“In order to face complex crises, you have to be able to find each other in shared ideas"

Interdisciplinary research into leadership during Eurozone crisis teaches important lessons in crisis management

Which ideas are guiding European political leaders during a border-exceeding crisis? What role do their ideas and personality traits play in finding shared solutions? With current big challenges – such as the climate and corona crises - we are now facing in Europe, answers to these questions can help in order to better understand the complexity of European crisis management. Governance expert Marij Swinkels studied it in her dissertation. She also hopes to use the gained knowledge for advice on leadership for situations on for example national or organisational levels. “I think it's important to also be able to directly involve practice in my research.”

Docenttalent 2019 Marij Swinkels.
Dr. Marij Swinkels

In September, Marij Swinkels obtained her PhD with her doctoral thesis The role of EU leaders and ideas in managing the Eurozone crisis: navigating uncharted territory. By combining methods and theories from disciplines such as governance, political science and history, she studied which role the ideas of political leaders played during the Eurozone crisis. Marij says: “Since late 2009, European leaders tried to face this economic crisis. Their ideas influenced the approach to the crisis and the progression of the crisis with it. I wanted to find out what this means for the handling of such borders-exceeding problems: when can leaders sufficiently find each other in order to come to a shared vision and shared solutions?”

How was that research carried out? How do you study something as intangible as ideas?

She explains: “Our personal ideas and beliefs, on matters such as climate, health or economy, have much influence on the choices we make. So that is certainly also true for leaders who have to act in crisis situations. For an example, whether or not they define something as a crisis matters to the approach they strive for. Of course, ideas are quite abstract and difficult to map out because of this, but fortunately, we are developing more and more tools for this within the research.”

Combining different disciplines and research methods

In her research, one of the things Marij used are speeches by leaders at the beginning of the Eurozone crisis. “With the help of text analysis, I coded whether or not European leaders such as prime ministers or heads of state knowingly spoke of a crisis. Such as by referring to an ‘urgent situation’ that they had to do something about directly.” She made use of existing datasets as well, with which she used new research methods to make connections between the socio-economic context and changes in the European leaders' economic-policy ideas to face the crisis. “By looking at their beliefs over a longer period of time, you can see when leaders' ideas change. Like from stimulation thinking to austerity thinking or vice versa.”

She also studied media reports as a foundation to showcase alliances around certain ideas: “In another step beyond a regular network analysis, I mapped out which ideas existed within certain networks of leaders. Where did these meet, when was there consensus? This approach is also really needed to eventually achieve policy changes.”

Whether political leaders define a situation as a crisis or not, is determinative for the approach they strive for

Which ideas and personality traits especially had an influence?

“The goal of my research was primarily to find out what makes some leaders alter their ideas, which makes mutual solutions possible and other ones impossible. This showed that contextual conditions, such as economic pressure, have an influence on the way they define a crisis. An example of the first can be observed among Spanish leaders, where the economic pressure kept getting bigger. These leaders adapted their ideas to the more ordo-liberal  school of thought that was supported by, among others, German leaders.”


G7 meeting Europese leiders in Catshuis

In looking for solutions, it turned out that leaders with fixed ideas were making mutual leadership harder to achieve. Their personality traits possibly played a part in this. “An example is that leaders with more determined or fixed ideas can obstruct mutual decision making. The same applies to leaders who generally see much nuance in certain subjects and use many sources of information. They possibly spend more time defining something as a crisis and are also somewhat easier to convince of the value of alternative ideas than a leader who sees the world in terms of black and white.”

Did certain leaders or a specific approach really stand out to you?

“Although the research doesn't have value judgements on who handled the Euro Crisis well or not well, it provided important insights on what kind of leadership helps in order to come to a mutual approach. As I indicated in the conclusion, such complex crisis situations have a necessity for adaptive leadership in order to transcend conflicting ideas. You have to actually stand above the ideological differences if you want to get through it together.”

How can you find common ground again, when negotiations during a crisis lead to conflict?

For instance, she can see an example of this in Herman van Rompuy: “Back when all negotiations about the Euro Crisis got stuck, he, as President of the European Council, sent an invitation for a dinner in order to have an open and honest conversation with each other. Without that approach, there may have been conflicts for much longer. This shows how you can transcend an impasse of ideas. And what the function is of such an umbrella position, which makes it possible to take such a step more easily. So one of the lessons from my doctoral thesis is that you do need someone like that, especially at a European level. But it also requires frequent interaction between leaders, so ideological differences can be reduced. Which helps in order to be able to come to a mutual response.” She spontaneously suggests to start an ideas-analysis unit at the European Council. “It could go and look where exactly there are possibilities for shared visions. How can we build bridges and find a constructive dialogue? Actually, that would be very useful in all kinds of organisations!”

Valuable lessons for organisations: a plea for metacommunication

She sees comparable lessons for the Netherlands. “Here too, in matters such as managing the corona pandemic, we can learn from that knowledge. The emphasis is currently mostly on short-term solutions, but a common vision at a higher level is mostly lacking. Exactly such a coordinating vision in which you find each other based on values should be leading, in order to be able to move forward together in the future as well. This applies on a European level, but on national or local levels as well. For many organisations, there are points of improvement there.”

It often turns out to be more about interests and positions than about content. “People explore too little what the ‘opponents’ think exactly and why. In order to work together in a coordinated way and to reach solutions, I think you also need to know what the other ones' values are. How can you understand and study those? And how can you get to work on doing that yourself? I think it's not unwillingness on the part of leaders, but we generally take little time to understand why someone else thinks a certain thing."

In a crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic, you also need a shared vision to find long-term solutions together

And her own ideas about the future?

“In working on my dissertation, the idea of what a good academic is, did change somewhat to me. One reason for that is because debate on it came about and I came into contact with other ideas about it. It may be even more diverse than I thought it was beforehand. That is why one of my ambitions for the future is that I, from my passion and interest, want to develop myself even further in good academic education. A considerable part of my appointment as assistant professor is meant for education - and that also includes education development. Besides that, I made space to do more with public engagement. An example is that I am currently co-organiser in the city conversations on the Akwaglot artwork in the Singel, to look for dialogue with residents of Utrecht. And to make my research even more applicable, I'm going to spend part of my time doing research commissioned by organisations. In order to get an even better idea of how you can carry out that kind of society-driven research.”