Leadership Style of Zuzana Čaputová


Zuzana Čaputová became known by prevailing in a decade-long legal struggle against the situating of a toxic landfill in her hometown of Pezinok.   Čaputová was awarded the 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize for her work.  A prize that is awarded annually to grassroot environmental activists from each of the world’s six geographic regions. The award is given by the Goldman Environmental Foundation which is also called the Green Nobel.

Slovakian presidential candidate Zuzana Caputova (picture-alliance/dpa/M. Baumann)

Not long ago, Čaputová, a 45-year-old lawyer and civil activist, was regarded as just one – in a crowded field of candidates – with little hope of winning more than a few per cent of votes. Then came the televised debates and everything changed.  As the other  (male) candidates bickered, squabbled and threw insults, Čaputová came across as the adult in the room by calmly and serenely stating her points. For it was in the way in which Čaputová handled herself and presented her arguments that saw her polling numbers steadily rise until by voting day she was the clear favoritism.  As a result Čaputová   won the run-off within a fortnight with 58% of the vote.

Candidate Zuzana Čaputová attends a political debate ahead of Slovakia’s presidential elections. Photograph: Radovan Stoklasa/Reuters

Čaputová soon became Slovakia’s first female president and, as if that isn’t symbolic enough, she also embodied a rare triumph of progressive, tolerant politics over populism in a region of macho politicians pushed anti-migration platforms.   Čaputová’s slogan “stand up to evil”, complained about corruption and cronyism among Slovakia’s ruling elite.  As a advocate, she got a controversial landfill site closed after a long battle with authorities.   She said that her legal experience suggested it was “better to focus on structural issues rather than on personalities“. [emphasis added] The fact that the attacks didn’t work suggests the issues were of second-tier importance to people who wanted to see politicians getting on with tackling corruption. And in a region where talk of “Christian values” is often used as cover for hate speech and discrimination, we find Čaputová reclaiming a softer idea of Christianity.

“I’m a religious believer and a spiritual person, but I don’t think Christian values are contradictory to liberal stances,” ~ Zuzana Čaputová
Anti-graft crusader Zuzana Caputova becomes Slovakia’s first female president, Source: Japan Times, Slovakia’s President Zuzana Caputova is applauded during her swearing-in ceremony as the country’s first female head of state, in Bratislava, Slovakia, June 15, 2019. REUTERS/Radovan Stoklasa TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

“There needs to be a change in the way politics is done, and the tone with which people approach debates,” she said. Čaputová made a distinction between the party leaders and voters, claiming many were simply fed up with years of disappointment from traditional politicians.  “Often people vote for this party through personal frustration and dissatisfaction, and they want fast and radical solutions.”  Čaputová  continues, “Probably there would be some degree of agreement between me and these people in terms of the causes and diagnosis of problems in our society. It will be my task to convince them that the solution to these problems should be calm and pragmatic.”

Signing presidential documents. Zuzana Čaputová, sworn in as President.

I remember when the two countries separated,  it was big news to me to first learn that they were two countries in the first place that joined and then separated again.  In History and Geography class, Czechoslovakia was one of my favorite countries, well at least in its pronunciation, I loved the way it rolled off my tongue, it just seemed so natural and I thought obviously since the words sounded good together, the country must have operated just as well.  Then the two countries split.  I couldn’t believe it.  Even worse to pronounce the names Czech and Slovakia as two separate words really drove the point home.  It sounded so foreign, I am sure, to many others as well.

Czechoslovakia: Why the Split?

The split of Czechoslovakia on January 1, 1993 was not entirely inevitable, but the political and economic costs of keeping the country together would have been extremely high.

