Not sure who of you is in to European Soccer. In any case the Champions League should ring a bell. For this post I am taking the recent stunning defeat of Bayern Munich as a case study for leadership.
Since the arrival of Pep Guardiola as the new coach of the team, I was following closely his actions. Pep, as he is known, is one of the few top soccer coaches in the world. Sought after by many teams since he left Barcelona, Bayern Munich won the bid.
As a coach of such a team you are also their leader. Not only have you to coach and train your team and each individual. You must lead them. Lead!
People nowadays talk a lot about self-organizing teams. Sorry, but that's a plain fairy tale. There is no such thing as self-organizing teams. It's wishful thinking. Period
Pep took the baton from his predecessor Jupp Heynckes. Heynckes had let the team to a triple championship winning all there is. Hence, quite a high bar for Pep. It's hardly getting any better.
Pep is credited with having perfected the play with the ball called "Tiki Taka" in Spain. With that he led a generation of young and talented players at Barcelona to many victories. Barcelona with Pep was the gold standard of European Soccer.
With that in mind Bayern Munich was confidently looking into the future. Repeating the triple championship a given. The minimum. Dominating European Soccer for the years to come was the goal. Who could possibly stop them many wondered.
And they started well into the new season. Win came after win in the German Premier League, the Bundesliga. Also in the German Cup they advanced to the finals. And in the Champions League it was the same. They won and advanced. Pep was the hero and the team the champions. And sure enough they crowned themselves with the German Championship already in March. Well underway with their plan for the triple.
And then the unexpected happened. They lost a game in the Bundesliga. Against a weak team. Augsburg. And everyone was just wide awake. A real wake up call that should have been for them. It wasn't. The game was dismissed as a minor misstep.
But the lost games continued. Dortmund won big against Bayern Munich in their home stadium.
The end of it came on Tuesday, April 29. Against Real Madrid. A formidable contender. And Bayern Munich had already lost the first game in Madrid 0:1. They should have been warned. They weren't. And lost at home 0:4. Defeated. Confused, Frustrated. The aura of invincibility smashed. The end in the Champions League.
It comes down like in most of these cases to a leadership problem. It's Pep's responsibility as the coach. What speaks for him is that he is holding himself fully accountable for the disaster. Few leaders have the character and greatness to do that. Chapeau for that, Pep.
Pep loves the Tiki Taka. He is convinced that ball possession leads to domination of any game. That it leads to winning. Nothing can stop you. An enigma for the opponents. The ultimate mastery of soccer or though he thought.
As it appears he didn't take into his equation that it is a complex environment. Rigid systems are sooner or later doomed in ambiguous, complex, uncertain, and volatile circumstances.
What happened to Pep was Pep. One could already see that in his last year in Barcelona. The opponents began reading and understanding his game. And winning became much harder. And it continued with Bayern Munich. Victory after victory it became harder to win. And then Augsburg's coach was the first who deciphered their system. With that a system renders useless.
Pep’s unwillingness to change, to adapt his system to the opponents led to the disaster. His inability to understand that his opponents had cracked the enigma, so to speak. He continued having his team playing this beautiful system of his. And they began to die in beauty.
His predecessor had also a system. Yet, it was at its a core a basic system where flexible components could be added. Depending on who the opponent was. He understood what asymmetricity in a complex environment means. And Jupp Heynckes knows what’s relevant: you gotta score. Period.
Just before losing the first game in the Bundesliga Bayern Munich hat won the German Championship. And Pep announced proudly that “Bundesliga is over and done. We are the Champions already.” And he granted the team some extra rest. After all they deserved it, right? Yet, there were two more championships to go to make the triple perfect. For that a team needs laser focused practice. Pep let them relax when the time for relax had not come yet. And the team lost its edge.
Until that day Pep as a leader and coach had achieved to get the entire team into what I call “The Zone”. That place where you are in total flow. The place where you become what you do. The place where indeed nothing can stop you. And suddenly that was lost.
And it was easy to see in the faces of the players after their first loss. The ease and joy was gone. Replaced by frustration and anger. After the next lost game doubt replaced self confidence. With that the foundation of trust into their coach and leader got a crack.
It comes down to two major leadership mistakes. And yes, one could add a series of minor mistakes to that. Yet, those were triggered by the big ones.
- Mistake one is to fall in love with your brilliant strategy. Your infallible system. It clouds your mind and inhibits your ability of critical thinking. You underestimate your opponents. You overestimate your own brilliance and your abilities. You believe that you are invincible. And you are fooled by randomness. You ignore uncertainty. And then you lose.
- Mistake two is not keeping your team in the zone. Worse, actively pushing them out of the zone. As a leader your words and more your actions have power. When you falter, your team falters. When you are doubtful, your team is doubtful. When you call it a day, your team calls it a day. And then you lose.
With every game lost the foundation of mutual trust gets its cracks. And the team starts to doubt you as their leader. they doubt your abilities as their coach and leader. And you begin to doubt your team.
Case studies like that are a great way to shed some light onto your own organization / company you lead. What do you do as a leader to prevent things going down the drain? How in love are you with your own perceived brilliance? Underestimating competitors?
Could something like that happen to you?
You might say no. Think again.