Boris Johnson and Donald Trump could learn a lot about teamwork and success from Bayern Munich

These leaders have a fundamental flaw: narcissism. The belief that it is about them. The aversion to responsibility. The surrounding oneself with yes people rather than people who challenge you

Alastair Campbell
Monday 24 August 2020 14:43
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Flick delighted with 8-2 demolition of Barcelona

OK, it was not the greatest football match of all time, or even of the last week. The 2020 Champions League final between PSG and Bayern will perhaps go down in history as much for the fact it took place in a Covid-induced empty stadium as for the quality of the game. It was hyped as a classic but did not quite live up to the billing.

The German fans with whom I was watching the game were unconcerned. Bayern had secured the treble, the Bundesliga, the German Cup and now the big one, and they did so by winning every single post-lockdown game.

So that is that. Winner takes it all.

Before anyone breathes too deep a sigh of relief that I won’t be banging on about politics in Britain, and Boris Johnson’s woeful leadership, these are precisely the issues I wish to address in the context of Bayern’s remarkable year.

Leadership cannot operate without teamwork, which cannot operate without strategy. Winning organisations have all three in alignment. That’s what Bayern do best. Johnson fails on all three, not least because he fails to see the link, and the mutual dependency, between all three.

As football managers go, Hans-Dieter Flick is one of those who tends to go under the radar. Bayern Munich is his first major managerial post. For eight years, he was number two to the German national team manager Joachim Low. He lacks the charisma of a Jurgen Klopp, a Jurgen Klinsmann or a Jose Mourinho; and with his 148 games as a professional, with two caps for Germany’s under-18s the sum total of his international palmares, he doesn’t get close to the playing credentials of a Pep Guardiola, one of his predecessors as Bayern manager, who had by his standards a year of failure at Manchester City.

If you didn’t know your football and saw Flick stepping off the team coach, you might guess he was the physio, or the team doctor, or even the kit man. He doesn’t scream: “I’m the boss.” He is very much show not tell. Think the style of a Merkel, rather than a Johnson or a Trump.

I watched the press conference after the match and, from the off, Flick was seeking to place the credit elsewhere. It wasn’t his win. It was the team’s, and by the team he did not just mean the players out on the pitch. He meant squad members who weren’t picked. He meant his own staff on the coaching side, who got several mentions. He meant the board, and he meant the fans, who have a bigger role in football clubs in Germany than in their English counterparts.

Team. It is one of those words that has crossed fully from English to German – it was always “Mannschaft” when I was at school, and he said it again and again.

There was a very powerful symbol of team spirit at work on Sunday. Leadership is also about tough decisions and Flick took one in leaving Croatian star Ivan Perisic out of the starting line-up, in favour of Kingsley Coman. Fans and pundits were somewhat shocked. Perisic has been playing well, and furthermore scored key goals in the last 16 and the quarter-final.

That Coman scored the winning goal against his old club – he was even born in Paris – means nobody can question that judgement now.

However, I noticed something else. Every time the cameras panned to the substitutes, perhaps looking for a sign of grumpiness in the man left out of the starting line-up, they saw a man totally consumed in the game, urging on his teammates. And when he did come on, he gave his all.

Leadership and teamwork are also about getting the best out of talent. Some of Bayern’s top players are at the wrong end of the age scale for the modern game. Thomas Muller is 30. Jerome Boateng is 31. Robert Lewandowski is 32. Manuel Neuer, the goalkeeper, is 34. Yet they have played some of their best football under Flick.

Paris Saint-Germain manager Thomas Tuchel singled out Neuer in his press conference, saying that his goalkeeping had reached “a whole new level”. That is what leadership does. Takes the best, makes them better. We have seen Jurgen Klopp do the same at Liverpool. Am I allowed to mention Burnley? Sean Dyche has taken players often described as “Championship” and turned them into a Premier League side.

Boris Johnson could, theoretically, learn so much from the best football coaches. I say theoretically because I think at heart, as with Trump, there is a fundamental flaw: narcissism. The belief that it is about them. The aversion to responsibility. The surrounding oneself with yes people rather than people who challenge and make up for weaknesses. Like Joachim Low did in having Flick at his side as they led Germany to World Cup triumph; like Klopp did for 17 years with Bosnian Serb Zeljko Buvac. Not as a yes man but as a ying to his yang. So many great managers have great number twos.

Populist narcissists like Johnson and Trump promote non-talent because it is less threatening. How else to explain a cabinet of Gavin Williamson, Matt Hancock, Priti Patel and Robert Jenrick in such key roles, let alone the ones nobody has ever heard of? How else to explain that Trump is having to fill almost half of his Republican Convention speaker slots with his family?

There is a section in the Klopp biography I have just read where, after a bad run at Mainz, he seriously questions his own abilities. He seeks counsel and support from others.

Does Johnson, armed with that Etonian arrogance, have any such doubts? Despite having far more cause, he shows precious little sign that he does. It’s why, ultimately, he is destined to fail. He doesn’t really lead, he hides. He has a dreadful team. And he confuses strategy with slogans from the three-word factory. He won the referendum. He won the Tory leadership election. He won the election. But this is not a winning recipe for a country facing the twin challenges of a Covid he messed up and a no-deal Brexit he created.

If he is capable of change, he needs to do it. And he could do worse than look at the skills of the best in football – through that holy trinity of leadership, teamwork and strategy. He really should give it a go.

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