Five Main Reasons for Czechoslovakia’s Disintegration:

1. Mutual historical grievances 
2. The asymmetrical nature of a two-state federation
3. Incompatible political spectrum after the 1992 elections
5. Czech and Slovak nationalism
4. A lack of democratic experience in both countries

It seems the split of Czechoslovakia worked better for Slovakia than for the Czechs. Many Czechs accepted the dissolution of Czechoslovakia as something of a defeat, a partial loss of their national identity.  The split has provoked a strange brand of Czech nationalism, which is a mixture of the idea of Czech exceptionalism, on the one hand, and the provincial xenophobia of a small nation, afraid of a large neighbor, on the other. Much of the anti-European rhetoric in Czech politics today is driven either by the belief that “we could do it better than Europe” or by the fear of Europe, especially Germany. The Slovaks appear to be, at least at this point, a more confident nation although Slovakia suffers from its own version of provincialism and lately also the belief in its own exceptionality.

Czech President Milos Zeman attends a press conference at the Prague Castle. Photograph: Matej Divizna/Getty Images

Slovakia Today

For a rising state that has significantly less material capability than the dominant state(s), how can Slovakia surpass other states to become a new world leader; or simply just a more dominant leader than what used to dominate them?  “Political leadership” is a key variable in the formulation of a national capability that provides an explanation of how a rising state is able to surpass the domination state despite having less material capability.  In his book “Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers, Yan Xuetong informs us that:

“Leaders define states’ international and domestic constraints.  Based on their perceptions and interpretations, they build expectations, plan strategies and urge actions on their government.  Such perceptions help frame government orientation to international affairs”.

Zuzana Čaputová is the fifth Slovak president. Source: The Slovak Spectator – SME

President Čaputová certainly has some challenges ahead of her.  When she took up office, Čaputová found herself surrounded by populist politicians in neighbouring countries who campaigned on fear-mongering, xenophobic platforms that represented the antithesis of her message of calm debate. On one side she had President Miloš Zeman of the Czech Republic, who suggested that Muslim migrants could perpetrate a “super-Holocaust” in Europe, while on the other is Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, who has  tirelessly  played up the threat posed by migrants and refugees and also suggested that women are not suited to life in politics.

President Zuzana Čaputová criticised Orbán’s politics during her visit to Hungary


Čaputová would not be drawn to comment on whether Orbán’s style of politics would fall under her campaign definition of “evil”, but she was clear that even if she plans to be diplomatic, she does not want to compromise. “We’ll try to have a constructive relationship with neighbouring countries but at the same time have clear stances and positions based on values,” said Čaputová [Denník N daily]  “I’m convinced that liberal democracy, which guarantees equal rights to all people, is the best way to protect all minorities that live in our country,” .  Her speech during the press conference was full of courtesies and innuendos of the way PM Viktor Orbán rules the country and his relation to both democracy and the EU. Though she did not directly criticise Orbán, her statements are clear in diplomatic language and were obviously directed towards Hungarian people.”

Wang Yi and Zuzana Čaputová (Source: SITA)
“Domination, or safety, or peril, or destruction all is determined by the leader.” Xunzi

The day before Orbán’s  visit, Čaputová also criticised China for violating human rights. In the Slovakian newspaper Aktuality.sk under the subheading:

President Čaputová still has time for economic pragmatism against China. For the time being, her openness when visiting a Chinese minister is refreshing.

We’re not waiting for a panda


The first official visit of the President of Slovakia to the Czech Republic (20.6.2019). Zuzana Čaputová with Miloš ZemanPHOTO: Photo Flash – Jakub Poláček

“I’m not here to rule, I’m here to serve,” Mrs Čaputová said in her inauguration speech.  “I am offering my professionalism, I am offering the healthy interest of an activist. I am offering my reason, my heart, and my hands. I will serve the Slovak nation, national minorities and ethnic groups living in the Slovak Republic,” she said. 

What type of power does Čaputová possess and how she wields that power is critical.  Here are some types of power and leadership styles to watch out for:

    • Legitimate Power: Having authority from followers to exert influence over them.  Are perceived to be able to make good decisions for others and make good on their commitments.
    • Reward Power: Ability to control rewards and positive outcomes for others.  People comply to receive positive benefits
    • Coercive Power: The ability to influence others through fear or punishment.
    • Referent Power: Have influence over others because they are personally liked by others.
    • Expert Power: Have technical knowledge and expertise that others rely upon.  Having unique and useful knowledge is a source of power.  Individuals are likely to follow in the direction or instructions of someone who, they believe, understands the issue.
    • Effort Related Power:  Through active, dependable performance.

Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers, Yan Xuetong

Environmental and anti-corruption activist Zuzana Čaputová wins runoff election

Mrs Čaputová stressed the importance of values like humanity, solidarity and truth. “Our EU and NATO membership is our free choice,” she underlined. “A small state in the middle of Europe couldn’t encounter a better fate than to belong to a community that espouses economic prosperity with social solidarity and expects every member state to adhere to the principles of international law. The fact that we are a part of the union is not just a matter of our prosperity, it is also an important contribution to our national sovereignty.”  

“Politics are no longer a sign of weakness. Today we have shown that they are a sign of strength,”

“When I talk about us, about Slovakia, I must state that we are much more viable, much more vigorous than we often believe ourselves to be. We do not need to look back to the distant past. It is enough to remember what we have managed to do and the things we have overcome in just the last 30 years.”  Her decision to run for the office came just after the murder last year of the reporter Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová. The murders led to the resignation of prime minister Robert Fico. In her inaugural speech she reassures, “I will perform my mandate freely, answering to the orders of nobody. The only orders that I want and will respect as the head of state, come from the constitution, and are dictated by my promise of fidelity to the republic. The feeling of injustice has grown stronger and has acquired two forms, the form of calling for a change and for decency, but also the form of anger about the ‘system’. We need to divert the energy of discontent so that Slovakia always remains a state within the rule of law, not just in its constitution, but also in reality”.

On Leadership:

  • Inactive Leadership – follows a Daoism of laissez-faire philosophy a state leadership that subscribes to the philosophy of governance by non interference.  maintains international current status, best strategy is non-action .
  • Conservative Leadership economic determinism. A state leadership that advocates maintaining an international status quo, adopts strategies that maintain the achievements of their predecessors.  Views the economy as the foundation of a state’s comprehensive capability. Policy makers have no intention on improving their country’s international status. It’s the most popular style of leadership especially with outgoing Ministers because they are leaving, they have no ambition.  This type of leadership opts to reduce international pressure by expanding economic relations with the states with whom it experiences conflict, therefore enabling them to enact sanctions to wield economic power over weaker states and subsequently improve relations by lifting such sanctions.

  • Proactive LeadershipPolitical determinism and believes that political talents are the decisive factor.  A state of leadership that advocates improving a country’s international status by carrying out appropriate reforms. They attribute the rise and fall of a state solely to the capability of that state’s leadership, taking no account of other factors. Favors strategies that enlarge international support for its cause and seeks allies to obtain military and political support necessary to counter dominant state suppression.  Provides strong leadership through proactive thinking.
  • Aggressive LeadershipSocial Darwinism. A state leadership with the ambition to increase it’s country’s international status through military means.  Believes in the efficacy of violent force, including military aggression and that successful establishment of an empire through wars was the only way to enlarge their country’s interstate power.  In times of peace this type of leadership may bring on disaster to its people and undermine the country’s international status.  Because forcefully obtaining benefits is a strategy favorable to the strong in competition against the weak such leadership of rising states often adopt the opportunistic policy of initiating military attacks against lesser states, including allies of dominant states.  this strategy may trigger a major war resulting from the escalation of military clashes between the rising state and an ally of the dominant state.

Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers, Yan Xuetong

“Accordingly, one who uses the state to establish justice will be a sage king; one who establishes trust will be a hegemon’ and one who performs political deception will perish.” Xunzi

“Strategic credibility and international leadership defines the core morality of a leading state as responsible and benevolent governance at the domestic level and high strategic credibility at the international level.  The type of international leadership provided by a leading state is determined according to whether or not the leadership values its international strategic capability.  International leadership are thus categorized into four types according to the different preferences regarding exercising leadership  in an international system. They are: humane authority, hegemony, anemocracy and tyranny.” [Xuetong]

Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová and her Czech counterpart Miloš Zeman, Source: TASR

As a rising state, Čaputová has no choice but to create peaceful alliances with surrounding countries because of their geographic proximity.  If she was close to Canada or even Brazil she’d be making the same visits with the same remarks because it is the neighborly thing to do – it’s not about winning some sort of a competition or contest and so far she has done a good job.  President Zuzana Čaputová began her Visegard tour with traditional values by visiting Czech first. Then two visits to Brussels, Hungary, she met with China,  and visited Poland, the last country that surrounds and neighbors Slovakia. 

