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Venturing into the unknown requires bold steps, not just detailed plans.

It’s one thing to say: “Here’s the plan.”
It’s another to say: “I believe in you. Take the leap!”

Your team might have all the answers. But they might need you to believe in them. You’re the person who sees potential in others even when they don’t see it themselves. You’re the one who challenges them, cheers for them, and sometimes you might even have to be the unpopular voice that says: “We can do better.”

A leader’s real job isn’t to have the perfect plan. It’s to light the path and empower their team to take the bold steps.

Leadership lessons from Germany’s Qatar disaster

Among the many fascinating leadership lessons from Amazon’s “All or Nothing” documentary about Germany’s Qatar football disaster, here’s one that stood out for me:

For Germany’s coaches, it was US and THEM, not WE.
“Us” the coaches and “them” the players, not “we” the team.

The coaches expected them to deliver.
As opposed to being in this together.

When the coaches expect the players to deliver, it delegates the responsibility the wrong way. It frees the coach from the responsibility and puts that burden on the player. Basically, the message is this: “I’ve told you what you need to do. If you fail, it’s on you.”

A leader who lights the path would turn this upside down. They would trust the players to deliver. They would believe in the players to deliver. Because they would figure out a path and light it in a way that the players would see it, believe in it and trust in the path (and themselves), too.

No need to expect anything.

But Germany’s players didn’t trust in the path (or themselves). Head coach Hansi Flick’s words made it sound like he didn’t trust in the journey and in the team’s ability to deliver. And so, the players couldn’t find that trust, either.

Flick used pressure (“We expect X from you”) as a substitute for trust. But that can’t work when the players don’t even trust in themselves.

Worse, when it’s US and THEM, i.e. when the TEAM is missing, then you can’t compensate lack of trust with will power (despite the obvious individual strengths of the players). For will power to surface you’d need a reason – such as belonging to something bigger than yourself. As there was no team, there was nothing bigger. Who would they stretch themselves for? The coaches? But why?

The documentary is a rare glimpse into how professional top-level leadership actually performs (or doesn’t). You’d make a mistake to assume that 1) this example would be the rare exception and 2) businesses would be any different.

Which is not to say that there aren’t businesses that are different or that there aren’t leaders who truly light the path. But it’s certainly not the default.

“Leadership skill” is still largely expected to just somehow come to leaders “naturally”. You’re either born with it or not. Training, coaching and professional advisory around communication is still the exception to the norm – and even when it’s done it’s sometimes just to check the box.

And yet, communication can make or brake leadership – even if you’re highly skilled in other areas.

If you’ve watched the documentary, what was your biggest takeaway?

PS: It was heartbreaking to see the outsized role that PowerPoint played in the team meetings. PowerPoint is no substitute for empathy and trust and the way it’s being used in these meetings is a bitter example of that.

3 questions

If the people on your team clearly see

  • where we are going,
  • why we are going there, and
  • why we are going there,

and if your actions suggest that you mean it (as opposed to just throwing some random motivational bullsh#t at them), it’s likely that the right people will be attracted and the wrong people will leave.

The biggest win here is that you can trust the people who do follow along with knowing how to walk the path. They want to take that path.

Which means they will figure it out. You can stop micromanaging and focus on lighting the path.

What’s your answer to the three questions?

So incredibly powerful when she says it

“It sounds so incredibly powerful when she says it.”

Just wow.

But why is it that the same thought that you’ve thought a thousand times suddenly becomes powerful when you hear it ushered out of the celebrity’s mouth?

Because it’s immediately turned into a story. It gets filled with all the things that she’s achieved and said before. She embodies it and so you fill out all the missing pieces. When she says it, it becomes a profound truth that has enabled her path.

The crucial bit, though, is that when we experience a story it’s the hero we look at but it’s us who we see. We project ourselves onto the hero’s canvas.

Hearing the hero say out loud your thoughts brings you even closer. The incredible power of her saying out loud your thought is that it reassures you that you’re on the right track.

It’s not so much that you agree with her but that she agrees with you – which elevates you onto the hero’s podium. She’s picking up your thought. You’ve become the hero because the hero’s saying your thoughts and feelings.

That’s the power of lighting the path. Putting in words and saying out loud what your audience thinks and feels. It’s incredibly powerful.

Opinionated leadership

Someone once told me that “there’s no prospering team that’s not led by a strong leader with strong opinions.” And, indeed, reality seems to prove this. Look around and you’ll see examples of strongly opinionated successful leaders everywhere: Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, John Chambers, and many, many more …

Yet, strong opinion gets often confused with micro-managing – leaders who interfere with the tiniest decisions, leaving their teams with severe uncertainty about what’s the right thing to do.

What gets easily overlooked is that the opinions of great leaders are much rather related to the direction of their teams, not the decisions, to their vision, not the execution.

You hire great people precisely because they are the ones who know what to do. They don’t need you to tell them what to do – and even more important: they actually don‘t want you to.

