Political Leadership in Times of Crisis:
Comparing Leader Responses to Financial Turbulence
Arjen Boin, Paul ‘t Hart, Femke van Esch
In this chapter we examine how political leaders operate when ‘politics as usual’ are
rudely disturbed by major forms of acute adversity. The origins of this adversity can
be natural or man-made; they can stem from exogenous sources (accidents or conflicts
elsewhere; international terrorists; aggrieved or aggressive neighbours) or from
sources within (i.e. corruption, fraud, mismanagement, stalemate). What matters from
a political leadership perspective is that their consequences – physical, psychological
and political – need to be managed, often under conditions of time pressure, high
uncertainty, and collective stress. Politically, crises are episodes whose impact cannot
be controlled merely by astute on-the-ground incident management, particularly so
when the disruption in question raises widespread doubt about the effectiveness and
the legitimacy of incumbent office-holders, existing institutions, established policy
paradigms or even of the political order as a whole (‘t Hart, 1993).
Crises offer excellent opportunities for studying political leadership in action.
They are moments in political life when there can be little doubt that ‘who leads
matters’ (Hermann, Preston, Korany and Shaw, 2001), as crises defy the normal
structures and routines of government. They constitute occasions when, as Greenstein
(1969) put it, the environment admits of restructuring. By exposing the vulnerability
of the status quo, crises are potential turning points in history; they can often only be
tamed by some form of change (Boin and ‘t Hart, 2000). Such change is never
produced by the institutions themselves; it has to be decided upon, packaged and sold
by leaders – whether they are incumbent office-holders, their political rivals, or
emergent change agents from outside the established system.
By raising the stakes of the political game to extraordinary levels, crises place
the deeds and thus the personalities, styles and competencies of individual office-
holders in sharp focus. Methodologically, most crises can be well-demarcated in
space and time, and thus can be treated methodologically as discrete episodes and
even as natural experiments. Moreover, they are highly public affairs and often trigger
a spate of no-holds barred post-mortem investigations, easing problems of data
availability. They tend to draw in multiple leaders within a particular polity, allowing
for interpersonal comparison of e.g. leadership roles and styles. And sometimes they
hit several levels of government and even several nations at the same time, allowing
for controlled cross-institutional and cross-national comparisons.
In this chapter we shall make the most of such opportunities that were offered
by the global financial crisis, which first emerged in 2007, escalated in 2008, and
morphed into a sovereign debt crisis from 2010 onwards. We begin by briefly
surveying the avenues for the comparative study of political crisis leadership. We then
introduce an analytical framework for understanding the specific challenges of
political leadership in times of crises. Two key elements of this framework are
highlighted and built upon in the pair of empirical studies that are reported in two
subsequent sections. We conclude by offering some directions for further research in
The comparative study of crisis leadership
There are several traditions in crisis management scholarship that have taken a
comparative perspective. Without pretending to be comprehensive, we want to name a
few that we have found inspiring over the years. First, going back to the 1960s and
70s, the then predominantly structural-functionalist field of comparative politics
looked at crises as critical junctures in the stability and development of political
systems. These scholars took a macro-political approach and typically examined
periods of domestic political instability and violence, e.g. strikes, riots, rebellions,
coups d’état and revolutions – both as discrete episodes worthy on in-depth study in
their own right (i.e. the collapse of the Weimar Republic) or as recurrent phenomena
challenging and eventually undermining the sustainability of the incumbent regime or
the political order as a whole (Rosenthal, 1980). This research teaches us that,
depending on how they are managed, crises can either enhance or set back fledgling
nation states and their governments (Almond et al, 1973; Linz and Stepan, 1978).
They allow astute leaders to forge paths towards political ‘modernization’, but can
also precipitate their political collapse.
Secondly, within the field of International Relations, scholars of foreign policy
crises and international conflict management have given us a wealth of in-depth,
structured-focused comparative studies of how leaders, their advisors and their
bureaucracies operate when interstate relations are at the brink of war and peace, or
have descended into open warfare already. These studies have underscored the
importance of factoring in subjective, psychological factors in the paradigms of IR
analysis, which tend to be dominated by objectivist, systemic and rational-choice
approaches. They show convincingly that factors such as the personalities, beliefs,
emotions, interpersonal styles, information-processing abilities and communication
propensities of political leaders can explain to a considerable extent why only some
conflicts escalate in to crises, why only some of those result in war, and who some
wars are more swiftly terminated than others (Hermann, 1972; Lebow, 1981; George,
1991; Brecher 1993).
Scholars within the field of public administration and public policy have studied
domestic crises, such as natural and man-made disasters, hostage taking and riots
(overviews in Rosenthal et al, 1989; Boin et al, 2005). These studies paid much
attention to critical crisis decision making: having to make choices between options
that all have considerable risks and costs associated with them whilst the time,
information and opportunities to apply normal routines of policy preparation and
deliberation are limited or lacking. Should a city be evacuated or not? Should a
hostage taking be resolved by military force? Should nation-wide inoculation against
a deadly virus be commenced? Should more money be lent to a nation on the brink of
Empirical research shows that leaders and governments are not always well
equipped to handle crisis-induced pressures. Though policy makers can of course ‘rise
to the occasion’ and well-trained and experienced crisis decision-makers sometimes
display remarkable feats of adaptive and rapid-learning behaviour. Some leaders
resort to coping routines, psychological defense mechanisms and group pathologies
that diminish the quality of their decision-making and communication processes, and
thus increase the chances of policy failure (Lebow, 1981; Herek, Janis and Huth,
1987; Post, 1991; ‘t Hart, 1994; Preston, 2000; Schafer and Crichlow, 2010).
