The faces of 2020

Great leaders thrive in the midst of turmoil and upheaval, as we have seen this year. Four of the great movers and shakers of 2020 stood out for us.

Ursula Von der Leyen: the EU’s model of elegance steadies the ship 

“I always wanted… to come home,” said Ursula Von der Leyen, 62, last year, when she became the European Commission’s first female president – her family actually hails from Lower Saxony in Germany. But it was in Brussels that the gynaecologist-turned-politician was born, grew up and first “nurtured a passion for the European project”, says the Financial Times. Her first year in the job has been more turbulent than she could ever have anticipated – even leaving aside the hassle of Brexit dealings. The onslaught of the virus left the Commission “paralysed” as member states shut their borders and hoarded medical kit. Restoring harmony has been a major task for a woman “with little experience of EU structures or of managing the conflicting demands of 27 member states”. Her most significant contribution was steering through an €750bn rescue plan in July – hailed as such “a defining achievement” for the integration of the bloc that some called it the EU’s “Hamiltonian moment”.

Von der Leyen’s close relationship with German leader Angela Merkel was instrumental to the breakthrough. Indeed, for years she was seen in Germany as Merkel’s most likely successor leading the CDU party. But a troubled stint at the defence ministry – marred by a procurement scandal – put paid to that. Instead she ended up as the successful “compromise candidate” leading the commission. 

The coolly elegant mother of seven has been criticised in German political circles for being “too aloof, too perfect”. Perhaps that is unfair. But one year into her term, Von der Leyen has maintained an aura of mystique. She’s responsible for legislation affecting more than 700 million Europeans, but few know what makes her tick.

Eric Yuan

Eric Yuan: the nice guy who zoombombed the world 

Every now and again a company so succeeds in imprinting itself on daily life that it becomes part of the vocabulary. It’s a measure of the rise of Zoom this year that it has inspired a whole new lexicon – from “zoombombing” (crashing other people’s meetings) to “zumping” (dumping people via video). The man behind this social phenomenon, Chinese-born Eric Yuan – who still owns 22% of Zoom – has seen his personal wealth rocket in line with the company’s shares. Thanks to explosive 1,900% user growth, the stock has soared by 500% this year. Back in April, the Financial Times’ Tim Bradshaw was speculating whether Zoom would prove a flash in the pan, eventually squeezed out by bigger rivals. But it ends the year a solid fixture on the landscape – a symbol of the evolution of virtual communication in business.

One of the few Chinese-born founders to lead a prominent US tech start up, Yuan grew up in Shandong, the son of geology engineers. An early hero was Bill Gates, who inspired his determination to make it to Silicon Valley. After eight failed attempts to secure a visa, he got there in 1997 working for Cisco among others and eventually founding Zoom in 2011. Fans say Zoom’s success couldn’t have happened to a nicer man: Yuan, 50, really believes in the San Jose-based company’s motto of “delivering happiness” – beginning with his own employees. He’s undeniably a popular boss, says Forbes, and is said to live by the motto “work hard and stay humble”. In a year of often vicious tensions for companies with Chinese links in America, he has also shown a considerable talent for diplomacy. Arguably, Yuan is living proof that nice guys don’t always finish last.

Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci

Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci: the modest scientists who struck gold  

When Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci picked a street called An der Goldgrube (“at the goldmine”) in Mainz for the HQ of their company, they little knew “how prophetic” the address would become, says The Guardian. Following their Covid-19 vaccine breakthrough, their wealth shot up to an estimated £3bn, in line with BioNTech’s soaring US-listed shares. Still, one gets the impression that money is the last thing that matters to the Turkish-German couple, says The Times. Modest to a fault, when they learned the good news that the vaccine they developed with Pfizer was 90% effective, they reportedly celebrated with a cup of tea. 

When Tureci and Sahin, who met as students at Saarland University Hospital, began BioNTech in 2008, the main thrust of their research was cancer treatment. “At the time the notion of treating cancer with anything other than surgery, radiation and chemotherapy seemed outlandish,” says The Times. 

Their breakthrough was the discovery that the genetic instructions carried by messenger RNA (mRNA) could be mobilised to fight against tumours. If there has been any silver lining to Covid-19, it is that the race to beat the disease has put mRNA vaccines to an early test, says Lex in the Financial Times. Fewer people will die of Covid-19 because of the work of this pioneering couple – and, ultimately, fewer people will die of cancer too. Bravo.

Rishi Sunak

: dishy Rishi charms the nation

Given the prominent role Chancellor Rishi Sunak has played in the lives of every Briton in 2020, it seems extraordinary that just a year ago he was completely unknown to most. Installed in a political coup in February, the untested chancellor quickly rose to the challenge of the pandemic with a decisive £350bn package for business and a national job furlough scheme. Adept at making policy on the hoof, the cult of “Dishy Rishi” was soon in full-swing – aided by popular moves over the summer such as Eat Out to Help Out and a cut in stamp duty that stoked a mini housing-boom.  

Born in Southampton, the son of a GP and a pharmacist, Sunak, 40, attributes his desire to serve the community to them. But his own life has been considerably more high-octane. After an intellectually rigorous education (Winchester College, followed by Oxford and Stanford), he joined Goldman Sachs and then the hedge fund, TCI. He is also hugely wealthy. His wife Akshata Murthy is “richer than the Queen”, says The Guardian, thanks to a £430m shareholding in the Indian IT giant Infosys, which was founded by her father.

The Chancellor appears to have two “warring identities”, says The Economist. There’s “Rishi-the-pragmatist” with his “mind-boggling list of spending commitments”. But there’s another “more ideological” Sunak with “such ingrained enthusiasm for balancing budgets” that he might be described as “a chip off the old Thatcherite block”. Expect the latter to become more assertive next year. For Sunak, the tough decisions have only just begun. Tackling a £400bn deficit will really test his mettle. 

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