Monthly Archives: March 2017

In Praise of Weak Leadership

In one of my last posts I complained about the uncritical approach of many (bad) management schools to leadership. The larger issue, of course, is the worrisome trend in world politics, to, once again, glorify the notion of stronger leadership.

We all know that the Roman republic only installed dictatorial rights on their leaders in times of emergency. But this is obviously what people seeking power want to convince us: that we live in a continuous state of emergency. And this where people fall for the idea.

But democracy, rule of law, accountability and republicanism are precisely built on a notion of weak leadership. The checks and balance in the system are meant to confine leadership in such a space that it cannot do too much harm. This system is so effective that it even works successfully in cases of warfare or terrorism.

At the heart of the problem lies a conceptual confusion. There is a big difference between a constrained and hence weak leader or a leader who is incompetent. In practice you can end up with all types of constellations, but the best constellation is really a weak, but competent leader, whereas the worst is a strong, but incompetent leader. Unfortunately, unhedged praise of strong leadership often gravitates towards a permissive stance to the latter.

In particular, some people seem to place high hopes into the combination of a strong, but competent leader. This is probably the legacy of a patriarchic culture in which people look up to a father figure. Indeed, in some cases this might work out (for some). But placing bets on the benevolent autocrat is a huge gamble, which, on average, fails.

Intelligent management studies know this of course. ‘No leader is perfect. The best ones don’t try to be—they concentrate on honing their strengths and find others who can make up for their limitations.’ So here is a simple rule: if someone aggressively seeks strong leadership, this should make him or her the least likely person apt for the job.

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Cyclical Policies and the Evolution of Long-Term State Capacity


This is a paper which links two related problems of policy making: problems of cycles (e.g. the adoption and abortion of a policy in a short run) and the more continuous problem of chronically weak state capacity. I argue that both are two different sides of the same coin. I use a highly stylized model, when and why political factions cannot agree on a common middle ground and then introduce ideologically opposed policies which will soon be reverted. I use a couple of historical episodes from Latin America, especially in terms of privatization vs. nationalization cycles, to illustrate the problem.

Here is the manuscript of the paper. Here is the link to the publisher.

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Why the Exit from Nuclear Energy in Germany?

4099 /Mutlangen, Protest gegen Pershing II-Atomraketen

(Protests at one of the US army bases in Germany where nuclear weapons were stored. Source)

For a while now I am intrigued with a simple question: of all (relatively) large countries, Germany is the only which seems to take exiting nuclear energy seriously. Why is this the case. This is not my field, but I have a suspicion.

When I ask learned colleagues I get three main explanations. The first is the notorious German Angst. We seek insurance even for choosing the right insurance, so perhaps we are just more worried about nuclear energy than say the French. This raises the question why we built the power plants in the first place. Maybe we needed to learn about the negative consequences of nuclear energy such as Chernobyl or Fukushima, but still, this answer leaves much to ask for.

Another answer comes from the relative strength of energy providers. The political economy story boils down to saying that in the German energy mix, traditionally, coal (both black and brown) played a much stronger role, and nuclear was in a weaker position. But this, if anything, makes matters worse for the nuclear exit, because it means that exiting nuclear energy comes with higher CO2 emissions and clashes with climate change considerations. (yes, yes, renewables, but still.)

The third one rests on the relative strength the German Green party. Indeed political mobilization is an important mechanism how issues are raised to prominence and finally reach the highest level of decision making. But again. This answer leaves much to be desired. For starters, it is not so obvious that German Greens did so much better. The table below shows averages over 15 years (1999-2014) of the Chapel Hill Expert Survey. German Greens are doing fine, but not extraordinarily fine. Moreover, if it is this party link, where does the strength come from, ultimately?


My feeling is that Germany needs to be seen in a unique historical and geographic context that conflated two important dimensions of nuclear energy: peaceful and military use. The unique circumstances were that Germany itself did not have any nuclear weapons, but a lot of nuclear arms were stationed on German soil. This triggered broad resistance, arguably much broader than in countries like France or the UK were the weapons were national ones. Hence, the German movement, much more than in most other countries, was always a mixture between peace and Anti-AKW (anti nuclear power plants), a constellation which is hard to find in other places. Perhaps Japan would be similar, but Japan had nothing as close to a political default line as the Berlin Wall.

If this argument is true, the legacy of US nuclear arms is really long and tipped the balance against the supporters of nuclear power plants. Events such as Fukushima were merely the trigger.

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