Germany’s election results show the country’s biggest problem: a fundamental lack of vision. However, minimum possible change is better than no change at all.
Germany has voted, and the voters’ decision is indicative of Germany’s big problem: indecision. For some, the splintered political landscape after the election reflects a healthy pluralist society, for others a fundamental lack of vision. I agree with the latter.
While the eventual make-up of political powers is still uncertain and forming a government might take several months, one thing is clear: this is a big transition for Germany—and the world. Angela Merkel deserves tremendous respect for leading the country with a steady hand, a science-based, no-fuss approach to policy-making, and a deep belief in values such as dignity and equality. But the country urgently needs new leadership now, and a clear vision for its future that is more imaginative than the mantra-like “Digitalization.”
As a German-American who’s experienced German business culture both from the inside and outside, I’m fascinated by its trademark tension between romanticism and pragmatism. Germany is the land of the romantics, after all, and at the same time it is too comfortable with being in the pragmatic middle. It is home to both engineering and artistic excellence, but big dreams and radical ideas are verboten. The late former chancellor Helmut Schmidt famously said: “If you have a vision, you should go see a doctor.” After the horrors of the Nazi regime, this attitude was the only possible one, and it has served Germany and the world well.
And yet, a lack of imagination now hampers the German economy and society. This is especially unfortunate because the opportunity ahead is tremendous. Germany is educated, affluent, and respected on the world stage; it can wield a significant soft power; and it has an appreciation for quality that eclipses its stereotypical penchant for efficiency, which—as anyone who has ever tried to set up any kind of user account with a German service provider knows—is often just a myth.
Germans fear leaving the status quo
Moreover, Germany, as Europe’s economic powerhouse, has a big role to play in making business more beautiful. On the one hand, with its humanist values and rich heritage of aesthetics and ethics, Germany is in many ways the antidote to the idea of an absolute market society exemplified by the U.S. and thus an important bulwark against the commodification of everything.
On the other hand, Germany’s workplaces are dominated by a notion of fear (of leaving the comfy status quo, of being considered eccentric, of losing status, power, or face). Companies suffer from inflated bureaucracy as well as a culture that favors mediocrity over risk-taking. In Germany, they ask a founder pitching an idea for further proof: who else is doing this already? In Silicon Valley, they hope no one else is.
The journalist and author Dirk von Gehlen, a keen observer of German culture, coined a term for this very German predicament: Minimum Possible Change.
At the workplace and in public discourse, healthy skepticism often crosses the line into cynicism: a jaded oppositional stance, or, in its worst form, an inclination to put others in their place so that one’s own position isn’t threatened. There is a reason schadenfreude doesn’t translate to any other language.
All this is to say: For beautiful business, Germany is both fertile ground and antibody. Which means: If we can make it (a reality) here, we can make it anywhere!
Also, the big decisions awaiting the next German chancellor and their government epitomize the very challenges ahead for any business that wants to be more imaginative, inclusive, emotional, and ecological, in one word, more beautiful: from the climate crisis, social inequity (the age and income gap between rural and urban populations is widening), a more feminine brand of leadership, to shepherding digital technology to benefit the wellbeing of humans and all life on earth.