The final approach we highlight here is one that focus specifically on the political
management of crises, particularly of their ‘framing’ in the public arena, the
accountability processes they elicit (including the allocation of credit and blame), and
the opportunities for reform they trigger. Crises can make or break political and
organizational reputations (Hearit, 2006). They can alter the electoral prospects of
office-holders and parties (Boin et al, 2008). They erode the legitimacy of existing
institutional arrangements, and can provide momentum to political entrepreneurs
seeking to forge coalitions for reform (Kingdon, 1995), thus offering rare possibilities
to break through entrenched, path-dependent policy trajectories (Kuipers, 2006).
Crisis leadership research in this tradition focuses on processes of communication,
investigation, accountability and learning. Its emphasis is not so much on the role
leaders play in shaping the material responses to crises, but rather on the way in which
they seek to influence their political consequences as well as their policy implications
(Boin et al, 2009).
Studies in this vein show that politically, crises are a mixed motive game for to
incumbent governments. On the one hand, they offer executive leaders the
opportunity to show there are caring yet statesmanlike leaders: calm, composed,
committed when under pressure. On the other hand, incumbent leaders are a likely
target of the various blame games that contemporary crises almost inevitably elicit.
Particularly if they have been in office for a while, they may find it difficult to avoid
being held to account for alleged regulatory failures, mismanagement of projects and
programs, or failures of interagency coordination that media coverage and inquiry
reports suggest have contributed to either the escalation of latent vulnerabilities or
inadequate responses to exogenously triggered crises (Boin et al, 2010). Political
leaders may, consequently, lose control over the emerging crisis narrative to their
critics and contenders, who push alternative interpretations and seek to exploit the
crisis to advocate political and policy change.
Political leadership during financial crises
Combining the insights that emerge from these various strands of scholarship suggests
that when major disturbances occur and a sense of crisis is widespread, key public
leadership challenges arise (Boin et al. 2005). The way in which these challenges are
taken up, when and by whom greatly determines how crises will run their course and
what sort of impact they will have on those systems. The key challenges of crisis
1. Sense making: diagnosing confusing, contested and often fast-moving situations
correctly, a necessary condition for effectively meeting the other challenges.
2. Meaning making: providing persuasive public accounts of what is happening, why
it is happening, what can be done about it, how and by whom; in other words,
‘teaching reality’ aimed at managing both the general public’s and key
stakeholders’ emotions, expectations, behavioural inclinations, as well as to
restore their crisis-eroded trust in public institutions and office-holders.
3. Decision making: making strategic policy judgments under conditions of time
pressure, uncertainty and collective stress.
4. Coordination: forging effective communication and collaboration among pre-
existing and ad-hoc networks of public, private and sometimes international
5. Consolidation: switching the gears of government and society back from crisis
mode to recovery and ‘business as usual’, without a loss of attention and
momentum in delivering long-term services to those who are eligible.
6. Accountability: managing the process of expert, media, legislative and judicial
inquiry and debate that tends to follow crises in such a way that responsibilities
are clarified and accepted, destructive blame games are avoided.
7. Learning: making sure that the parties involved in the crisis engage in critical,
non-defensive modes of self-scrutiny and draw evidence-based and reflective
lessons for their future performance.
The two studies presented below compare political leadership during financial
crises. Drawing on the analytical apparatus of Political Psychology, in particular
cognitive mapping methodology (Axelrod, 1976), the first study examines leader
sense-making under pressure of ongoing and occasionally acute financial turbulence.
Comparing the evolving belief systems of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and
head of the German Bundesbank Axel Weber during the Eurozone crises of 2009-11,
it compare the sense-making patterns of a political (head of state) and a ‘non-political’
(regulatory authority) leader in the face of extraordinary economic circumstances. The
second study compares the meaning-making efforts of UK prime minister Brown and
his contemporaries as heads of government triggered by the global financiel
meltdown of 2008-9. It examines how they tried to ‘teach reality’, restore public
confidence and escape blame at the same time.
Study 1: Comparing sense-making in Germany's political and financial leaders
In the first study, we focus on the challenge of sense-making leaders under crisis face:
how to come up with 'adequate (…) assessments of highly unusual, ambiguous, and
dynamic situations’ (Boin et al, 2005: 19). We examine how two key German leaders
defined the Euro-zone crisis of 2010/11 and whether their sense-making was rooted
in, or conflicted with their pre-existing beliefs. This is relevant because no consensus
exists to what extent leaders rely on pre-existing world-views to make sense of
ground-breaking new events (Welch Larson, 1994: 22).
