This is my twentieth year living in Spain, and during this time I have learned to appreciate Spaniards for their modesty, compassion, intelligence, tolerance, family values, kindness and generosity. Spaniards are as forgiving as Americans are vindictive. They are great colleagues and great neighbors. Spain has an incredibly competent workforce with a high level of expertise and excellent professionals, including doctors and scientists. In many ways, the government works surprisingly efficiently with many processes like paying taxes almost fully digitalized.
But where Spaniards lack is in leadership. Culturally — with high value placed on consensus, modesty and conformity — it is very difficult for a Spaniard to raise her voice. Standing out in a crowd and being noticed is vulgar. Where Americans all dream of being the guy who gets to take the penalty kick or the last second shot to win the game, Spaniards never want to be the trigger man. Prior to the generation of Pau Gasol, Iker Casillas, and Rafa Nadal, Spaniards were losers. Not because they were worse athletes, less skilled or didn’t work as hard, they lost because they were afraid to succeed.
This inability to lead and to make the hard decisions also translates into a management culture of passiveness and indecision, where a crisis is not met with urgency but with paralysis like a deer in the headlights. The bosses are more worried about getting it wrong than focused on getting it right.
The Spanish TV series Casa de Papel (The Money Heist in English) — a story about a hostage crisis at the Spanish national minta — is the perfect microcosm of this culture. The show is excellent. The writing, acting and production are world class. The chief investigator in charge of managing an unprecedented crisis of national security, intense political pressure and non-stop press coverage nonetheless find the time to leave the war room to:
- Take numerous coffee breaks during the day
- Go to the bar to grab a beer and unwind
- Go home for dinner every night
- Fall in love with a stranger
There is a national crisis, yet the chief investigator does not interrupt the daily essentials of Spanish life: her coffee, her caña, her family obligations, and her personal life. There is no urgency. There is no concept of prioritization. The wealth of competence is interrupted by other earthly distractions causing an inability to focus.
Yes, like Hollywood, the show takes lots of liberties to make the story more entertaining. I get it, but this is in fact exactly what Spanish management culture is like. It is exactly how the Spanish government is managing the Covid-19 crisis. Again, Spain is a country full of scientific experts, competent doctors, hard-working health care workers dedicated to putting their own lives at risk to save others, police and citizens ready to lend a hand. It is an amazingly praiseworthy society. These are people I admire. Nevertheless, the leaders are simply incapable of leading.
I don’t blame this particular government. I’ve lived here long enough to know that any of the other political alternatives would have failed in exactly the same ways. I also get that the politicians and experts are overwhelmed, exhausted and facing a once in a century crisis. I do not question their earnestness. But while the U.S. leadership is made up of sociopaths who make decisions out of malice or for self-gain, the Spanish government is simply paralyzed by its inability to act.
There is no plan. Just lockdown. After 40 days of confinement there is no end in sight. Just indecision and improv.
So where is the urgency? Where are the leaders? Where are the Gasols, Casillas, and Nadals convinced of their ability to win carrying them to victory? Just as they represented a landmark cultural shift in Spanish sports, we desperately need a change in Spanish leadership culture. It is a matter of life or death!