Merkel’s main weapon.

   David Halberstam, writing about the Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick, observed that the man was “not only in the steak business, he had contempt for sizzle.” You could say the same about Merkel. Leaders like Belichick and Merkel know that steak is what wins games and moves nations forward. Sizzle, on the other hand, makes it harder to make the right decisions—how to interact with others, who to promote, which plays to run, what feedback to listen to, where to come down on an issue.

   Churchill’s Europe required one type of leader. Today’s interconnected world requires its own. Because there is so much information to be sorted through, so much competition, so much change, without a clear head . . . all is lost.

   We’re not talking about abstinence from drugs or alcohol obviously, but there certainly is an element of restraint to egoless sobriety—an elimination of the unnecessary and the destructive. No more obsessing about your image; treating people beneath you or above you with contempt; needing first-class trappings and the star treatment; raging, fighting, preening, performing, lording over, condescending, and marveling at your own awesomeness or self-anointed importance.

   Sobriety is the counterweight that must balance out success. Especially if things keep getting better and better.

   As James Basford remarked, “It requires a strong constitution to withstand repeated attacks of prosperity.” Well, that’s where we are now.

   There’s an old line about how if you want to live happy, live hidden. It’s true. The problem is, that means the rest of us are deprived of really good examples. We’re lucky to see someone like Merkel in the public eye, because she is the representative of a very large, silent majority.

   As hard as it might be to believe from what we see in the media, there actually are some successful people with modest apartments. Like Merkel, they have normal private lives with their spouses (her husband skipped her first inauguration). They lack artifice, they wear normal clothes. Most successful people are people you’ve never heard of. They want it that way.

   It keeps them sober. It helps them do their jobs.





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