Cognitive theory suggests that, in general, leaders use cognitive short cuts to
simplify their information-processing loads, are prone to biases in assessing evidence,
and have difficulty acknowledging facts that are inconsistent with their existing view
on the world. As a result, leaders tend to be rigid in their core beliefs. If change does
occur in core beliefs it has a cascading effect throughout the belief-system, resulting
in grand-scale volte-face of previously held convictions (Van Esch, 2007: 92; Rosati,
1995: 63; Steinbruner, 1974: 102). Since it takes time and experience to develop a
strong belief-system, traditionally such rigidity was expected to be stronger in experts
than laymen. More recent studies suggest, however, that since experts tend to hold
more complex and nuanced beliefs, accommodation of new and contradictory
information may be easier (Fiske and Taylor, 1991; Welch Larson, 1994: 28).
The so-called threat-rigidity thesis holds that under crisis-induced stress
leaders may fall back on, and rigidly cling to old behavioural patterns, and show a
tendency to narrow their span of attention (Boin et al 2005: 30). However, it has also
been found that modest amounts of stress increase leaders’ sense-making and coping
abilities (Stern, 1997: 80). Stern and Sundelius (1997:37) thus conclude that:
'Somewhat counter intuitively, both propositions proved useful in interpreting the
empirical record'. The question remains, however, under which conditions the one
proposition is more useful than the other.
In this study, we make a first attempt to find an answer to that question by comparing
the response to the 2010/11 Euro-zone crisis of a political leader - the German
Chancellor Angela Merkel – and an independent administrator - President of the
German Bundesbank (BB), Axel Weber.
Early 2010, it became clear that the budgetary deficit of Greece was more than
twice as big as its former government had led the world to believe. Financial markets
responded instantly: Greece’s governmental borrowing rates shot through the roof,
and its credibility ratings tumbled to junk-status. Measures taken by the Greek
government and fellow EU member-states in the following months proved insufficient
to prevent sovereign debt problems from spreading throughout the EU, prompting the
most significant crisis of the European project in decades.
As the main political and financial leader of Europe's pivotal economic power,
Germany, Chancellor Merkel and former BB-President Weber played a major and
highly contested role in the decision-making surrounding the Euro-zone crisis, both in
their role as national leaders as in their capacity of senior members of the European
Council (EC) and the Board of the European Central Bank (ECB).
Leaders' beliefs and belief-change are notoriously difficult entities to measure. In
political psychology several techniques have been developed to cope with this
problem. Of these, the Operational Code (OC) – a technique that captures leaders'
beliefs by using a standardized list of questions concerning general foreign and
security issues – is most commonly and successfully used (cf. Walker and Schafer,
2006). However, in the context of this study OC suffers from the drawback that its
standardized questions are ill-equipped for the EU political context, and unable to
capture the core issues involved in European financial and monetary policy-making.
Therefore the alternative technique of Cognitive Mapping (CM) is used. This allows
for a more discrete focus on the topic at hand (Van Esch, 2007; Young & Schafer,
The maps used in this study are composed on the basis of a selection of
Merkel and Weber's (public) assertions concerning European economic and monetary
issues and the Euro-zone crisis. Each map was based on 7-8 assertions dated from
March 2006 to February 2010 and one on four public speeches dated from February
2010 to February 2011.1 Selection of the relevant sections was done by content-
analytic searches for terms referring to 'European economic and monetary' issues. We
then derived all causal and normative relationships contained in these utterances.2 For
each we determined whether the speaker assigned a positive or negative value to the
relation or denied its existence. The relationships were then transformed into a
graphic map displaying them as arrows between two concepts (see Figure 1), and
1For a more detailed explanation of the method used, see Van Esch (2007). Due to
space-limits, and the size of the maps (containing up to 41 concepts per map), we
were unable to include them, the overviews of centrality and saliency-rates and
categorisation of concepts in dimensions, or the original source-lists. These are
available at: http://www.uu.nl/rebo/medewerkers/FAWJvanEsch. The authors want to
thank J. Beetsma for collecting the data and M.D. Young for the use of Worldview.
2For the CM coding rules, see (Axelrod, 1976; Wrightson, 1976; Young, 1996)
analysed by using CM software Worldview (Young, 1996). The relative importance
of the concepts and relations in the belief-system was determined by ascertaining the
frequency with which they were mentioned (saliency), and the number of dyads
concepts are part of (centrality).
Belief change was operationalised as a change (in weight and value) of beliefs on four
theoretically relevant belief dimensions, two economic and two institutional:
1. The extent to which leaders' economic policy convictions could be characterised as
Ordo-liberal3 or Keynesian;
2. The extent of their focus on budgetary as opposed to monetary issues and solutions.
3. The actors deemed central to the issue at hand (government, national or European
Central Bank (NCB/ECB), market)
3The central tenet of Ordo-liberal economic thought is the primacy of price stability as
the guiding principle by which all other policy-measures are assessed. Crucial to the
realisation of this objective are stringent budgetary and fiscal policies and the
independence and credibility of central banks. Finally, in the eyes of Ordo-liberals, no
trade-off exists between price stability and economic growth or employment (Van
Esch, 2007: 121).
