With the 2014 World Cup approaching its championship climax, America is still abuzz with excitement around the U.S. team’s success and seemingly bright future built on young talent. Judging from our country’s current soccer high, is U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann owed an apology by critics of his “we can’t win” approach?

Recall that before the tournament, the U.S. head coach was disparaged for proclaiming our team not ready to win the World Cup. “We cannot win the World Cup, because we are not at that level yet,” Klinsmann told The New York Times in a months-earlier interview published on the eve of the tournament.  “Realistically, it’s not possible,” he said. In reaction, commentators nationwide declared Klinsmann a defeatist, ignorant to American will, unfit to coach the U.S., and deserving of a punch in the nose.

When we heard Klinsmann take the unorthodox path of downplaying hopes, it’s uncomfortable because so many of us were raised on The Little Engine That Could (“I think I can, I think I can”).  America was built on never saying can’t.  On the other hand, most don’t take kindly to baseless overconfidence either.

In a situation like Klinsmann faced – stakeholders in need of a reality check, a relatively inexperienced team, and longer-view objectives – what’s gained by downplaying expectations externally?

  • Trust.  Stakeholders – whether customers, a boss, subordinates, or partners – might crave confident, “can-do” attitudes, but they absolutely need honesty and transparency.  Candid, substantiated forewarnings are preferable over surprising bad news later on.  The popular business refrain “under-promise and over-deliver” creates the kind of recently achieved by the U.S. coach and team.
  • Motivation.  Did hearing that their leader downplayed expectations to the world cause the U.S. team to lose confidence?  Apparently not.  Any concerns that may have arisen from an isolated public statement Receiving consistent affirmations and developmental support from a leader during daily, direct interactions should more than offset any concerns arising from an isolated public statement. 
  • Composure.  Trying to live up to the unrealistic hopes of others can be overwhelming, particularly to an inexperienced team.  When a leader takes steps to alleviate pressure on his team as Klinsmann did, even opening himself or herself to harsher scrutiny in the process, team members can be lsuch selfless acts can be motivating and liberating to appreciative team members.

Ultimately, actions speak louder than any words.  The performance of the Klinsmann-led U.S. team exceeded expectations, and that team battled hard as underdogs, which the American public loves.  And as for Klinsmann, he had enough belief in his team to book his return flight from Brazil the day after the championship final; he was prepared for his team to advance to the very end.