The Leicester Story – A Lesson for Leaders in the Age of the A Player

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For those that don’t follow the sport known everywhere else as football, (soccer), an event took place in the last week that defied all logic. Leicester Football Club, (pronounced Lester), won the Premier League Championship in England. This after narrowly escaping relegation to a lower league in the prior season and starting this campaign at 5,000:1 odds to come out on top. Think of it as a Double-A, minor league baseball team sweeping the NY Yankees in a 7-game series.

This wasn’t the playoff miracle or one-hit-wonder we are familiar with here in the states. They accomplished this feat over a 38 game season against teams with far more money and loaded with superstars.  There may be no equivalent accomplishment in the history of  professional sports.

HOW DID THEY DO IT? 

For the answer to that question, I advise you to do your own Google search on the topic or you can start here with this great article from the NY Times. There are many sports writers who have opined on the methods behind the magic.

What I found most intriguing is that the Leicester story challenges some the popular myths still widely believed and followed in organizations today.

Myth #1 – Choose a leader with a stellar resume.

When Claudio Ranieri was hired to manage Leicester City the announcement was met with a collective sigh. After many years with numerous top-flight teams, he had yet to win a championship. This humble, likable and intelligent manager quietly led his team to impossible heights by bringing out the best in his players and choosing a style and strategy under which they could excel.

On the day Leicester secured the championship, (due to a draw in a game later in the week that involved the second place team), Ranieri had flown home to Italy to have lunch with his mom.

Myth #2 – Load the team with “A” players.

The entire team was assembled for about $32M. Less than  some of the big money teams spent on a single, superstar player. The team consisted of players cast off by bigger teams or struggling in the lower leagues of England and other countries. We might call them “B” players. Yet, Ranieri figured out how to harness the collective will and talent of his players while teams composed of much more expensive and well-known stars were left behind.

Myth #3 – Create internal competition.

“It’s unbelievable — you’ve seen the team spirit that we’ve got. It is a scandal how we all are together. We literally are like brothers”. This quote from Jamie Vardy, arguably one of the team’s star players. And another from former defender Matt Elliott, “The players don’t talk about themselves. It’s a collective effort — ‘we’ve got the spirit and the will to win.'” This community of players was committed to winning for each other rather than seeking personal glory.

Myth #4 – Start with a really big goal.

At the start of the season, the goal was to avoid relegation. Hardly a “BHAG”. Then, as the wins began to mount, the focus became to finish higher in the table, to win the next game and then the next. Eyes on the next mile rather than the end of the race. Not until the very late stages of the season did the club begin to imagine or talk about the possibility of winning the championship. They managed their momentum and stayed focused on the task at hand, letting each individual success carry them closer towards the finish line.

Myth #5 – Change your strategy often.

Throughout the season, everyone kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. Sooner or later the competition would figure out what the Foxes were up to and devise a game plan to shut them down. It never happened. Ranieri, once known as the “Tinkerman” for his propensity towards changing lineups and formations stuck with his 4-4-2, counterattacking strategy throughout the season. He ignored the pundits and popular formulas of the day, stayed focused on the plan, and it paid off.

Myth #6 – Spend to win.

In the Premier League, there is no salary cap. For years, the massive wealth that has come into the league has enabled the handful of teams with deep pockets to more or less dominate the various competitions including the league championship. When in doubt go acquire more expensive players, hire an expensive manager and buy a championship. While it can’t be argued this model has worked more often than it has not, it is refreshing to be reminded that there are some things money can’t buy.

Myth #7 – Success is complicated.

In an era of superstar CEO’s, big money and power brokers, the Leicester story gives us another perspective. A sense of the possibility found in simple values that don’t seem to get much press these days. The renewed hope that a committed, well led and reasonably talented team that is willing to work hard for each other toward a common goal can still come out on top, even when the odds aren’t in their favor.

Final thought:

Consider the possibility that you already have all the talent, resources and potential you need to do something really amazing.

Your thoughts here...