Fill the vacuum

I supported Stefan and his team for well over a year, as part of a larger organization. He was in his early 40s, spoke great English, had a clever sense of humor, managed a team with roughly one hundred people in Germany and the U.S. each. His staff of seven managed well the two hundred. Stefan travelled to the U.S. three to four times per quarter.

During dinner after a two-day workshop Stefan turned to me and said: „John, I get the feeling whenever I come to the U.S. that my people here don‘t even know who I am.“ He had a funny kind of smile on his face, perplexed.

I sensed what was going on. „Well, Stefan, when you come over who do you typically meet with?“ He went through the list: his direct reports, senior-level management in other departments, a handful of selected subject-area experts in testing, manufacturing, supply chain, and two or three German delegates to the U.S.

„Am I leaving a vacuum?”

My response: „Remember what we‘ve discussed over the last few months about American leadership logic. If you‘re not present in the eyes and minds of your team here, they will automatically orient themselves towards the strongest of your American direct reports. They won‘t have any other alternative.“

„Am I leaving a vacuum which is being filled?“, Stefan asked. I nodded. Both of us had gotten through our burgers, were eating our fries and drinking our juices. The background music was loud, but we could discuss further, nonetheless. We were in a college town, it was the middle of the Fall semester. Thursday evening. The place was full with students, faculty and university administration types.

„Americans like to know who their team lead is, and the strategic direction“, I said. Visiting as often as Stefan did was good. „But, you have to take the time to visit the troops, as we Americans say.“ See MBWA

“Your organization and people.”

„Town Hall meetings and such?“ I responded with a yes. „And have open office hours at set times and make sure folks know ahead of your visit. If you can fit it into your schedule, got out for lunch and dinner with members of your organization. Give them a chance to interact with you in an informal setting. They‘ll bring up what‘s on their mind if they feel comfortable with you.“

Stefan paused, ate a few more fries, took a sip of his juice and responded: „Yeah, but I don‘t want to get too involved. That could bother my direct reports. I mean, it‘s their organization, their people. I don‘t want to interfere in their work.“

That was pure form German leadership logic. You see it in the German military, where an officer from one level has to formally ask an officer at the next lower level for permission to visit that officer‘s troops. An American manager reserves the right to reach out to anyone in their organization, at anytime, and almost anywhere, with just about any question.

„You determine to what degree you get involved.”

My advice to Stefan was that he would in no way be perceived by his American reports as getting too involved in their work. On the contrary, they would be very happy to have a boss who is involved, who takes the time to become familiar with their teams, their work, the details.

„You determine to what degree you get involved, Stefan. At a minimum be present, ask questions, listen carefully, respond to their questions, observe. Most importantly, take what we are discussing now to your American direct reports and decide together the appropriate level of interaction you should have when you‘re in the U.S.“

I then added: „And while your at it, keep your eyes open for American colleagues in senior-level management who might be applying their leadership logic to their German teams, and possibly causing some irritation by perhaps being too present when they are in Germany.“

Stefan smiled in a mischievous way. „What?“, I asked. „I can think of at least three Americans, all first-rate team leads, who do just that.“ We laughed.

Tiled Stoves

Tiled Stoves: in apartments and homes, to burn coal, in order to produce heat.

Use resources respectfully, protect the environment. I recall the debates in Germany years ago about recycling. At that time the Social Democrats and the Greens were in power. Jürgen Trittin was Umweltminister, literally Secretary of the Environment. 

German business was against any recycling laws. It’s been reality for years now, though. How could there have been a debate at all? Quite the contrary. Protecting the environment should be foundational to the politics of the Christian Democratic Party in Germany (CDU). They and their sister party in Bavaria (CSU – Christian Social Union) were clearly on the wrong side of that debate.

