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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Can One Leader Make a Difference in Today’s World?

We remember how Jack Welch transformed General Electric during his twenty years at the helm, turning it into the world’s most valuable private corporation with the power of his brilliance and his powerful, dynamic personality. While Welch’s managerial style worked well in the last half of the 20th century, it seems unlikely it would work today as the Millennial/Gen X generation of leaders has very different expectations for their bosses and their companies.

Today we are in a time of distributed leadership where great leaders act more like coaches than all-powerful directors of people. Millennials and Gen Xers only want to work for a company that stands for something and whose leader is an advocate for its mission and values. They expect their leaders to be authentic and focused on helping them develop.

This raises the question, can a single leader make that much of a difference in this era? The answer is a resounding “Yes!”

For vivid examples, let’s examine what Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Chelsea soccer coach Thomas Tuchel have done in their time at the helm. I will start with Tuchel, who last Saturday led Chelsea to the Champions League title, the most prestigious tournament in club soccer.

Tuchel joined Chelsea in mid-season on January 26 after being fired at PSG, replacing legendary Chelsea player Frank Lampard as coach. At the time Chelsea was mired in 9th place of the Premier League with seemingly little chance to finish in the top four – a requirement to qualify for the Champions League the following season.

Tuchel quickly identified the root cause of Chelsea’s problems: a porous defense that was unable to hold leads in the latter stages of games. He immediately shifted to a five-man defense with three center backs and two wingbacks that often led the attack up the sides. While this dampened Chelsea’s goal scoring, it solidified the defense that yielded only 16 goals in Chelsea’s remaining thirty games and recorded twenty shutouts.

That enabled Chelsea to reach the finals of both England’s Football Association Cup and the vaunted Champions League, as well as finishing in the top four of the Premier League. These successes culminated in Saturday’s 1-0 victory over English champions Manchester City – Tuchel’s third consecutive victory over his mentor, the famed Pep Guardiola.

Tuchel coached exactly the same group of players that Lampard had through this turnaround. Why then did things change? Was it simply the change in formations? Not exactly. Tuchel immediately inspired his demoralized players with a renewed confidence in themselves. As a perfectionist, he worked with each player to perform at his peak while determining every player’s “sweet spot’ – the place where they would be most effective on the field.

Unlike his predecessor, he never criticized any of his players publicly. Recognizing the potential of some new players who had been severely criticized in the brutal British media, he gave German attackers Timo Werner and Kai Havertz, English wingbacks Ben Chilwell and Reece James and American Christian Pulisic chance after chance to improve on the field. His faith in them paid off as they rose to the occasion in the final victory, as did Chelsea’s entire squad.

Even more important, Tuchel welded his players from ten different countries into a unified team that put the team’s interests ahead of their own and played together smoothly, giving every ounce of energy they had in the season’s successes.

At Microsoft insider Satya Nadella was chosen in 2014 to succeed Steve Ballmer as CEO. In Ballmer’s 14 years at the helm, Microsoft missed nearly every new technological breakthrough that came along, from smart phones to social media. Its historic brilliance in innovation took a back seat to maximizing profits from its aging core businesses, Windows and Office.

Like Tuchel, Nadella recognized the root cause of Microsoft’s problems: a failing culture. In his book, Hit Refresh, he characterizes the culture as having “a lack of accountability and finger pointing” by a “disheartened group of brilliant people.” He restored innovation with his vision of making Microsoft lead a mobile-first and cloud-first world – a far cry from its traditional focus on the corporate office.

Next, he initiated a cultural renaissance, recognizing that Microsoft’s culture had become rigid and formal with a requirement that everyone had to try to be the smartest person in the room – the exact opposite of a collaborative culture that sparks innovation. Instead, he installed a growth mindset in three ways: 1) obsessing about Microsoft’s customers, 2) actively seeking diversity and inclusion, and 3) operating as one company where teams collaborated rather than competed as One Microsoft, not a confederation of fiefdoms.

After shutting down Ballmer’s failed acquisition of Nokia with a $7 billion write-off, he acquired both social media giant LinkedIn and Sweden-based Mojang with its video game, Minecraft, and gave the leaders of both companies the freedom to build their businesses without corporate interference.

The real key to Nadella’s culture change was to define the culture he wanted by empowering individuals throughout the company. He established three leadership principles for Microsoft’s leaders: 1) create clarity for those you work with, 2) generate energy by inspiring optimism, creativity, shared commitment and growth, and 3) deliver success by making things happen.

The success of Nadella’s culture change is evident: whereas Microsoft stock actually declined 17% during Ballmer’s 14 years at the helm, it has grown six times under Nadella from $41 per share to $251, as its market capitalization of $1.88 trillion makes it second only to Apple in corporate valuation.

The parallels with Tuchel’s approach are evident: both charge the people they lead to perform their best and collaborate with others to build a unified team with clear goals of being winners. Their style is that of a coach: they inspire their players and build them into a team, but then let them play the game, making changes of players when necessary to improve performance.

Back to my initial question, can one person make a difference in today’s world of diffused power? The answer clearly is “yes,” if they put the interests of their players and their teams and the organization as a whole ahead of their own interests. When the team makes mistakes or hits difficult times, they take full responsibility. When it wins, they give full credit to their players and their teams.

Is this the way you lead? If it is, you are on the right track. If not, I suggest you adopt your leadership to this coaching style if you want to achieve sustained success.