Figure 1: Example of a Cognitive Map
Relationships: Positive Negative Non-existent
X: Negative value
4. The relevant level of governance (national/unilateral, EU, international) that was to
be applied to the issue.
The concepts in the maps were categorised along these lines, and the weight of
Merkel and Weber's beliefs on these dimensions was determined by calculating the
aggregated saliency and centrality of concepts placed within these dimensions (cf.
Van Esch, 2007; Tables 1&2).
Early 2010, it became clear that the budgetary deficit of Greece was more than twice
as big as its former government had led the world to believe. Financial markets
responded instantly: Greece’s governmental borrowing rates shot through the roof,
and its credibility-ratings tumbled to junk-status. Measures taken by the Greek
government and fellow EU member-states in the following months proved insufficient
to prevent sovereign debt problems from spreading like wildfire throughout the EU,
prompting the most significant crisis of the European project in decades.
As the main political and financial leader of Europe's pivotal economic power,
Germany, Chancellor Merkel and former BB-President Weber played a major and
highly contested role in the decision-making surrounding the Euro-zone crisis, both in
their role as national leaders as in capacity of senior members of the European
Council (EC) and the Board of the European Central Bank (ECB).
Angela Dorothea Merkel was born in 1954 in West Germany, but moved to the DDR
at the age of one. She studied and obtained a doctorate in Physics and after the
reunification became a parliamentarian for the CDU. She served as Minister of
Women and Youth and of the Environment and Nuclear Safety in the third Kohl
government. In November 2005, Merkel was elected Chancellor, and re-elected in
Merkel’s cognitive map as derived from her public assertions prior to the
outbreak of the crisis shows that she had a modestly Ordo-liberal outlook on
economic and monetary policy-making (see Table 1, Dimension 1). Her belief-system
contained some Keynesian characteristics – concern for maximising employment and
support for economic stimulus -– but overall these are trumped by Ordo-liberal
thinking, particularly a strong belief in the benefits of sound budgetary policy-
The onset of the sovereign debt crisis clearly affected Merkel's beliefs on this
dimension. However, rather than overturning her pre-existing beliefs, the crisis
reinforced them. All references to typical Keynesian concerns and measures disappear
from her second cognitive map, and the number of references to Ordo-liberal values
double. Likewise, her negative valuation of the specific events and measures taken
during the Euro-zone crisis -– like Greece’s flaunting of stability pact rules and the
proposed provision of financial aid to Greece without preconditions – was in line with
In contrast, Merkel's beliefs on the the balance between monetary and
budgetary issues show great stability over time. Prior to the outbreak of the crisis,
Merkel's focus lay exclusively with budgetary policy-making, which she has a
positive view of. This makes sense in light of her role in the political process: while
budgetary policy is run by national government, monetary policies belong to the
domain of the BB and ECB. Still, her almost complete silence on monetary issues is
remarkable (cf. Van Esch, 2007). The onset of the crisis did not significantly change
the Chancellor's focus: she defined the Euro-zone crisis as a public deficit crisis first
and foremost. However, a change did occur in her valuation of budgetary issues and
policies: the amount of negatively valued concepts in her second map suggest that in
the first months of 2010, the Chancellor felt that current European budgetary policy-
making was increasingly problematic.
[insert Table 1]
Analysis of her institutional beliefs shows that before the outbreak of the
sovereign debt crisis, she saw governments rather than central banks or the markets as
the central actors in the economic and financial issue area. In fact, she made no
mention at all of the role central banks (NCBs and ECB) play. She does acknowledge
the role of the markets, but advocates a social market economy with an important role
for government regulation. The comparison of her maps shows that the crisis caused a
reinforcement of these beliefs: Merkel's focus on governments as the central actor
increased, and even after the crisis had started she did not acknowledge the potentially
crucial role of the NCBs and ECB and decreased her reference to the role of the
From the outset of the crisis Merkel became much more critical of the actions
of her fellow government leaders, especially those running up budget deficits. At the
same time, however, Merkel also singled out national governments and their
cooperative efforts in the EU as being central to the solution. Apart from getting their
budgets in order – forced by the threat of Stability Pact sanctions – she recommended
various forms of European economic coordination and financial market regulation, as
well as adapting the European Treaties.
Finally, as far as the level of governance is concerned, the crisis clearly
induced the Chancellor to diverge from her pre-existing convictions. Merkel's view
prior to the crisis was biased towards the national level: overall concepts referring to
the national level are almost twice as central and salient as those referring to the EU
and global level. From the early stages of the crisis onwards, however, the
international level disappears completely from Merkel's radar indicating that in her
mind, neither the explanation nor the solutions for the crisis may be found at the
global level. At the same time, the European level now featured saliently and
positively in her belief system, while she became even more critical of unilateral
actions. This indicates that, in the mind of the Chancellor, the problems arose from
national level, while she expects that solutions are to be found at the EU level through
reinforcement of European Monetary Union and the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP)
and changes in the European treaties to make these measures possible.
