Leadership Lessons from Leicester City

In one of the greatest sporting upsets in history, Leicester City have won England’s Premier League.  The Foxes were 5,000-1 shots at the start of the season, but have convincingly seen off some of the world’s richest football (soccer) clubs.  Their budget is modest in the extreme.  A single star player from the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea or Arsenal would cost more than the combined fees paid by Leicester for its entire team.

Leicester’s sport-affirming triumph offers a host of inspirations.  When it comes to leadership, we believe these are the key Leicester lessons:

Leaders tune in to context: In Summer 2015 Leicester appointed Claudio Ranieri as its new manager.  Ranieri is hugely experienced.  He has managed teams throughout Europe. In England he was well known for managing Chelsea where he became famous for constantly changing the team’s personnel and formation.  He had a solid track record but had generally fallen at the last hurdle in the quest to win trophies.

Ranieri’s approach was not to arrive with an agenda.  He has been around football a long time and offered suggestions and tactical thoughts to players.  He watched them train and listened to them in the dressing room.  He responded to what he had inherited rather than seeking to immediately revolutionize the team and how it worked. Instead of molding Leicester into his own image, he recognized it already had an image of its own.

Too often leaders in new organizations seek to make their marks with immediate effect.  They take what worked before and try to make it work immediately in another place and time.  Far better to take the time to gauge the new situation, assess what you have and then build from that; listen then lead.

Culture counts: Over recent years Leicester have steadily recruited a group of hard-working, team players.  They have bought players who buy into their collective culture.  Football teams like any other teams and organizations have a culture, a system of values and ways of behaving.

All season, Leicester players consistently worked harder on the pitch than any other team, covering more yards and pressing together to close down the space available to their opponents. Recruiting people who will fit the culture is key.  Skills can be acquired, tactical nous acquired, but values are much harder to assimilate.  The Foxes’ culture was a key differentiator.

The job of the leader is to set the culture and to foster the culture.  Claudio Ranieri did just that.  His public comments throughout the season have constantly been about the team ethos.  He, too, bought into the culture.

Interestingly, the pre-match entertainment at Leicester’s King Power stadium is led by a former player, Alan Birchenall.  This sort of continuity is important.  At Manchester United, the TVs in the bars are often showing youth team games.  This emphasizes the club’s tradition of developing young players.

Customers are part of the culture:  Leicester’s supporters have been part of the success story.  Not only do they support the culture, they are part of it.  Too often sports teams appear slightly aloof from their supporters.  They put ticket prices up and provide dismal facilities.  This is not the case with Leicester.  The club’s owners have even provided supporters with free beers.

In businesses it is tempting to regard customers as distant and unimportant figures.  But, the best organizations develop relationships with their customers.

Underdogs (and Foxes) have teeth: Even though they were parked at the top of the table, few people gave Leicester a serious chance of winning the title.  Even in the final run in, the pundits were still saying it was an impossible dream. The Foxes, though, played it cool, never allowing themselves to get carried away. Until the final few games the talk from the manager and the players was about trying to finish in the top four rather than winning the title.

Raniera deliberately downplayed talk of being title contenders to take the pressure off his players. He knew that as outsiders they could play with freedom and expression even as the tension built on the chasing pack. In the end, the pressure took its toll on Tottenham Hotspur in second place. Ill-displine among Spurs players led to unnecessary bookings, which contributed to throwing away a two-goal lead at Chelsea to hand the title to Leicester.

Points to prove: Strangely, motivation is an issue in a highly paid professional sport.  Highly paid players can switch off when they sign a new contract. They live a cosseted existence and can quickly become cut off from reality.  The Leicester team is full of players who have a point to prove.  Some failed at their home-town clubs and moved on, others had been playing in lower leagues.

The same applies to the manager. Ranieri had conspicuously failed in his previous job with the Greek national team.  Leicester gave him a chance to restore his reputation.  People with points to prove are much more easily motivated than those whose lives have been one long success story.

Leaders hunt in packs: There are thousands of books about leadership.  Most continue to propagate the mythology of the single, all powerful leader standing above an organization as a dominant source of wisdom and power.  Leadership really isn’t like that.  The best leaders surround themselves with others who are leaders.

In football, look at Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United.  Ferguson is often portrayed as a dominant, dictatorial leader.  But, he surrounded himself with strong personalities and forceful leaders.  His great teams were made up of such individuals. The same is true of Chelsea and Liverpool teams.

The Leicester City team is similarly full of leaders.  None of them takes a step back.  One of the teams Leicester saw off to win the Premier League title is Arsenal.  Its team is full of hugely talented and skillful players, but suffers from a dearth of leaders.

Success is viral:  The best leaders know that success in one team, in one department, in one subsidiary, can spread like wildfire if you create the right conditions.  The challenge for Leicester City is to enjoy and then continue their success.  But there is a bigger social leadership challenge and opportunity.  The city and the region can benefit hugely from the world’s attention being on them. The football club has made history, now it is the turn of leaders elsewhere to seize the day.

Stuart Crainer & Des Dearlove

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