Soccer teacher vs. Football coach

This article appeared in the Handelsblatt Global Edition on September 15, 2018.

Germans and Americans have very different expectations about leadership. That often leads to problems when they work together in business, explains an American consultant living in Germany, in the fifth part of a series.

Germans and Americans differ in many ways, as you know if you’ve read the previous installments in this series. Yet another difference has to do with how they lead and want to be led. There is a cliché that German leadership tends to be top-down, hierarchical and “command-and-control.” There is another cliché that American leadership favors flat structures, empowerment and subsidiarity. Neither of these is true. In fact, the opposite is true. The real cultural differences are both more subtle and more interesting, and offer plenty of opportunities for misunderstandings.

Let’s start with the German leadership logic. Germans – both those doing the leading and those being led – prefer generally formulated missions. The leader will specify the what, but not the how. Overall responsibility for fulfilling the mission (i.e., the tactics) rests primarily with the implementer but is shared to only a limited degree with the team leader.

From Prussia to soccer

This style of leadership has deep historical roots. Führen mit Auftrag, a multifaceted leadership concept roughly translated as “Leading by Mission,” dates back to the famous Prussian Reforms of the early 19th century, when the Germans analyzed why they were so swiftly and thoroughly defeated by Napoleon‘s armies. In this leadership culture, the officer issues to his troops a mission, a goal. It is then up to the next level to devise how they will complete the mission independently of their leadership.

What is unique about this style is the degree of freedom at the tactical level given to the junior officers and enlisted soldiers. They decide independently which approach is best and adjust to changing situations. This requires flexibility, creativity and independent thinking. Again, this does not fit the cliché that some outsiders have of German leadership.

It is, of course, crucial in this leadership culture that the tactical level clearly understands the strategic thinking of the commanding officer. The implementers must have good judgment and a strong sense of responsibility and duty. The commanding officer, meanwhile, must communicate the strategy clearly. He or she must also provide the tactical managers with all the necessary resources. Anything less is counterproductive. It also threatens team morale and the mission itself.

Another assumption behind this German leadership logic is that the entire group, and each member, must feel self-confident, like an expert in whatever he or she does. The leaders, in turn, should feel proud of their troops and accept team members who take different approaches, as long as the overall goal is reached.

A good analogy comes from soccer, the Germans’ favorite sport. Between matches, the coach works with the players on technique, practices strategies and tries out different formations. But once the match begins, the coach has few levers to influence its outcome. He or she can make only three player substitutions. Aside from yelling a bit, the coach has only a few minutes at halftime to provide instruction. In the end, it is the players who have to know how to react to the opposing team, while the coach turns into a bystander.

Hut, hut, hut

Americans, by contrast, prefer specifically formulated, command-oriented tasks. The leader’s order addresses not only the what, but also the how. This logic, too, has its roots in the military. Until the end of World War II, the United States did not maintain a standing army. American military history is thus a series of mobilizations and demobilizations. Each time, Americans had to retrain themselves for the war they were fighting, enlisting and managing young men at short notice and with little time.

These constraints gave rise to a culture of detailed orders that leave little room for interpretation or improvisation. Again, sport offers a good analogy. In American football, the coach and coaching staff are the dominant actors even during the game, without ever stepping onto the field. They determine not only the strategy but also the tactics.

The rules of the game acknowledge this, by not limiting in any way when, or how often, the coach can substitute players. The coaching staff calls the individual offensive and defensive plays via direct communication with designated players: the quarterback on offense, the middle linebacker or safety on defense. Playbooks describe in precise detail what each player does in a given play.

Lost in translation

When Germans work with Americans, the Germans often experience the American leadership approach as too involved on the implementation level. The American-style hands-on coaching comes across as micromanagement. The Germans perceive their American bosses as „telling me how to do my job,” and feel professionally degraded and personally insulted. The Americans, in turn, often see German bosses as distanced, uninvolved, and almost passive, “empty suits.” They miss clearer definitions of their tasks but don’t know how to bring this up with their German boss.

My advice to Germans who lead American is thus to address this cultural difference openly, by talking about where they draw the line between strategy and tactics are, and by also being more detailed than usual about the how, in addition to the what. My advice to Americans who lead Germans is to become more teacher than football coach. Let your German team members succeed on their own and in their own way. Give them space.

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