I’ll never forget the smell of coal back then in West Berlin. Late Fall of 1988. I live in a boathouse in Konradshöhe, on the Havel River, on the other side the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik, German Democratic Republic). No wall between, just the river. On the other side a strange stillness. Just a road along the bank and streetlights giving off a weak, halfhearted yellow-orange glow. Evenings and mornings the smell was strong. A weird feel to it, somehow historical.

My girlfriend then lived in the Schöneberg section of West Berlin. On the fifth or sixth floor of an apartment house built in the early 1900s. Back then I was reading Sebastian Haffner’s Deutsche Revolution 1918. Dry cold days in Berlin, the smell of coal smoke from the houses ever-present, Rosa Luxemburg murdered and thrown into the Spree River, Stahlhelm, Rätherrepublik in Munich. I think of my grandmother who back then was eighteen years old and living in Cincinnati.

I imagine what Berlin was like in 1918 and 1919. I, the grandson and great-grandson of coal merchants in Philadelphia. Our great-grandfather, Alexander Magee, started out with a horse-pulled wagon, going from house to house. Years later his sons, Frank and Alex, would join the business. I see the images in my mind’s eye. The coalyard in the Kensington section of Philadelphia located right next to the train line.

The coal was delivered from Northeast Pennsylvania. The Allegheny Mountains cut through the state from the northeast to the southwest, continuing into West Virginia. The business grows a bit, two trucks, a handful of employees. They’re not wealthy, will never become so. They pay the bills and have more than enough left over.

After the Second World War they convert to oil. Magee Coal & Oil. During my father’s freshman year at Amherst College in Massachusetts his father dies of a heart attack. His younger brother, Ken, uncle to my father, takes over the business. My father does not go into the heating fuel business, instead becoming a business consultant.

We six children of Frank and Laura Magee growing up in suburban Philadelphia have no connection to Magee Coal & Oil. But the constant coal odor in Berlin during those winter months of 1988-89, the dirt in my nose, cleaning it out a few times a day, brought me back into contact with the days when my recent ancestors lived from coal. And today? I, management consultant, put food on the table by supporting those who build coal-fired power plants.

Use resources respectfully, protect the environment, yes, the Germans do that better than the Americans. The war ended more than seventy years ago, but those experiences continue to inform and form us. During a long walk through Bonn with my son I try to describe to him what the town looked like in 1945. I repeat the stories of his German great-grandmother – my ex-wife’s grandmother. And why we are taking a walking and not driving tour by car or bus. Besides, walking is healthy.

A German strength

Bonn. I remain standing. Ten or fifteen minutes. I imagine as best I can a summer day back during one of those years. What was life like in any of the houses, the homes, in that neighborhood? Just around the corner is the Karthäuserplatz, a small square, where I lived from 1991-95. In a three-room apartment on the third floor. 

On the first two floors lived three sisters, all in their 80’s, never married. Born in the early 1910’s they would remember the last years of the First World War, and most certainly all too well the entire Second World War. I imagine what it was like for them. Did they have brothers? Did those men/boys fight, kill, die? Catholics in the German Rhineland.

I imagine, see the pictures move by in my mind‘s eye. Three brothers. Second World War. Wehrmacht. The one dies in the early days of the invasion of Poland in September 1939. The second survives the 1944 Ardennenoffensive – what Americans call the Battle of the Bulge – only to then die in Vienna in early 1945, not long before the end of the war. 

The third brother survives the war, including several years as a prisoner in Russia. Their mother (the father had died in 1918 on the Western Front of WWI) and the three sisters pick him up one summer day in 1949 upon his arrival in Bonn by train via Berlin. Within a year and a half he would die of gangrene.

I am fifty-five years old. All of my brothers – two older, two younger – are still alive. None of us has killed or been killed. My son, Daniel, was born in May 1998. His mother is German. He is a German-American boy, more German than American. A school project in History. The fourth grade. 

