Why Christine Lagarde should run the IMF


Christine Lagarde, France's finance minister, is one potential successor to Dominique Strauss-Kahn following his resignation Wednesday night as head of the IMF. (Tomohiro Ohsumi)

Whatever the resolution of le scandal may be, the result of Wednesday’s resignation letter is that it has thrown open the already-percolating speculation about who will succeed DSK. Will it be an economist representing the emerging markets—such as former Turkish finance minister Kermal Dervis or South Africa’s Trevor Manuel? Or will it be a European heavyweight, such as the U.K.’s Gordon Brown or French finance minister Christine Lagarde?

Let’s put aside for a moment that I’m dumbfounded that we even need to have this conjecture. Before last weekend’s charges surfaced, Strauss-Kahn was apparently planning to leave his post within weeks to run for the presidency of France, and No.2 John Lipsky, who is currently serving as acting director until a successor is named, had said he would resign in August. Why hadn’t the board settled on a frontrunner already?

But that’s beside the point now. The most important thing for the IMF at this moment is to move forward—on two fronts. First off, the most pressing challenge, and the most important skill the IMF’s board should consider when choosing a successor, is the management of the debt crises in Greece and other European countries. The person best positioned to deal with these immediate crises—which some say could result in the euro’s collapse if not handled right—should be the next leader of the IMF. Strauss-Kahn was widely credited for being successful in part because he knew his way around negotiating tables in the power centers of Europe. A candidate like Christine Lagarde is no stranger to them, either, and the continuity she offers in handling the European debt issues makes her the most obvious choice.

But while her experience and skills are the primary reasons Largarde should get the job, there’s a second reason she should be the next head of the IMF: She’s a woman. Leaders are chosen not only for their skills, their experience and what their leadership says to external parties, but for what they project to the people who work for the organization itself. The IMF, after all, has some 2,400 staffers working for it. While Strauss-Kahn has not been convicted of anything, he has said he had a relationship with a subordinate in 2008 (the IMF did not accuse him of abusing his power but did call it a “serious error of judgment”), he was reportedly warned by the president of France to control himself, and he told a French newspaper that “women” would be one of the difficulties he would face in his campaign for president: “Yes, I love women….so what?”  

I may be going out on a limb here, but this is probably not the sort of thing your average professional female international economist wants to hear coming out of the mouth of her supervisor. I don’t know what the culture was like inside the IMF, but I’d guess comments like that don’t go a long way toward helping respected senior female economists feel like equals. Putting a woman in charge could help change that. While it may be little more than symbolism, that matters when it comes to selecting leaders.

Those arguing for an emerging markets managing director are sure to say that putting someone from Turkey or Russia or South Africa in the post would be symbolism in its own right. And it would—emerging markets are growing power centers in the world economy, and should get their due. But that’s why I agree with the Post’s Steve Pearlstein that someone from an emerging market, such as Singapore’s Tharman Shanmugaratnam, should be first deputy to Largarde’s managing director, and that he or another non-European or non-American should succeed her. But for now, the IMF’s board should choose a leader who will offer continuity and help to solve the most pressing matters—both externally and internally—at hand.

More from On Leadership:

Panel discussion: For Strauss-Kahn, was recovering credibility even possible?

Poor succession planning at the IMF

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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