Overall, Merkel's response to the crisis is largely in line with her pre-existing
ideas. Remarkably as a non-economic expert, the crisis reinforced rather than changed
her pre-existing economic beliefs. In terms of the locus of governance a mixed pattern
emerges: her strong focus on government as the central actor in economic and
financial issues remains intact, while under the influence of the crisis her belief-
system underwent a strong and positive ‘Europeanisation’.
Let’s now compare this pattern against the impact the crisis had on the belief
system of the Bundesbank President: the top German financial expert and
administrator. Axel Alfred Weber was born in Kusel in 1957. He studied economics
and public administration and worked as a Professor of Economics at various German
Universities. From 2002 to 2004, he was a member of the German Council of
Economic Experts; a prestigious government advisory council. In April 2004, he was
appointed President of the Bundesbank, and member of the Governing Council of the
ECB. In April 2011, after publicly criticising the Euro-zone's and ECB's response to
the crisis, he resigned from his post.
From his first map, it is clear that Weber has a strong and classical Ordo-
liberal view on economic and financial policy with price stability as the most central
and ultimate value and a strong sense for a need for Central Bank independence and
credibility (see Table 2). References to more Keynesian values are much less central
to his mind. The outbreak of Euro-zone crisis did not change the strength of his Ordo-
liberal convictions. However, Weber considered budgetary issues rather than price-
stability the crucial value at stake in this crisis. Rather than belief-change, this
indicates the accommodation of current events into his pre-existing Ordo-liberal
In accordance with this, Weber shows a radical shift in belief from an
overwhelming focus on monetary to a strong focus on budgetary issues. Unlike
Merkel, Weber thus shifted his attention away from the actions and policies under his
control. In addition, the onset of the crisis has also made Weber much more sceptical
of current economic and financial affairs, and EU and ECB monetary policies as well
as the budgetary policies of EU member-states. In sum, Weber agrees with the
Chancellor that the Euro-zone crisis should be defined as a public debt crisis.
[Table 2 here]
These findings are even more interesting in light of the second major change
in Weber's belief-system: the radical shift in his pre-existing identification of NCBs
and ECB as the locus of economic and financial governance to the belief that
governments are the dominant actor in the crisis.
With regard to the level of governance, in contrast to Merkel, prior to the crisis
Weber's focus clearly lay with the European level. A few months into the crisis,
however, he felt the most salient events played at the national rather than the
European or the international level. His beliefs became less Europeanised under
influence of the crisis. Moreover, Weber was equally critical of both the national and
the European level. The President did share Merkel's belief that neither the
explanation nor the solution of the crisis are located at the global level.
Comparing Merkel’s and Weber's sense-making during the 2010/11 Euro-zone crisis
shows that despite their differences in expertise, role and pre-existing beliefs, they
shared largely the same definition of the crisis. They do, however, differ in the extent
to which their definition of the Euro-zone crisis is rooted in their pre-existing beliefs.
Contrary to traditional cognitive theory, Chancellor Merkel’s belief system remained
stable. In fact, her economic beliefs were strongly reinforced. Theoretically this is
remarkable since Merkel has little economic expertise. The Euro-zone crisis,
however, did cause a Europeanisation of her belief-system.
Weber's belief-system shows a very different pattern. His Ordo-liberal
convictions remained rock-solid, even in face of the crisis. This is a textbook example
of the threat/belief-rigidity thesis. The President's focus on monetary issues, however,
did shift towards budgetary issues. This supports the thesis that experts are well-
equipped to accommodating new events into their belief-systems. The fact that this
accommodation took place within the solid framework of Weber's Ordo-liberal
convictions and had no cascading effect suggests that we may be dealing with beliefs
at a different hierarchical level (Levy, 1994: 286; Tetlock, 1991: 28; Van Esch, 2007).
Further analysis of Weber's cognitive maps is needed to test this.
Study 2: Prime-ministerial meaning-making
In study 2 we focus on the challenge of meaning making—how to communicate an
unprecedented economic downturn politically. As noted earlier, meaning-making by
executive leaders can be crucial to maintain or restore trust in institutions whose
effectiveness, reliability and/or integrity appear to have been severely compromised
by the occurrence of crisis. A significant part of meaning–making efforts during the
financial crisis was aimed at repairing domestic as well as international public and
stakeholder trust in financial institutions and confidence in the regulatory authorities’
ability to enforce those institutions to behave responsibly. At the same time,
government leaders when speaking about the crisis would also have taken into
account the politically charged issue of causation, responsibility and accountability.
Below we shall examine how some of those leaders tried to balance restoration of
public confidence and blame management.
Understanding political elites through rhetorical analysis is a tried and tested
genre in political science and has found itself a new lease on life in the age of
television and the Internet (Edelman 1977; Tulis 1987; Hart 1989; Gaffney 1991; Uhr
, 2003). We are also not the first to study the economic rhetoric of leaders—at times
of crisis or otherwise (see Wood 2007). Many scholars of political rhetoric stress its
significance in making or breaking leaders’ careers, as well as in influencing their
effectiveness as agenda setters, legislators and policymakers, although there are
indications that this influence should not be overstated (Edwards 2003; Canes-Wrone
2006; Curran 2004; Wood 2007:10–13). Yet in the field of crisis leadership studies,
rhetorical perspectives are seldom applied (cf. Bostdorff 1994; Kiewe 1994; Kuypers
1997; Fearn-Banks 2002; Millar and Heath 2003).