The children are asked to find in Bonn the evidence, indications, the signs that once, many centuries ago, the Romans had lived in what became Bonn. He and his mother take a long walking tour. Bonn is a small town. Daniel is excited. He soaks it all in. My son, my boy, is growing up in Germany. My own flesh and blood. He is learning to think historically. He is learning to understand his present. He is being prepared to deal with the future.

This brief video is about the Romans in Bonn.

“For the first time I understand the Germans”

The history of Germany, as well as the historical consciousness of the German people, continue to impress and attract me. Today, just as strongly as a quarter century ago. You need only to go into a bookstore in Germany. Their books are not only solid, well bound and have great covers. The Germans have a very special relationship to books. There are always many older and newer publications about history, about their history. For those Germans who want to know their history there will never be a shortage of opportunities.

Every city in Germany, large and small, has museums in which history, but not only theirs, is told, is kept alive and relevant. In my early years in Berlin and Bonn I was astounded by how many fascinating and well-made documentary films were shown on German television. There was never a day without at least one in the evening. The German language is worth learning if only to read their books, to visit their museums, and to watch their documentaries. Although not a documentary, but one with the look and feel of one, was Heimat, by Edgar Reitz.

It was the summer of 1992. I watched episode for episode of Heimat. My eyes were glued to the television, my mind racing to understand every word, to pick up on as many nuances as possible. What an opportunity for me to gain insight in Germany of that time period, between the world wars. Time and again I had to turn to my then German wife to get the meaning of this or that word, for the dialogue was in the dialect of that region of Germany, the Hunsrück, along the Moselle River, between Trier and Koblenz. After every episode I was in a kind of trance, reflecting about what I had just taken in.

Then another time. I was in the car. Driving through Bonn. Evening. I turned on the radio. Deutschlandfunk. A book review was being read. It was about the immediate post-war years in then West Germany. The first sentences grabbed my attention. They flowed: complex, clear, rich, full of substance, critical, analytical, yet elegant. That feeling had come back, from when I was a student at Georgetown. History. German History. The history of another people. In another part of the world. And when I read the books by John Lukacs. Trance.

The reader continued. I was captured, drove further, but as if on a soft cloud just a few inches above the road. I think of the many war memorials in Germany. When I walk or ride my bicycle down the hill from the Venusberg in Bonn to the former government quarter on the Rhine, I pass through Kessenich where there is such a memorial.

It’s round, cement, encircling a lovely oak tree. Six pillars about eight feet high. Plenty of space between them to step in and out. The tops of all eight crowned – or held together – by a cement ring providing the tree with space to stretch out its branches. Just below the top each of the eight the face in cement of a German soldier with the iconic German steel helmet from the World War I.

Chiseled into the pillars, from the top to just about the bottom, are the names of the men who died in the two world wars. Six pillars, three sides each. Longs lists. Names. Of men, and boys, from that part of Bonn, from the neighborhood. Yes, boys, many no older than seventeen or eighteen years old. Sad. Especially sad for me, as one of five Magee boys, to read the same last names. Meyer. Schmitz. Leyendecker. Two, three, sometimes four of the same last names. Brothers. Cousins.

Imagine the deep, deep sadness of the mothers and fathers who saw their boys go off to war only to kill and be killed. 1914. 1915. 1916. 1917. 1918. Four long years for an entire continent. Then on the other sides of the pillars. 1939. 1940. 1941. 1942. 1943. 1944. 1945. Many of the same names. The sons and nephews of those fallen between 1914 and 1918. The Germans suffered, too.

“For the first time I understand the Germans.”

“No more old churches!“

2003. I‘ll never forget a statement made by an American engineer who was on delegation to Germany for a German customer of mine. We had met for the first time to discuss a project I was assisting them on. Team-building measures, workshops, seminars, etc. During one of the breaks we were doing a little smalltalk. I asked him what he’s seen in Germany thusfar, and what’s on his list. He looked at me, rolled his eyes and said: “I don’t want to see any more old churches!”

