Few things excite the public imagination like the unexpected victory of an underdog. And few underdogs in sport have matched the triumph of Leicester City winning the English football Premier League this year. Their victory has been celebrated widely in and out of the football world, as that of a plucky David putting the game’s big-spending Goliaths to shame.
Sudden successes in sport, like those in business and politics, inevitably prompt questions about the secrets behind them and the lessons that can be drawn from them. Sport provides countless metaphors for business – “moving the goalposts”, “kicking off meetings”, “touching base” etc – and winning recipes in sport are bound to invite translation into the world of business management. Football teams are, after all, led by a manager and some successful managers, such as Sir Alex Ferguson, have successfully transferred their skills to business education.
But are there really any lessons that management can take from Leicester City’s triumph? The most obvious message is that leadership matters. Beyond any doubt, City’s success is linked to the management of Claudio Ranieri. A leader can take over a losing and demoralised organisation, a sports team, a business, a political party or a university and turn it around. This does not need emphasising. Everyone takes it for granted. But this is also where the problem lies.
Football managers and leaders in general take exaggerated credit for the success of their teams. This is what leadership scholars call the “romance of leadership”, the tendency of followers and the wider public to fall in love with leaders. This was already known to Freud who placed leader-follower relations somewhere between hypnosis and infatuation. Leaders are put on a pedestal, one from which most of them will sooner or later fall.
The flip side is that when teams fail, all blame is often attributed to their leaders. Indeed, the ability to sack a leader (which is not always possible with political or business leaders) opens up the space for a new leader to try his or her hand at turning failure into success.
Claudio Ranieri was himself summarily dismissed from his previous job, coaching Greece’s national side, a team that had won the European Cup in 2004 and made the last 16 in the 2014 World Cup. He oversaw just four matches, of which he lost three, including a humiliating defeat to the part-timers of the Faroe Islands. How could the Leicester miracle worker and the Greek fiasco-maker be the same man?
Our preoccupation with the leader underestimates the importance of the leader’s followers and the part played by luck. Luck is especially important in a low-scoring game of 90 minutes. Here, an inferior team can often beat a superior one. It’s partly what makes football such a great game.
Over an entire season, however, luck plays a smaller role and only a fool would argue that Leicester’s success was due to good fortune alone. Yet a whole range of fortunate circumstances and coincidences, including injuries to key players, poor form and crowded fixture diaries of their key rivals, conspired to bring it about.
To their great credit, Leicester players on the field repeatedly snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, such as when they scored three goals in the last 20 minutes to beat Aston Villa, or grabbed three points with last ditch efforts when lesser teams might have settled for a draw, as in their 1-0 wins against Tottenham Hotspur and Norwich. Nobody should diminish their achievements as the manager watched from the sidelines.
It’s not the winning…
But beyond the usual platitudes regarding the importance of motivation, teamwork, synergy and the like, the lessons of Leicester City’s great achievement for management are modest. Managing a university, a political party or a business is very different from managing a football team. Most organisations do not face their rivals on a football field every week. Most organisations are not made up of small groups of fabulously paid, under-educated young men, nor are they watched weekly by thousands of fans thirsting for instant success. Most organisations do not play in a winner-takes-all game, where only victory counts.
But let’s give Claudio Ranieri his due. With support from others, not least his players, he contributed to something close to a miracle. Most institutions, such as hospitals, universities, businesses and government departments, however, should neither aim for miracles nor demand them of their leaders. Delivering a sound service to their constituents, respecting their communities and the environment, conducting their business in an ethical manner and supporting their own staff are much more important goals than chimeric ambitions of being Number One in this or World Leader in that.