Time Magazine has chosen Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, as its Person of the Year. A telling bellwether of opinion, this annual accolade has been awarded “for asking more of her country than most politicians would dare, for standing firm against tyranny as well as expedience and for providing steadfast moral leadership in a world where it is in short supply”. In a year when Merkel brokered the diplomatic response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, held the Eurozone together despite the near collapse of Greece, and adopted an historically welcoming stance on the refugee crisis, she has not only been at the heart of world events, but masterminding them too. Yet were you to sit next to her on the bus, she looks so unassuming and ordinary, you would probably not even notice her.

In one of Time’s photos, Merkel’s back is to the camera as she faces a semicircle of G7 leaders. A gathering of some of the most powerful heads of state, all are listening to her. Some show affection, such as Presidents Hollande and Obama, some look serious, but all are rapt. An uninformed observer could be forgiven for thinking that in this company she is a sparrow among hawks, yet it is hard to think of a woman today who can command anything like the respect Merkel clearly engenders. Her figure inclines towards the stout. Her dress sense is plain, almost dowdy, although her jacket is a beautiful sky blue. But this kingfisher flash is not the only thing that marks her out from her male peers in this snapshot and, indeed, from just about every other politician today.

One of the many remarkable and inspiring things about Merkel is how determinedly unshowy she appears despite the power she wields. There is no image consultant orchestrating her coiffeur or clothes, no makeover artist employed to shape her style. Instead, in all the years she has been in politics, since 1990, she has achieved a remarkable act of alchemy that perhaps only her PhD in quantum chemistry can explain. The combination of blandness, painstaking thoroughness, shyness, a passion for data and a boring wardrobe has resulted in an astonishing product, which could be labelled political gold. Only her jewel-like blazers and the occasional youthful smile bring colour to her appearance. That apart, whether it’s her douce or blank expression, her absence of bling and palpable unease under the camera lens, she is the antithesis, you would have said, of the personality required in the leader of the most powerful and wealthy country in Europe and, in effect, the kapellmeister of the European Union.

Daughter of the Lutheran Manse, from East Germany, Merkel has understood a simple fact that many others have failed to observe. Hunger for attention, praise or headlines, a desire for glamour and, in the case of women, an attempt to play the gender card by making too much of their appearance, can seriously backfire. Whoever would run a country, or be ringmaster of the EU, must not outshine or roar louder than the lions and tigers under their whip. Control of such a vast complex of competing interests lies in even greater self-control, and an understanding of priorities.

Germany more than any other nation has learned the dangers of charisma, and the horrors a hypnotic figurehead can unleash. Viewed in that light, Merkel is almost an ideal of the rational, calculatedly unseductive, intellectually driven stateswoman. In her homeland they find her attention to detail and glacier-like progress towards her goals so excruciating the verb Merkeling has been coined to describe it. Nor is there anything chic or electrifying about her doggedness over policy and procedure, or about the quiet way in which she deals with presidents and prime ministers, humouring a preening Nicolas Sarkozy one day, coaxing a sulky David Cameron into a better mood the next. Many images of her in the company of fellow statesmen show her listening, not talking. Yet this may prove to be her greatest asset: that, and never losing sight of her objective, no matter how far off it seems.

If only one could applaud Merkel’s impressive example as a sign of the way women do politics. Evidence suggests, however, that her remarkable talents have less to do with her being female and are more a reflection of her religious upbringing on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall, and the moral indignation this fostered. Patience, clarity of purpose and courage are the bedrock on which her chancellorship has been built. Given the quietness of her personal life, one suspects that her motivation is not self-glorification but social justice, and the righting of the terrible wrongs her country once committed. No peacock or parrot could begin to carry off such an aim. It has taken a more humble, less threatening, but undeniably steely character altogether.