The larger study from of which the research reported here is drawn consisted
of a comparative content analysis of key leaders’ speeches held during the height of
the global financial turmoil of 2008-9 (Tindall and ‘t Hart, 2009). Drawing on the
work of Brandstrom and Kuipers (2003) and Boin et al (2009), we focused on four
layers of crisis-induced meaning making: leaders’claims about the severity of the
crisis, its causes, the responsibility/blame for its occurrence, and its policy
We tracked media responses to those speeches as well as polling data
immediately prior to and following the speeches. We subsequently extended part of
the analysis until mid 2010 (Masters and ‘t Hart, 2012). Carefully selected speeches
and first 48-hours newspaper commentary about them were analysed using qualitative
thematic content analysis. Public opinion impacts were assessed using published
polling data from authoritative polling agencies in all of the jurisdictions.
Space limitations allow us to provide only a small subset of the overall
findings. We provide a flavour of them by focusing on one particular leader, Gordon
Brown, in somewhat more detail, and then placing his results in the broader
comparative picture obtained following identical analyses performed on other heads
Gordon Brown became Prime Minister in June 2007 after a long and toxic
relationship with his predecessor. As Chancellor, Brown had declared that the boom
and bust cycles were a thing of the past (Rawnsley 2010, 678), but a few months after
taking over as PM he was forced into financial fire-fighting mode by the escalation of
problems at the Northern Rock building society, inaugurating two years of crisis
management. We first examine Brown’s key crisis speeches and highlight their
18 February 2008 – Nationalising Northern Rock The first major
manifestation of the global financial crisis (GFC) in Britain was the
nationalisation of the Northern Rock Bank. In late 2007 when the credit
crunch first hit, Northern Rock became the first UK bank in over a century to
suffer a run by depositors. Rescue efforts by the government and attempts to
find a private saviour failed, the government had to take control. Brown
framed his announcement during a press conference at Number 10 in
relatively soft terms, which exogenized blame – the GFC was ‘global financial
turbulence that started in the sub-prime mortgage market.’ With ‘the most
open economy in the world’ Britain could not escape the ‘turbulence.’ To
‘protect savers and depositors’ the government decided to ‘hold Northern
Rock in temporary public ownership.’ In the ensuing questions from the press,
Brown continued to describe the crisis as ‘turbulence.’
13 October 2008 – ‘unprecedented times’ Following Northern Rock’s
nationalisation, six more banks announced monumental losses. A few days
before this speech, Iceland’s economy collapsed, and Brown had threatened
legal action to retrieve UK savings in Icelandic banks. Domestically, Brown
was consistently behind in preferred prime minister polls (UK Polling Report
2009). Brown now declared that ‘these [are] unprecedented times’,
maximising the severity of the crisis, claiming ‘the stakes are higher than ever
before’. Proclaiming ‘this is first and foremost a global crisis’, Brown
defended himself and his government against charges of regulatory
negligence. He utilized the analogy of the 1944 Bretton Woods conference to
affirm the possibility of a new global regulatory system to address the crisis.
His emphasis on ‘global’ was perhaps aimed at shifting the policy game to an
international battlefield where the opposition could not effectively compete. In
the same breath, Brown cast himself as a committed reformer, citing his 2008
Harvard speech proposing ‘to reshape the international financial system for the
3 April 2009– the G20 London Consensus Throughout 2009, Brown was the
President of the G20, giving him an opportunity to host what media referred to
as a ‘save the world summit’ of G20 leaders (Parker 14 October 2009).
Following the meeting, Brown proclaimed the era of market liberalization and
unfettered capitalism over. He outlined a suite of just agreed regulatory
measures, which aligned with Brown’s earlier calls for reform of the Bretton
Woods system. He continued to exogenise blame, now focusing on offshore
tax havens, banking secrecy and executive pay, promising to ‘implement new
rules on pay and bonuses at a global level that reflect actual performance with
no more reward for failure.’ While the measures were a shared effort, G20
host Brown claimed – and received – much of the credit.
29 September 2009– The Last ‘New Labour’ Conference Having recently
returned from the G20 in Pittsburgh, where global leaders had declared the
world was moving from crisis to recovery, Brown now faced the prospect of
boosting his party’s credentials as competent economic managers. The Labour
Party Conference in Brighton was the last such meeting before the general
election. Brown juxtaposed his government’s actions - saving banks and jobs,
rescuing homeowners, stimulating the economy, and engaging in international
solutions – against the Tory’s opposition agenda. This was clearly an attempt
to politically exploit Labour’s ‘successful’ responses to the GFC. The strategy
of investment in training and education was aimed at the ‘squeezed middle’
and the ‘hard pressed working majority’, who Brown would not allow to ‘be
buffeted about in a storm not of their making.’ Reinforced and backed by the
recent G20 endorsement of a global regulatory regime for the banking and
finance sector, Brown argued that in many ways the Pittsburgh meeting had
endorsed policies from the London G20 summit, policies that Brown claimed
to have authored. And although his government had had to bail out the banks,
‘the banks [would] pay back the British people.’
