How one leader inspired his team to achieve a 'miracle' in under a year
Nothing warms our hearts more than seeing the underdog triumph over adversity to rise to the top of their field. The recent upset win by Leicester City Football Club of the English Premier League is a story not only of great team work but of courageous and inspired leadership.
Leicester City recently stunned the world of football when, after being at the bottom of the table for much of last season and only just escaping relegation altogether, they became English Premier League champions for the first time in their history.
What makes their story all the more spectacular is the size and resources of the club. Three to four times smaller than some of the giants of the game, the whole of Leicester City’s first team cost roughly a quarter of the £80 million fee Real Madrid paid for one player alone (Cristiano Ronaldo). And this victory came just 295 days after appointing a new manager to the team.
How did they do it? In my opinion, the leadership of the quirky Italian manager, Claudio Ranieri, played a huge role, and I’ve been glued to the screen watching this fascinating story unfold. I see many parallels and lessons in their achievement with leadership in the corporate world. Here are a few of my observations, using Hudson’s Leadership Model as a foundation to analyse this incredible success story.
Vision: Many players, one heart
Vision is about creating a road map for the future: understanding the environment around you and responding with a creative plan of action. In Leicester’s case, how did a relatively small club step up so quickly to beat the big teams?
Instead of fighting fire with fire, Ranieri outfoxed his opponents by fighting fire with water. He embedded a very distinctive approach to their game: less focus on possession and control of the ball, a highly organised defence and exploding like a ‘jack in the box’ in attack. Consistently, every one of the players developed the same effervescent playing style. Ranieri put it well when he said “This is a small club that’s showing the world what can be achieved through spirit and determination. Twenty-six players. Twenty-six different brains. But one heart.”
The key business lesson here is that a leader can achieve great success when he or she establishes and embeds a single focus and commitment across the team, and has everyone following the same plan. Give your employees a clear identity and common purpose and great things can follow.
Action: When unusual decisions work
Action is about managing uncertainty and change while showing courage and resilience. It can also be about making fast, effective decisions in uncomfortable situations.
When Ranieri and his team suffered their third loss of the season, in a crunch clash against title rivals Arsenal, it made their race for the title an uncomfortable squeeze. While most teams who face such a setback would have trained harder and analysed their game more extensively, Ranieri showed courage and did the total opposite: he gave all the players a one week holiday. He rose above the adversity and pressure and acted on his wisdom and insights.
As a business leader it can pay to step back when the going gets tough and to think, ‘Would a completely different approach achieve more here? What tough decisions should I make to get things back on track?’
Impact: Building everyone and anyone up
Impact is about unleashing potential and talent - which is all very well when you have some of the highest performing talent in the world on your side. But what if you don’t?
The Leicester team this year is full of examples of players performing better than they ever have before. Ranieri must take credit for creating a culture that allowed his players, many of whom were deemed not good enough for the bigger clubs they had left, to step up to the next level.
As a leader, like Ranieri, you may have people in your organisation or team who aren’t quite world class. But great leaders understand how to empower anyone and have everybody perform to their true potential. For example, Ranieri turned James Vardy, who only a few years ago was playing in the lowest footballing leagues, into one of the top scorers for the country’s most prestigious league.. He did this by understanding and harnessing Vardy’s unique skill (“This is not a footballer. This is a fantastic horse. He has a need to be free out there on the pitch”).
Great leaders focus on the valuable strengths of their team. Ask yourself, ‘How can I get the best out of each and every one of my people? Where can I unearth talent that will supplement and build the bench strength of my team?’
Connection: What’s in a pizza?
Connection is about leveraging diversity and fostering positive emotions in others. In Ranieri’s case, a great example of it can be found in this story about pizza.
In an attempt to tighten up the team defensively, he made them an offer: if the team didn’t concede a goal in the next game, he would reward them with pizza. The players rose to the challenge. Yet while many leaders would just buy the pizza, Ranieri saw this as an opportunity to foster further team unity and embed team principles. After the match he said, “You have to work for everything. You work for your pizza too. We will make our own.”
This shared experience outside their normal ‘work space’ made a symbolic contribution to create a unified team spirit despite having diverse players from around the world, from Algeria through to Jamaica. As a leader, how can you connect with your people? How can the incentives you offer really resonate with your people, to foster unity while sharing your principles as well?
Drive: Break it into achievable goals
Drive is about pursuing challenging goals and targets. In the journey to secure the league title, Ranieri hardly spoke about the league title as Leicester’s goal. He actually did the opposite, talking only of immediate milestones.
Even when they got off to a flying start, Ranieri would contain expectations and focus the team by saying, “Forty points. I can’t change our project at the moment. Our goal right now is to maintain the Premier League. Be solid with two feet firmly on the floor. Forty points.” Only after each milestone was achieved would the goals and targets grow. In this way, he expertly managed any pressure or fear of failure the players might have felt, and this showed in the calm and composed manner they won the title.
A key leadership lesson here is the importance of breaking down major, distant goals into smaller, shorter-term, more achievable ones.
Hudson’s Leadership Model talks about leadership derailers, those behaviours that can take you off the path to success. As a leader it is important to know what yours are, and to consciously manage the behaviours that might take you off track. For years Ranieri was described as ‘the Tinkerman’ due to his tendency to constantly tweak and change things, and in the corporate world the ‘micromanager’ derailer would have been an apt descriptor.
Ranieri addressed his temptation to tinker, by fielding a similar team week in, week out, for the entire season. This way he created a settled, highly cohesive team which went a long way to helping Leicester achieve success. Do you know what your leadership derailers are? Do you know how they limit you and your team? Do you know how to stay on track and not succumb to them?
Well done to Leicester City Football Club on an amazing season, and to Claudio Ranieri on showing the power of strong leadership and what it can achieve in such a short space of time.