One of the two teams now qualified for the World Cup final on Sunday in Rio de Janeiro, is not unexpectedly Germany. Since they were embarrassingly knocked out during the group stages at the European Championship in 2000, after two losses and one draw, they have only once placed outside the medals in the following seven European Championships and World Cups. Impressive, but what leadership lessons can we take away from this turnaround in German football?
Focus less on the scoreboard
Back in 2000 Germany was a team everyone loved to hate, even the Germans themselves. They unexpectedly qualified for the final during the 2002 World Cup, but the general perception was, that the team lacked talent and played boring defense-minded football. In 2004 Germany was again eliminated during the group stage, having failed to win a match for a second successive European Championship.
After that 2004 embarrassment Rudi Völler resigned and Jürgen Klinsmann was appointed new head coach. Klinsmann brought in Joachim Löw as his assistant and this was to mark a turning point in German football. Together Klinsmann and Löw set out to replace the old static and defensive style of play with a new philosophy focused on attractive attacking football.
One of the major changes Klinsmann and Löw made was to focus less on the scoreboard. They believed that only focusing on winning or loosing wouldn’t necessarily produce the best long-term results. Instead they focused on individual competences and set individual goals to help each player develop skills that would benefit the team. They worked with the culture and values of the team to make sure they worked together as a unit. During a long campaign, like the World Cup, you rely heavily on the starting eleven, but you need all 23 players in the squad to be ready and motivated when called upon.
Play until the final whistle blows
Two years later in 2006 Germany hosted the World Cup and therefore didn’t have to qualify. That gave Klinsmann and Löw sufficient time to implement the new style of play and Germany ended up winning the bronze medals, playing some inspirational football in the process.
After the 2006 world cup, Klinsmann opted not to extend his contract and Löw took over as head coach. Löw, widely thought of as the architect behind the changes, continued the work he and Klinsmann had started two years earlier.
Today Germany is a multi-ethnic team playing attractive attacking football everyone loves to watch, not only the Germans. Every player in the team understands and accepts their role and everyone on the team plays with a ‘never quit’ attitude. Being up 5-0 after 29 minutes, most teams would have taken the foot of the gas and spared the opponent further embarrassment, but not the Germans. Regardless how great or hopeless things are looking, they keep playing until the final whistle blows. This change in culture has also lead to success on the pitch. At the previous world cup in 2010 they placed third and at the previous two European championships in 2008 and 2012 they took home a silver and bronze medal.
Set a clear goal everyone can get behind
This time the Germans are determined to go all the way and everyone from the players to the coaches and supporting staff is meticulous about what they have to do to get the job done. It is said that if you visit the German football federation building, you will find a picture on the wall of the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro, where the final will be played. This is a clear reminder to the whole organization about what they are striving to achieve.
Utilize individual strengths and challenge weaknesses
The more leaders focus on balanced scorecards, stock prices, match results or similar performance metrics, the less attention they have on the individuals. Both in football and business, people want a leader who values your strengths, but also challenges you to improve in the areas where you are weak. The German coaching staff sets individual goals for the players, including those who don’t play right now.
Inspect and adapt
If you look at how the German team has developed under Löw, you will find that they continuously optimize the style of play to squeeze all that is possible out of his team. During the 2012 European Championships the team made it through to the semi finals before loosing 2-1 to Italy. After the exit, Löw realized, that against teams with the creative power of players like Alessandro Pirlo, the team was too vulnerable when relying solely on standing deep and relying on counter-attacking. In a sentiment to the UEFA website, before starting the 2014 World Cup Qualifying campaign, Löw explained:
We will have to completely change our tactics – which used to be, ‘if we have the ball we are active, if not we drop back. Our aim in the next months will be to play a high pressing game, even against attacking sides. We have to be more active when defending without the ball.
Who will win the final?
The German team is also known as “Die Mannschaft” (literally meaning “The Team”) and that’s exactly how they play – as a team. As a leader I would love to have a superstar like Messi or Neymar on my team, but what if they have an off day or gets injured? Having a team where everyone understands and accepts their role, works on improving their skills continuously, understand the higher purpose and play hard until the whistle blows is less vulnerable, but not necessarily less effective.
Former English captain Gary Lineker is quoted for saying:
Football is a game for 22 people that run around, play the ball, and one referee who makes a slew of mistakes, and in the end Germany always wins.
On Sunday we will know if Lineker was right or superstar Lionel Messi will take a giant step out of fellow Argentinian Diego Maradona’s shadow by lifting the World Cup trophy at the famous Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro.