Leicester’s Leadership Lessons

Football and leadership

So the unthinkable has happened. A new, non-“big four” club has won the Premiership finally. And (as a Sunderland fan – apologies), what a great thing that is. But what leadership lessons can we learn from how Claudio Ranieri has achieved such an amazing feat? Here are four we have picked up in observing his incredible rise this season.

 

Human and humble leadership works

Many denounced Ranieri’s appointment last summer. Gary Lineker called it an “uninspired” choice. Many fans initially disapproved, Ranieri having just been sacked from his previous job: remember, Greece had just lost to the Faroe Islands. And yet he has managed to evolve Leicester from Premier League survivors last season to Champions this.

Yet the biggest thing that strikes us in his leadership style is a total lack of the ego found in most top-level football managers. Listen to anyone who’s worked with him or been near him- players, staff, fans, the media even – and there’s one phrase you will hear – he is a genuinely nice guy. He demonstrates a humanity and a humbleness which is rare in the top flight. As the club won the title, he was at home back in Italy having dinner with his mother.

He told the Italian press: “I always thought the most important thing a good coach must do is to build the team around the characteristics of his players. So I told the players that I trusted them and would speak very little of tactics”. In short, he listened and built the most essential part of engagement: trust.  Asked at a press conference what his aim for the rest of the season would be (once their initial aim of avoiding relegation had been achieved), he said: “I will ask my team. They will decide what they can achieve and I will listen to what they tell me”.  As a leader, you can’t beat listening.

 

You need to believe in talent and create a genuine team

Ranieri has not bought success. He took a squad which, in total, cost less than some individual players at the “big four” clubs. Rather than shipping in big names, he worked with the talent he already had. He created a real, genuine team out of that raw talent, many of whom had been forgotten by other, “bigger” clubs: Vardy, Mahrez and Drinkwater to name just three. He also supplemented that talent with genuine, veteran experience: players who knew the game inside out but were not stars in their own right.

And he built that teamwork on three core assets: belief, hard work and togetherness. Early in the season, he created a vision for the club where there was a core belief in their ability to take on anyone and beat them. On the training ground, he worked on fitness and agility so that the same core squad of players could perform again and again (there was little of his previous “tinkering”). Also, Ranieri generated support amongst the team for each other. The two main scorers (Vardy and Mahrez) were as good at assisting in the build-up of each other’s goals as they were in scoring themselves.

The fact that the whole team were together to celebrate the Spurs draw at Chelsea which sealed the title but that they were gathered in Jamie Vardy’s kitchen to do so says a lot.

 

Reward and recognition are vital

Ranieri has also shown a great balance in how he has both recognised and rewarded his players to maintain their motivation. In a long season, here are a couple of examples:

  • In almost all of his dealings with the press, Ranieri has spoken humbly about the players in the team and the skills they bring. He quietly (but very effectively) plants recognition for the whole team but never once spoke brazenly about what they could ultimately achieve.
  • When Mahrez missed a penalty which could have secured a win for the team, Ranieri played it down in post-match interviews. Rather than punish him for it, he encouraged the player to learn from it and rewarded him with further opportunities from the penalty spot.
  • Ranieri promised to take the team out for pizza when they kept their first clean sheet of the season. He kept his promise (and paid). However, he also turned it into a further teambuilding opportunity. Rather than just take them out to a restaurant, it became a pizza-making session with a competitive edge and prizes for the best made pizzas.

 

Engagement has to happen at all levels

Finally, we were really struck by a radio piece which BBC Five Live covered the morning after Leicester won the title. The breakfast programme interviewed one of the cleaners who was tidying up outside the ground after the previous night’s celebrations.  She was proud to tell the news anchor that, before 7am, her team would have cleared up any mess from the celebrations.  That would allow other fans to come and enjoy celebrating around the ground that morning.

This felt a little bit like that “NASA” moment (where the guy sweeping the floor is asked what his job is and he replies “to put a man on the moon”). It felt like there was deep engagement amongst employees at the club all the way through to the cleaning staff. Here was someone proud of playing a small but significant part in the club’s amazing achievement. Ranieri’s leadership seems to have reverberated all the way through the club.

 

 

By Dr Andy Brown
CEO & ENGAGE Leadership Practice Head