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How Does a Great Leader React to a Hopeless Cause?

On the eve of the World Cup, the U.S. coach announced that his team has absolutely no chance of winning. Is he crazy or a genius?
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Great leaders know that what they say matters. That's because every utterance finds an audience made up of the people who follow them and listen closely for cues.

So, if they're smart, they choose their words carefully, knowing that the messages they send will set the tone. They need to back up their words with actions--there's nothing more detrimental to a long-term mission than empty words--but the words themselves are important.

All of that makes it so surprising to hear the head coach of the U.S. men's national soccer team admit that the United States has virtually no chance of winning the World Cup (which doesn't even begin until next week).

"We cannot win this World Cup, because we are not at that level yet," coach Jurgen Klinsmann told a New York Times reporter last December, for an article that ran in the Times this week. "For us, we have to play the game of our lives seven times to win the tournament. Realistically, it is not possible."

On paper, Klinsmann is right. Only the most optimistic U.S. soccer fanatics could pretend that the United States has a chance of prevailing. I'm a casual fan--the kind of guy who got up at 4 a.m. to watch games in 2002 when the tournament was in Japan and Korea, but who doesn't obsess over soccer the way some of my friends do. Yet, even I know that the U.S. will be very lucky even to get out of the group stage against Ghana, Portugal and Germany.

Still, aren't great leaders supposed to be eternal optimists? Granted, other countries' best athletes play soccer while most of ours are funneled into other sports, but isn't it a little bit embarrassing to have to get psyched up to have a chance of beating Portugal (which has about 1/32 our population) or Ghana (which has 1/40th our GDP)?

I don't mean any disrespect to those countries or their players, but if anyone is supposed to believe in our chances, shouldn't it be the U.S. coach? I've got three theories that might help explain why a leader might tell his team that their cause is hopeless:

1. To motivate them.

This is the most American of the three ideas--that Klinsmann might be using some kind of reverse psychology, telling a reporter that his team has no chance of winning so that they'll rise up and do the impossible in order to defy him.

Maybe you react to this kind of leadership. Is the best way to get you to accomplish something simply to tell you that it can't be done?

2. To get everyone thinking long-term.

Alternatively, the Times piece suggests this is part of Klinsmann's strategy of ultimately achieving a United States victory by leading more like a European. (Klinsmann is German, although he married an American woman and lives in California full-time.)

Part of that might mean taking a really long view of the development of the U.S. soccer program. If realistically there is not much chance of contending at this year's World Cup, maybe the smarter move is to use this year entirely to play younger players who might become future stars, and to set the groundwork for better competition in 2018 or even 2022.

3. To manage his reputation.

Soccer still isn't truly a major spectator sport in the U.S., even though the sport and Major League Soccer have made tremendous leaps. Yet, the World Cup every four years still shines the biggest spotlight on the team.

It's possible that one of Klinsmann's motivations is simply to set expectations so that if and when the men's team fails he won't be blamed--but if the United States manages to get some victories, he'll look like a hero. This is the least admirable of the three possibilities, but it might make sense.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments.

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Last updated: Jun 6, 2014

BILL MURPHY JR. | Columnist

Bill Murphy Jr. is a journalist, ghostwriter, and entrepreneur. He is the author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship (with Jon Burgstone) and is a former reporter for The Washington Post.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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