I was a bit shocked, felt insulted, was irritated. As student of history I thought: “How ignorant can someone be not to know or to recognize that German and European history cannot be understood without understanding the role of Christianity and the Church.” Ok, perhaps he had been shown enough churches already. Still, I felt embarrassed as an American. Fortunately, no German colleagues had been present.

On my way back to Bonn that day I imagined well-intentioned German colleagues taking their Sunday to pick up their American colleague and driving to Cologne to see not only the cathedral, but also several of the beautiful Romanesque churches within twenty minutes walking distance. In my mind’s eyes I see him bored and saying: “This is all interesting history, but I want to see modern Germany.”

For the more exact we can define our starting point and its direction (trajectory), all the better we can adjust it. My response to the American colleague would have been: “Sure. But before we can truly enjoy getting to know the modern Germany of today, let’s start with how Germany has become the way it is today. On that basis we’ll really begin to imagine the Germany of the future!”


We returned last week, August 2013, from the United States. My son, Daniel (15), and I did our annual Father-Son USA trip. We stay at my mother‘s home in suburban Philadelphia and travel throughout the region visiting relatives, taking trips to New York City, the Jersey Shore, to Washington DC, and on to Virginia.

It is a special time for us each year. And it involves a lot of travel: airports, train stations, car driving, subways and buses. And it involves a lot of activities: visiting relatives and friends, sight-seeing, museums, eating at restaurants, and many other things folks do during their vacation.

What I notice time and again, however, is how different Germans and Americans are in public. Germans are very quiet in public spaces. Whether in a bus, a streetcar, a subway, long-distance train, or in an airplane, they are reserved.

When they do converse with each other it is done in most cases discreetly and quietly. It is true that German train stations can be loud due to constant public announcements of arriving and departing trains. But the passengers themselves are discreet, both on the platform waiting for their connection, and especially in the train.

Whenever I travel by public transportation in Germany with my son, whose mother is German and who has been raised in Germany, he gets impatient with me when I talk to him at what I consider to be a normal and acceptable volume level.

The greatest contrast for me is when I fly from Philadelphia to Frankfurt. American airports are loud. There seems to be a television hanging from the ceiling ever twenty-five feet with either CNN, Fox or some other channel blaring away. And because network television in the U.S. is fighting so hard to hold viewers (from going to the Internet), they have become rather shrill, almost screaming, as if everything they have to say is breaking news of the utmost importance for the future of humankind.

If the television noise isn’t enough, you have stores, bars, and restaurants located between the gates. American airports have become shopping malls. This is nice. Who would want to go back to the old days when airports were like ugly bus terminals? Impersonal, bland, boring. But notice the noise level at airports in the U.S.

Americans are simply extroverted compared to Germans, at least in public spaces. We Americans are friendly, outgoing. We like to talk, be active, be social. It’s just the way we are. And why not? It’s fun. (Of course, if we’re honest with each other, many Americans simply do not know how to behave in public.)

But I like the Frankfurt Airport, too. Well organized. Quiet. Especially after one arrives from the U.S. early in the morning after a flight where sleep is next to impossible. It‘s almost like a museum. Passengers move quietly and purposely from flight to baggage pick-up, place their things on those heavy, stable carts, move through customs often without having anything checked, then off to either a taxi, a train, or a waiting car. Yes, there are now many stores in the Frankfurt Airport. Yes, it too is a shopping mall, but a German shopping mall. Quiet, reserved, discreet.

Germans are simply introverted compared to the Americans, at least in public spaces.  Germans are friendly, outgoing. They like to talk, be active, be social. But not so much in public space. That‘s just the way they are. And why not, it’s respectful.

Home is where the WIFI is

“I wonder if Germans think their WiFi-issues are a global thing”. That’s how one of my friends from the USA recently expressed his opinion towards the WIFI situation in Germany. They alluded to the impossibility to find free public WIFI in big German cities.