7 November 2009 – Address to G20 Finance Ministers In November, Brown
took final advantage of his presidency of the G-20 by addressing the meeting
of global finance ministers at Gleneagles, Scotland. In many ways the speech
was pitched at his own electorate in Britain. Short term, Brown called for
adherence to policies of economic stabilization, and in the medium term,
deficit reduction. This aimed at both families and businesses reliant on
government measures, as well as flagging future fiscal restraint. Brown called
for financial markets to be more closely aligned to ‘mainstream values of hard
work, responsibility, integrity and fairness.’ He raised the possibility of
implementing a global tax on all financial transactions to provide a buffer
against future crises and debt relief for the developing world. It was this new
and final measure that sparked resistance from the conservative media and
international players, including US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and
10 March 2010 – Speech on the Economy In full election mode, Brown cast
himself as an exemplary financial manager who had made ‘unprecedented
decisions’, during the ‘greatest economic crisis since the war’ that ‘reverse[d]
decades of orthodoxy’ through a restructuring of the banking system in a
world economy that came close to ‘complete meltdown.’ With the London
G20 as a turning point, Britain had led the way internationally with legislative
reform of the bonuses paid in the finance sector.
Figures 2 to 5 chart the agreement and disagreement with Brown’s evolving
depictions of the severity and causes of the financial crisis and the support for Brown
and Labour policies expressed in the The Guardian / Observer, The Times, and
Financial Times (details on coding techniques in Masters and ‘t Hart, 2012). Data on
neutral articles or where there is no comment on particular dimensions were excluded.
Opinion poll data concerning Brown’s approval ratings in the week following each
speech were taken from YouGov (http://today.yougov.co.uk/politics).
FIGURE 2 – Brown’s severity frame
In all instances, there was greater agreement than disagreement with Brown’s
severity narrative (Fig 2). At the time of Northern Rock’s nationalisation, only a
couple of commentators could not accept the assertion by Brown that the reputation of
the London market had not been damaged. As the crisis wore on, there was less
commentary on severity. The minor spike before the general election reflected a
response to Brown’s renewed rhetoric on the GFC as he tried to exploit it politically.
At the same time Brown was unable to excite interest, let alone support for his causal
frame. None of the speeches analysed resulted in more than 45% commentary, and
only three barely broke 30% in terms of support (Fig 3).
FIGURE 3 – Brown’s causal frame
Between October 2008 and the end of 2009, Brown enjoyed greater media support for
the global policies he espoused: coordinated slashing of central bank rates; cutting
bonuses for bankers who were blamed for the excesses that led to the crash; and
targeting tax havens in his impromptu address to G20 finance ministers. Despite this,
the media never forgot Brown’s legacy as Chancellor, which they argued had created
the conditions for a deeper slump in Britain than many other advanced nations (Fig 4).
FIGURE 4 – Support for Brown’s policies
In the week immediately following each speech the recorded media support
for Brown’s overall leadership was relatively strong. In October 2008, public
perception of Brown being the man-of-the-hour, combined with his populist rhetoric
of regulation and reining in bonuses played well. This did not, however, translate into
an enduing uplift in the opinion polls, as Figure 5 shows. On the contrary: some of the
early spikes in support he enjoyed after replacing Blair, Brown’s GFC rhetoric and
‘statesmanship’ were not enough to offset the tidal wave of anti-Labour feeling that
was sweeping the country (Rawnsley 2010). Brown simply could not escape his own
FIGURE 5 – Support for Brown and poll results (YouGov 2008a, b, 2009a, b, c,
A comparative analysis
How distinctive was Brown´s meaning-making pattern and its (lack of) public and
political impact? Our comparative study of eight heads of government shows that
Brown fit a particular mould, namely that of the long-serving leader who, confronted
with a crisis that was potentially politically embarrassing for his own reputation for
regulatory prudence, first tried to play down its local severity (pre-Lehman Brothers
collapse, all of the leaders we studied in the eight nations praised the strength, indeed
the invulnerability, of their own financial institutions) and play up the exogenous
(US-based) nature of its causes), then portrayed themselves as alert and competent
financial crisis managers and indignant reformers of the financial sector, only to see
their own ability to frame the debate shrink and their political capital evaporate as
commentators increasingly questioned their pre-crisis regulatory track records. We
found, for example, a highly similar speech-making and speech-reception pattern for
Irish prime minister Brian Cowen (who like Brown ended up as a political carcass as
a result of the crisis well before the first post-GFC elections took place in their
respective countries, see Masters and ´t Hart, 2012), New Zealand prime minister
Helen Clarke (voted out of office in late 2008), and Singaporean prime minister Lee
Hsieng Loon (who suffered an electoral swing against his party of 6.5% at the 2011
elections but comfortably retained power) (see Tindall and ´t Hart, 2009).
