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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

The Leader As Coach

Hansi Flick’s Remarkable Turnaround at Bayern Munich

Ever since Hansi Flick took over from Niko Kovac at Bayern Munich, the results have been nothing short of spectacular. After losing two games in a row shortly after becoming head coach, Flick has led Bayern to a 38-game unbeaten streak heading into Sunday’s Champion’s League finals against Paris St. Germain. Under Flick’s guidance, Bayern won 19 games and tied one in winning the Bundesliga, were crowned champions in the German Cup with four straight wins, and won 7 consecutive games in the Champion’s League in getting to Sunday’s final, including its 8-2 dismantling of Barcelona and Lionel Messi.

What can we learn from Flick’s success that may help business leaders everywhere?

Flick’s style stands in sharp contrast to the famous soccer coaches of this era, like Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho. He is humble, quiet and unassuming – not your typical tough guy soccer coach, shunning the spotlight and refusing to take credit for Bayern’s success. So what is his key?

Let’s start with the obvious: With Robert Lewandowski, Thomas Muller and Serge Gnabry leading the attack, Jerome Boateng, Joshua Klimmich and Alfonso Davies anchoring the defense, and Manuel Neuer in goal, Bayern has great talent at every position on the field, with a cadre of stars like Kingsley Coman, Phillipe Coutinho, and Benjamin Pavard on the bench. Yet when Flick took charge, Bayern was mired in fourth place in the Bundesliga and had just lost 5-1 to Frankfurt.

Flick’s formula is deceptively simple: work with his players and their needs individually to get the very best performance from them, and then meld the players into a smooth-functioning team more interested in winning than in being heroes themselves. The key is how Flick works with his players: he recognizes their potential, their shortcomings, and their psychological state on any given day. When they are down and losing confidence, he works to boost their confidence and to make suggestions for improvement. When they are not trying hard enough, he challenges them to work harder on behalf of the team or sit on the bench for a while. He insists that they put the team’s needs ahead of their own and gives credit to team players over individual performers. Sometimes that means benching stars because a particular lineup and set of players is needed for tactical success against an opponent, as described in this New York Times article (https://nyti.ms/32bDWIP).

Flick is not alone among soccer coaches in his approach. Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp has a similar philosophy that enabled him to create a spectacular winning record in 2019-20 that enabled his club to win the Premier League crown by 18 points over second place Manchester City.

To me, the approach used by Flick and Klopp is the winning formula for any business leader as well. Instead of old image of the leader as the charismatic star performer, today’s great leaders avoid the spotlight and instead build great teams around them that are fully committed to the organization’s mission and its values. If they get this right, they don’t have to spend the bulk of their time in reviewing business results and trying to control their people with systems, procedures and incentives.

Here are my ideas about how this approach can work for business leaders:

  1. Create an inspiring mission and values for your company, one that gets every employee, customer, and investor excited about the company.
  2. Develop a winning strategy to establish a unique position in the marketplace that makes your organization the very best at what it does.
  3. Hire and/or promote a talented group of leaders that believe in the mission and strategy.
  4. Position all your leaders in their “sweet spot” – that place in the organization that enables them to utilize their greatest strengths without exposing their weaknesses.
  5. Bring them together frequently to create a genuine team in which every person puts the company’s mission ahead their own goals and ambitions.
  6. Reinforce the team concept by stressing the team’s performance when things go well. When things go poorly, the leader on top should take full responsibility rather than calling out any individual for blame.

To accomplish this, leaders need to eschew their focus on numbers and analytics, leaving that work to others, and concentrate on their front-line leaders. To be close to their customers, they need to reduce the number of layers between them and their customers by flattening their organizations, eliminating middle managers and/or converting them to leadership roles, and banning consultants altogether. The latter charge millions of dollars to do the work of management but have no responsibility or accountability for the outcomes and deter the development of internal capabilities to fulfill these tasks.

If leaders follow these approaches, they will learn how much more engaged and empowered their teams are, as superior performance inevitably follows.

If this sounds deceptively simple, that’s because it is. But it is highly dependent on the leadership of the person on top having the human skills to pull it off. Perhaps that’s why so many executives fall back on control mechanisms and analytics because they lack the genuine leadership and personal qualities to pull it off. And why so often a poor performing soccer team or a business can be turned around by a single change in the top leader.

That’s why I believe the coaching model is the new standard. To make it effective, leaders must be authentic, genuinely humble, willing to be vulnerable, open to criticism and suggestions, aware of their shortcomings, and passionately committed to help everyone to perform at their best. Leaders cannot acquire these qualities when they reach the top. Rather, they take a lifetime of practice, of learning from their mistakes and their failures, and of doing the hard work of improving themselves and their leadership abilities every day. Leaders who do so – like Ford’s Alan Mulally, Best Buy’s Hubert Joly, and Xerox’s Anne Mulcahy – achieve enormous success.

Whether or not Bayern wins the Champion’s League final on Sunday, Hansi Flick has already established himself as the role model for the new generation of coaches – and quite possibly, for business leaders as well.