No wonder, since you can even find free mobile internet in the middle of the Israeli desert, in Estonian forests, on top of lonely Georgian mountains and along the highways in California. However, you won’t be able to find it in German pedestrian areas. 

One reason for this lack of WiFi access is a legal situation. The provider of the free Wlan is legally responsible for the inevitable misbehavior of the users; the so-called “Stoererhaftung” (liability for disturbance).

But there is more behind it: The term “Neuland” (unknown territory) circulated a while ago, used by Angela Merkel at a meeting with President Obama, in context with the Internet. However, she did by no means mean the invention “Internet” itself, but rather figuratively the Internet as legal terrain. 

The existing German legal status is just not sufficient to regulate the Internet, which is a contradiction in itself. Simultaneously, legislation works slowly and thus is even less able to keep up with such rapid changes. 

Therefore, the basic dilemma becomes clear: Many Germans (The German institutions, for one) appreciate changes to be clear, regulated and with obvious roles and responsibilities. And in the event of doubt with distinct legal liability. 

In general, changes are usually dealt with slowly but thoughtfully. Thus, if this attitude applies to an uncontrollable and rapidly spreading phenomena such as the Internet, conflict naturally develops. 

German reservation does not solve such conflicts until an explicit and waterproof regulation has been found. But, this manner leads to satisfactory results of the changing process most of the time because „gut Ding will Weile haben“ (“Good things are worth waiting for“).

Infant in a Pouch

Our son was only a few months old, but big enough to place in one of those pouches which hang over the shoulders with the child resting against your chest. It was a beautiful autumn day in Germany. Sun, blue skies, not even a light breeze. We headed out for a walk. Around the corner, up the street, then a turn into a wooded area with a maze of different walking paths.

From the opposite direction comes a woman, early 60s, alone, with her walking stick. Before we pass each other she makes eye-contact with me, says Guten Tag. We stop. She then offers her opinion.

The pouch my son was resting in was not good for him. Ungesund. Unhealthy. I looked at her. Surprised. Already a bit irritated. Another German offering their wisdom. Controlling myself, I asked why. The design cuts off the circulation to the upper part of the child’s legs. Das sollten Sie nicht nutzen. I shouldn‘t use the pouch. The woman continued on before I could react. It would not have mattered anyway.


The Fall of 1981. My first time in Germany. Blaubeuren, a small town in Swabia. South of Stuttgart. I had signed up for a ten-week intensive course in German at the Goethe Institute. Grundstufe III (Base Level 3). My German back then weak, my memories of Blaubeuren today strong. I will never forget the very first impressions of Germany. The coolness and almost sweetness of the early morning air. The damp lawns and fields. The intense autumn colors of the foliage in a town nestled in the Swabian Alb. The schoolchildren hustling off to school.

The fascinating, yet mysterious, Benedictine Monastery from the 11th Century. The Blautopf  (literally blue pot or kettle), a large natural pool of deeply dark water giving access to a complex network of waterways under the hills surrounding Blaubeuren, with its age-old legends of mystery. The Swabian dialect of the region, a version of German I could only rarely understand. The wonderful baked goods I enjoyed each and every day after lunch.

Important in Germany is not to stick out too much. Is it because they don’t want to make others envious? Or because one should demonstrate how to maintain balance, not get a big head? Or demonstrate a proper balance between individualism and belonging to a group, whose help one may need at any time?

Whether giving presentations in grammar school, in high school or at the university level Germans train, practice and stress over and over again objectivity: stick to the facts, no emotions, avoid gaps in your argumentation, be so comprehensive that hardly any questions are necessary in the question and answer part after your presentation.

You see it in German résumés (curriculum vitae). Factual. Unemotional. Objective. No holes in the educational and professional background. Anticipate all the questions a potential employer might ask. Subjective and personal information is kept to a bare minimum. Adding things such as interests or hobbies is a new trend, imported from the U.S. and not a part of the German logic.