The Kohl case and greatness

Both Democratic and Republican voters are telling pollsters that what they want, above all, is a president with "strong leadership qualities." The problem is that no one can define precisely what those leadership qualities are.

On one hand, post-Clinton, we seek leaders whose character and trustworthiness are beyond reproach. On the other hand, we know perfectly well that in this new millennium leadership will be more about competence than about anything else.

For those trying to sort this out, the unfolding political drama in Germany is worth watching. After earlier denials, former Chancellor Helmut Kohl admitted that during the 1990s he broke a strict party-financing law to channel secret political contributions to local branches of his Christian Democratic party. Put another way, Mr. Kohl has confirmed that he funneled funds in ways that were at best irregular - and at worst a criminal offense.

Though forced to resign as honorary chair of his party this week, Kohl, who was for 16 years Germany's chancellor, is not just another sleazy politician. He is widely acknowledged to be one of the great leaders of the 20th century, and in a recent poll Germans voted him one of the Top 10 "greatest Germans" ever - along with Einstein, Luther, and Goethe.

During his tenure as chancellor, Kohl dominated European politics. He outlasted his most formidable continental contemporaries, Margaret Thatcher and Franois Mitterand, and before being voted out in 1998, Kohl did no less than create political, social, and economic change on the European continent.

In the early and mid-1980s, Kohl was dismissed by opinion makers at home and abroad as something of an oaf. A large, heavy man who conveyed amiability more than ambition, he was often badly underestimated. And he did make some major mistakes. To take an obvious example, his rush to unilaterally recognize Slovenia and Croatia is viewed by many as the spark that lit the Balkan wars.

But, like his American counterpart Ronald Reagan, Helmut Kohl held a few, deeply felt, Big Ideas. Like Mr. Reagan, Kohl kept his eye on the prize while getting others to follow where he led.

The chancellor had twin visions - to unify Germany and to unify Europe. The first, he accomplished with stunning ease. What had appeared impossible - joining the two German halves sundered for 45 years - was achieved with nearly no resistance.

His second vision - to unify the very peoples who brought us the first and second world wars - is still a work in progress. But he, more than anyone else, is responsible for the common European currency (the euro) - meaning he gets most of the credit for the rapid transformation of the European continent.

Kohl's leadership is generating key changes. Monetary union is having a deep impact on European markets and is almost certain to be followed by some sort of European military union. There is growing awareness of a body of European law that, in important cases, takes precedence over national law. And most important, there is a decreasing sense of national identity and an increasing sense, especially among the young, of a European identity.

How, then, does the Kohl case relate to US voters who insist they want a president with "strong leadership qualities"? Above all, this sorry saga serves as a reminder that leaders who prove their mettle in one arena often falter in another.

Leaders with bold agenda often bend the rules to meet their needs. And leaders who have it all - complete integrity, high competence, and a bold agenda - are rare.

So voters will have to choose, not just between candidates, but among definitions of leadership. If those in the running don't have it all, the key question is: Which leadership qualities matter most on election day?

* Barbara Kellerman directs the Center for the Advanced Study of Leadership at the Academy of Leadership, University of Maryland.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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