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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

5 Lessons Business Leaders Can Learn from German Soccer

On Sunday, Germany became the champion of the soccer world, winning the World Cup for the 4th time, defeating a rugged Argentina team with Lionel Messi as its star. Germany’s surge through the tournament – undefeated in seven games with only a tie with Ghana marring its record – wasn’t a fluke, nor was it lucky. It was the result of 14-year rebuilding program that began in 2000 when soccer was at a low point in Germany’s vaunted history.

In 2000, Germany had been embarrassed by being ousted in the group stage of the European Cup, finishing in 14th place. Its aging greats were retiring and no young stars were emerging. When Coach Erich Ribbeck resigned, the German Federation decided it needed to overhaul its entire player development system. It took 14 years for these decisions to pay off fully. On Sunday Germany’s dreams were fulfilled, thanks to 22-year-old Mario Götze’s brilliant goal in overtime, assisted by 23-year-old André Schürrle, both of whom entered the game as substitutes.

Here are five lessons that business leaders can learn from the German soccer experience that apply to running your business.

#1 – The team is more important than any individual. This maxim was evident throughout the tournament as Germany prevailed over such extraordinary individuals as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, holding both scoreless. The German victory was definitely a team effort, thanks to the coaching of Joachim Löw, who took over in 2006. Germany was such a well-unified team that FIFA could not single out one player as MVP, so it gave the award to a disappointed Lionel Messi. Is your organization truly a team effort, with the leader as coach, not director, or is it directed from the top? If the latter, you will never get the best efforts from your teammates or enable them to develop fully.

#2 – Develop a broadly-based cadre of emerging stars for the long-term. Germany’s youth movement was launched by former star Jürgen Klinsmann, now coach of the U.S. national team, when he became coach in 2004. It has been carried on by his former assistant and now head coach, Joachim Löw, for the past 8 years. They deserve credit for producing such great players as Thomas Müller (24), Mesut Özil (25), Toni Kroos (25), Jérôme Boateng (25), Mats Hummels (25), and Benedikt Höwedes (26) as well as Götze and Schürrle. Business leaders need to think less about immediate succession plans and more about long-term development of outstanding future leaders. That takes intense work with young leaders in their twenties and thirties who will have the breadth and depth of leadership experiences to be prepared for top-level assignments.

#3 – Rely on your veterans, but give emerging stars their chance to shine. Unlike Klinsmann who dropped Landon Donovan, America’s all-time leading scorer at age 32, Löw moved 36-year-old Miroslav Klose, Germany’s all-time leading scorer into the starting lineup, for the final two games. He responded with the winning goal against Brazil, making him the leading goal scorer in World Cup history. Yet when Germany desperately needed a goal with the clock ticking down, Löw called on young Götze, who responded with the goal that won the Cup. All too often, business leaders fail to take risks on their best young leaders by giving them the big opportunity to step up in the most challenging situations. An exception is former Novartis CEO Dan Vasella, who promoted two leaders in their thirties to run the company’s most challenging divisions.

#4 – As the coach, position your players in their “sweet spot” on the field. The key to leading a business organization or team is very similar to soccer: the leader needs to ensure that the players are positioned on the field in their optimal positions, where their strengths can be maximized and their weaknesses not exposed. That’s what Germany’s Löw did in starting three forwards, while keeping his rock-solid defenders in place. Midway through the tournament he made a key tactical move to get Captain Philipp Lahm back to his “sweet spot” at left defense, moving Bastian Schweinsteiger to center midfield, which strengthened both positions. Business leaders need to ensure they get their key leaders into the right positions so their strengths can be fully utilized.

#5 – You’re building for the long-term, but you must win today’s game. Business leaders often complain about the pressures of quarterly earnings reports while they are investing for the long-term. Every great soccer coach knows you have to win today’s game to have a shot at building for the long-term. As well as Germany has done in developing its cadre of talented players, it still had to beat Argentina to establish its success. Had it lost in a shootout, I doubt everyone would be hailing German soccer today. It’s the same for companies: performance matters. But the key is not to win a single tournament or have a great year; it’s to sustain that performance year-after-year. As in soccer, that’s hard to do with new competitors constantly nipping at your heels. Most important of all, it is essential to invest in your people for the long-term, and to know how to use an aging star like Klose and when to trust a young star like Götze.