November 15th 2022

Transformation needs transformers: management between courage & cowardice.

Thomas Sattelberger, Former Member of the Managing Board of Deutsche Telekom AG, Continental AG & Lufthansa German Airlines.



"The topics of courage and cowardice are all the more exciting when you have to deal with them more intensively for a presentation. Thank you, Andreas, for the task you have given me here," Thomas Sattelberger opens his talk with the general topic "Transformation needs transformers - Management between courage and cowardice" as part of the renowned Distinguished Guest Lecture series at MCI.

Right at the beginning, however, Sattelberger clarifies, "There is no such thing as general courage or general cowardice. These characteristics are situational, and it often only becomes clear in hindsight whether you acted courageously or cowardly." Sattelberger supports his theory with lively anecdotes from his impressive career during his presentation. But, how does one react when dissatisfied with the status quo? Do you courageously raise your voice, try to sabotage, adapt or even remove yourself from the situation entirely?

"Do what you think is right", says Sattelberger. Decisions made in crises, whether courageous or cowardly, can have painful consequences, but in the end serve as a guideline for oneself. Openly and honestly, he tells of personal experiences and conflicts in which he courageously tried to change course and subsequently had to fight resistance, but also of situations in which he preferred to let things happen quietly or even left. At times, he also made decisions that left him feeling humiliated, but ultimately served to develop his personal judgment: "Life goes on, I got over it okay."

When asked whether established companies can transform, Sattelberger answers "yes", although the key lies with the managers. They need to be modest and take a step back as a person, but at the same time, be open and courageous in the matter at hand. Egocentrism and omnipotence have no place here. "If people think the world revolves around them, they can be as courageous as they likes, their perspective will always remain limited." They must keep their feet on the ground, what counts is the work culture and "the chitchat that goes on in the office kitchen."

So, why is there so little change in Germany, in Austria, in Europe? Sattelberger clearly sees fear as the cause here: fear of losing something, be it the dream job, one's own reputation or the success of the company. "Existential issues bubble up in people when they have to choose between courage and cowardice."

In most cases, however, it is not a question of courage or cowardice of the individual person alone, but of the entire company, influenced again by the leadership style. In his eyes, young people, newly arrived to the industry, are often raised to be "clones". "With such homogenized leadership style, it's no surprise that no one ever objects." So, everyone wants transformation, but without causing a stir, following the motto, "Something has to happen, but nothing must happen."