Let’s read  a few snippets of her conversations with various EU leaders as Čaputová makes nice, establishing herself as a credible leader, strengthening alliances laying the ground work for future state visits and cross-party partnerships. Here we find Čaputová flexing her diplomatic character and “proactive” leadership style with Polish President Andrzej Duda agreeing that the unity of NATO is needed because current relationships with Russia are not improving.  Russia’s style of leadership is a bit ‘inactive‘ combined with ‘legitimate/reward‘ style of leadership. Čaputová expressed regrets because she is convinced that “we [Poland] need a constructive relationship with Russia.” [TASR News Wire]  Both presidents ”proactively‘ agreed that “NATO is a basic pillar of our defense and safety… and the unity between allies is the key precondition to its good functioning.”

Caputova in Poland. (Source: TASR)

“But for that, we need mutual respect and respect of rules. I don’t see it on Russia’s side, unfortunately,” she said, pointing out Russia’s ‘inactive yet aggressive agenda’ as quoted by TASR. She thanked Duda for supporting Ukraine [another ally of Slovakia] and its Euro-Atlantic direction. “Ukraine is our common and biggest neighbor,” she said, “Its security and stability are our common priority.” Čaputová added that Poland is a very important partner for Slovakia in terms of commerce, mutual investments or within cooperation in important fields like security and energy. She thinks that more could be done, in the field of transport infrastructure, for example.” Zuzana Čaputová, who chose Brussels as the destination of her second official visit after being appointed to the post. She met with Belgium’s King Philippe I, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on June 25.  NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg understands Čaputová’s decision to travel to Brussels only a few days after being sworn into office as a “strong sign of commitment” to the Alliance.  She reassured her partners that Slovakia acknowledges and follows the values of European cooperation. The Slovak president also agreed that NATO is the main pillar of Slovakia’s security.   She also informed Stoltenberg about her deep interest for Europe to be perceived as a relevant player within NATO. “I am aware of the fact that Europe needs to speed up,” Čaputová said. Europe can be stronger only if the European part of NATO gets stronger, she added.  One of the topics Stoltenberg and Čaputová discussed was the relations with Russia and the situation in Ukraine.  “I support the dialogue with Russia, as well as the cooperation development,” she said. “Security, European values, and international law, however, must be followed.” [emphasis added]

The Slovak president meets with EC President Jean-Claude Juncker on June 25, 2019. (Source: SITA)

Stoltenberg reassured the Slovak president that NATO is making an effort to better its relationship with Russia, but there is no real interest on Russia’s side. They will meet again in London this December. “I will continue supporting Ukraine,” she said. “Each country has the right to decide independently to where it wants to belong.” Juncker also spoke with Čaputová about the situation in Visegrad Group (V4) countries (Slovakia, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic). He also praised Slovakia’s progress as a EU country in the last 15 years.  “I am convinced that its initial mission to contribute to the unification of Europe is as up-to-date as it was when the V4 was set up,” Čaputová said.  She admitted, however, that all four countries must work harder to dismiss all doubts regarding its path, which seems to be diverging from the EU’s in some countries. [emphasis added]

Source: TASR

Divorced and a mother of two, Zuana Čaputová hopes her victory will inspire women in Slovakia and the wider region to enter politics, which remains heavily male-dominated. During the early stages of her campaign, when she was collecting signatures in support of her candidacy, a few people told her it was “not proper manners” for a woman to run for high office; others said they were inspired by her. Most, though, simply liked her ideas and demeanour. “Some voters saw it as a symbol of change because women can bring a different approach to communications and cooperation,” Čaputová said.

“But this wasn’t a message I was actively pushing during the campaign.” With a characteristic understatement, she added: “I just tried to be the most competent candidate.”

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