President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy started hesitantly, with general musings about the necessary balance between social, ecological, political, ethical and economical concerns. Van Rompuy is not the most emotional or pompous speaker. He clearly appeals more the brains, than the guts or heart of his listeners. The few bone-dry jokes made the nuanced lecture still enjoyable and personal: “How do I manage to align 27 countries? The crisis helps. Next to the fact that they have a brilliant president.”
Van Rompuy quoted Hannah Arendt to emphasize the initiating role of leadership: “The Greec words for leader (“Archon”) and beginning (“Archein”) share their root. Political leadership can not only be passive. Leadership is more than “I follow you, because I’m your leader”. Leadership has an active component. Leaders need to take risks, follow their own conscience and serve the public interest in the long-term. Even if reelection is at stake.” He added: “Since the budget agreement end 2011 only 12 of the 26 European leaders are still in power. This proves that there is enough political leadership. We do not live in the age of mediocrity.”
Taking initiatives and risks is needed to give hope and bring perspectives in a time of anxiety and confusion. The initiating power of leadership is not based on authority: “Leadership is not exercise of power, but a creative force, based on trust. Trust capital is the power of leadership and it has to be gained in the past. You can’t gain trust by making promises. Trust is cumulative. It builds slowly over time.” Herman Van Rompuy is a firm believer of the motto of the Benedictines: ‘Festina lente’ or make haste slowly.
Van Rompuy doesn’t believe in quick fixes and gave very specific warnings: “We should be careful in changing existing institutions. Only institutions can contain insecurity in the long run. Only institutions can contain the inherent imbalances of the market and democracy. Institutions should be renewed step by step and not torn down. The European Union is built in this pragmatic way. Agreement is not needed on the final goal, but on the next step. It’s a common mistake to fixate on the end terms, also in Belgium.” Van Rompuy clearly sees leadership as pragmatic and steady institution building, not as preaching the revolution.
His second warning was even sharper: “Leaders should also be careful with promises. The delivery gap is the root cause of the lack of credibility of political leaders. Leaders should not profile themselves very sharply, because profiling is always at the cost of someone else’s profile. I still have difficulty with the word ‘change’. Promising change easily ends with disappointment when confronted with the partly elusive reality.” Van Rompuy quoted the British politician Harold Macmillan to minimize the impact of planned change: “Events, my dear, events, are what blow governments off course.”
Renewing institutions and bringing hope in a pragmatic and trustworthy way are two core elements of Van Rompuy’s leadership beliefs. Leaders dose change and stability. “They give direction, but check regularly if people still follow. Who runs up front too fast is a prophet. Who waits too long is a historian. Timing is everything.”
Van Rompuy contextualized his leadership ideas throughout his lecture: “We are dealing with colossal interdependencies. Greece only contributes 2 % to the economy of Europe and counts less habitants than a big city in China, but it keeps all global leaders awake. The financial system is totally interconnected, while politics is not yet able to be a counterveiling power. We paid a huge price for that and came to a few millimeters of the meltdown of the European Union.” This is the leadership challenge of today: “We need to globalize political and economical leadership, as was started with the G20. We need to adapt the international institutions, as e.g. the EU, the UN and the IMF to the new world and to counterbalance the financial global market. This is the only possible answer to the growing anxiety and concerns that also rise in the emerging economies.”
Van Rompuy told the audience that he prepared his speech for the UCSIA, UA and Antwerp Management School symposium last Saturday evening, the evening before the change of presidency in France and the dead-locked struggle for power in Greece. He excused himself that he didn’t succeed to develop a very clear lecture on the topics of the symposium: balance, leadership and globalized economy. “Why does he do that?” I wondered, “why does he write his lectures himself, and at such an important moment for the European Union?” It made me think about another of his quotes: “I don’t read a book in between different meetings. It’s the other way around: I attend to meetings in between reading my book.” His focus is on reflection, as he also demonstrated in his lecture. Leadership is not heroic or full of action. It’s about consciously, step by step, adapting the existing institutions and systems to the demands of the new world. Nothing more. Nothing less.