It’s a major source of frustration for them when you do so constantly. It slows everything down when you become the bottleneck of decision making. (And on top of that it can quickly lead to a feeling of overwhelm for yourself). The worst part: Quite likely the best talent will sooner or later leave if they don’t get the freedom to make decisions.

This is why lighting the path is such a powerful approach. When everyone on the team aligns with a common goal, one that you as a leader made them see and agree on, it allows anyone to decide. If your team is focused towards a common goal, that goal simplifies decision making and empowers every team member to make decisions on behalf of the team. No need to micro-manage.

When you light the path for your team, you can trust them with making the decisions! Your opinions are better spent on the path rather than on how people walk the path.

The difference between bad and good leaders

There are good leaders and there are bad leaders. The thing to keep in mind is that good and bad leaders sit on opposite sides of a spectrum.

It’s not that bad leaders are similar to good leaders, just not as good or maybe less effective.

Bad leaders are the opposite of good leaders. They can destroy the morale of a team and frustrate the members to a degree that leads to struggles and fights, greed and envy.

Good leaders don’t do things similarly to bad leaders, just better. They do things differently.

Yet, there’s one thing that both kinds of leaders have in common: Both lead by example. By the things they do and in the way they communicate, leaders make or break a team.

The important thing to see is that that’s a decision. You decide what kind of leader you want to be. And then, when you have clarity about your vision of leadership, it becomes a skill that you can improve.

Communicating to your team

The reason we all gather in a room (no matter if it’s online or offline) is because you are adding something that can’t be put on a slide. That’s especially true when you communicate to your team.

A presentation is not about the transfer of information but about the transfer of perspectives.

Information is much more efficiently – and usually also much more effectively – transferred asynchronously. Send me a document, point me to a link or book and I’ll take the info from there. I can read faster than you can talk. I can skip back or ahead. I can compare with knowledge I already have. I can take notes. All at my own speed.

The value of a presentation is in providing your perspective on the subject. Why does this matter? How are we affected? Why is this good news? How can we make best use of the info? Where do we go from here? As a team? How do you – as a person – handle the tough situation that follows from the info?

Communicating as a leader means more than providing info. It means showing up as a person who cares. It means lighting the path. It means making your team feel seen and heard.

And when they do feel seen and heard. And when they get your perspective. And when they align with your perspective because they get why it matters. Then they become more than the sum of their brains. They become a team.

PS: Next week, I’m launching a free five-part series on leadership communication.

Contagious behavior

His employees immediately knew when Martin was onto something. It showed in his eyes, his voice, and his gestures. Not that it was a big difference. I’m not even sure, outsiders would have noticed. But for anyone knowing him for an extended period of time, it was pretty clear that a full steam ride was ahead.

And it was contagious. The enthusiasm spread. Soon after, the whole team was going full steam. Exchanging ideas. Pushing forward. Challenging common sense. Pursuing new lines of thoughts.

What Martin regularly manages to achieve with his team is what happens when you yourself believe in what you do. When you say what you mean and mean what you say. His team totally trusted in his judgement because he wouldn’t bullshit. He didn’t use superficial motivational language. He just communicated his vision in a way that provided people with the confidence that this is going to work – just like it did last time … and the time before that.

How can your people tell whether you actually believe in what you say? How can they tell that this is going to be a full steam ride rather than one more of these fancy ideas? How do they know that you yourself are fully committed to it?

It pays to share these feelings with your team.

Präsentationen sind überbeansprucht, aber unterbewertet

Eine Frage, die viel zu selten gestellt wird: „Brauche ich dafür eine Präsentation?“

Oder wäre ein Memo ausreichend? Ein Gespräch sinnvoller? Viel Arbeit wird in Präsentationen gesteckt, die niemand vermissen würde.

Dagegen wird zu selten daran gearbeitet, dass jemand die Präsentationen, die wirklich notwendig sind, vermissen würde.

Präsentationen sind eine Chance zu inspirieren, zu motivieren, wach zu rütteln. Zu begeistern. Verständnis zu schaffen. Neugier zu wecken. Sie sind viel persönlicher als die meisten Texte, Broschüren, Webseiten oder E-Mails.

Viele unterschätzen, welchen Einfluss sie mit einer großartigen Präsentation haben. Sie behandeln sie wie eine lästige Pflicht, statt sie als Chance zu verstehen, etwas zu bewegen. Sie halten Präsentationen, weil alle es tun und wie alle es tun. Tun Sie das nicht.

Hinterfragen Sie, ob eine Präsentation notwendig ist. Und wenn sie notwendig ist, dann nutzen Sie die Chance, dass Ihnen alle zuhören.

12 Fragen: 12. Und nun?

Ok, Sie haben Ihre Zuhörer überzeugt, haben sie vor den Kopf gestoßen, wach gerüttelt und mitgerissen. Aber was können, was sollen die Zuhörer denn jetzt nach Ihrem Vortrag ganz konkret tun? Sonnenklar ist das nur Ihnen (ist es?).
Sagen Sie es Ihren Zuhörern! Formulieren Sie eine konkrete Handlungsaufforderung!

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Picture of Dr. Michael Gerharz

Dr. Michael Gerharz