Our study suggests that the meaning-making pattern for long-serving leaders
faced with the crisis corresponds closely with the findings of other studies of blame
management—namely, a pattern of ‘staged retreat’: potential blamees try to keep the
discussion about blame as far away as possible from themselves, but as the pressure
on them increases (because new facts become known, more people have become
angry or credible voices are starting to question their involvement, competence or
intent), they retreat to less ideal but still potentially workable forms of blame
avoidance (Bovens et al. 1999; Brändström and Kuipers 2003; Hood et al. 2009).
In our study, the first impulse of most policymakers was to initially downplay
the severity of the problems. Once past the denial stage, they attempted to exogenise
the causes of the crisis across territorial (‘it’s the Americans’) and institutional (‘it’s
the market’) borders. They also attempt to moralise the issue, by accusing key
corporate actors of ‘greed’, ‘recklessness’, and ‘unscrupulousness’. In addition,
virtually all leaders in our sample engaged in attempts to ‘jump over’ blame, by
moving straight from assessments of severity and causes to talk about the need for
regulatory reform in the financial sector, domestically but most emphatically at the
international level. And finally, a limited number of speakers engaged in some form
of admission—not of ‘guilt’, but of the presumably lesser evils of naivety (about the
extent to which perverse incentives in the financial sector have bred deep cultures of
corporate irresponsibility) and lack of vigour in tightening regulation. All stopped
well short of public contrition, though a few acknowledge and empathise with the
extent of suffering borne by the ordinary citizens who have been the losers in the
Length of incumbency was the main mediator of this pattern. In sharp contrast
to Brown and the other leaders mentioned above newly incumbent leaders like
Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd (elected into office in late 2007) and Barack
Obama (in office by early 2009) were handed rhetorical opportunities to engage in
crisis exploitation (Boin et al, 2009), depicting themselves and their governments as
engaging in an epic struggle to combat the economic catastrophe that they had
encountered when taking over the government.
Rudd, for example, published a lengthy essay in early 2009 redefining the
ideological terms of the crisis. For Rudd, the crisis was now so severe it would ‘mark
a turning point between one epoch and the next’, representing ‘the greatest dislocation
of our lifetime’. No longer simply blaming greedy irresponsible US risk-takers, the
GFC was a symptom of a flawed system, underpinned by a discredited ideology and
the lax regulation that had sprung from it. The crisis ‘called into question the
prevailing neo-liberal economic orthodoxy of the past 30 years’. Rudd posited that the
crisis was ‘generated by the system itself’, focusing blame on the previous
government claiming their ‘neo-liberal’ ideology had ‘not served Australia well in
preparing for the current crisis’. Though recognizing ‘the great strengths of open,
competitive markets,’ Rudd’s ideological antidote was ‘social democracy,’ which had
to ‘save capitalism from itself.’ In the months thereafter, when it transpired that the
Australian economy had weathered the storm without dipping into recession, he
aggressively credited this to his own government´s fast and voluminous fiscal
stimulus packages - rather than to exogenous factors such as the quick resurgence of
China´s insatiable demand for Australian minerals. And our tracking of the polls
surrounding the seven speeches we studied for Rudd showed that, despite mixed
media reception of his more ideological speeches in particular, the Australian public
gave him a remarkable political honeymoon as prime minister (see Figure 6)
FIGURE 6 – Support for Rudd and poll results (NewsPoll 2010)
Conclusion: Towards structured analysis of political crisis leadership
In times of crisis, we expect our political leaders to demonstrate leadership. When
leaders perform well during crisis, their stock goes up. When a crisis escalates and
becomes protracted, leaders usually get blamed. The problem, at least from an
analytical point of view, is that the public does not specify what exactly it expects of
its leaders during a crisis. Political leaders, in turn, do not always know what to
prioritize and how to act. The Euro-Crisis is a shining example of leadership
indecision, followed by blame and loss of trust.
We started this chapter by presenting a set of tasks that we can reasonable
expect political executives to work on during a crisis (Boin et al, 2005). We
concentrated on two important, yet understudied tasks: sense-making and meaning-
making. We demonstrated how these crisis tasks can be studied in an empirical and
comparative manner, using the Euro-Crisis as our case.
We know that sense-making is important in a crisis: if leaders do not know
what is going on, they cannot make the right decisions. In this chapter, we studied
how belief systems of political leaders affect their sense-making capacities, and how
an evolving crisis, in turn, affects their belief systems. Our findings demonstrate how
important these belief systems were for Merkel and Weber in the management of the
Euro-Crisis. The findings also suggest that leaders are capable of adapting their
beliefs during a crisis. Under which conditions they do so (or fail to do so), requires
We know that leaders often engage in meaning-making efforts during (and
after) a crisis. Yet, we do not know if and how their meaning-making help to generate
public support for their actions. The research presented in this chapter suggests that
these efforts do matter, even if the conditions under which meaning-making is
effective require further study.
Political leadership in times of crisis has attracted quite some scholarly
attention over the years. Most of these studies are case driven. There are few
comparative studies of political leadership under adversity. The time has come for the
field of crisis studies to move beyond individual case studies towards comparative
analysis. This chapter offers the beginning of a framework and two examples of
approaches that can be used in such a comparative analysis. If we can validate (or
disprove) the theoretical insights deduced from individual case studies, we get one
step closer to understanding the complex phenomenon of political leadership.
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