With previous claims to fame relating largely to an association with Walkers Crisps and to the unexpected discovery of the remains of King Richard III, Leicester City – an East Midlands city which lies on the River Soar – has suddenly been inundated by top journalists from all over the world.
The press indeed is full of the fairy tale story which has been hailed as “the most unlikely triumph in the history of team sport” – that of Leicester City Football Club being crowned champions of the Premier League.
Well, how did Ranieri’s side do it? And what lessons can we learn from the surprise sports story of its generation?
1. Never Mind the Pundits
At the start of the season the prospect of such an unlikely outcome had been rated by the bookmakers at 5000/1 – roughly the same odds as Christmas Day being the hottest of the year, or of Elvis Presley being found alive… And yet, (in taking Leicester to the top) Claudio Ranieri, the manager appointed to far from rapturous reports, with the likes of Gary Lineker calling it an “uninspired choice”, has seemingly achieved the impossible.
- Don’t be phased by the pessimism of others; keep your head down and trust your own potential, and the potential of others around you.
2. Set Simple Targets
From the outset Ranieri set simple and achievable targets. Initially it was to finish the season on 40 points, just two more ahead of where they had finished the previous season – and therefore not seen to be hugely demanding. His approach was always “one step at a time”, no big ambitious aim or grandiose plan that might fluster the team or exhaust them with expectations. “I just wanted to win match after match and help my players improve week after week”.
So, a simple easily understood message focusing on the next step rather than further down the road, building on their successes one step at a time.
- Don’t overwhelm your team with grandiose visions and weighty expectations, but focus only on the next step, building on their successes one step at a time.
3. Stay Consistent
Prior to joining Leicester City, Ranieri had earned the nickname ‘Tinkerman’ because of his reputation for tinkering with the starting line-up. He obviously learned from his mistakes as one of the real strengths of his governance at Leicester was his consistency of selection which enabled the players to develop and coalesce as a team. He also adhered to a standard 4 – 4 – 2 formation which allowed his players to become perfect in their respective positions.
- Give people the chance to settle into a role, or into a team without constantly shifting responsibilities and instructions; this allows people to get into a groove with their work and build from there. Once you have a good formula, stick with it, and resist the constant temptation to change.
4. Shift Your Thinking From ‘I’ to ‘We’
Leadership guru John Adair writes that the one most important word in leadership is ‘We’, and the least important ‘I’. And Leicester City, under the guidance of Ranieri, exemplified this approach. Indeed Jamie Vardy talks of the band of brothers spirit that the team enjoyed with a genuine all for one and one for all approach. The success of the squad was not built on the ego or success of any single star player but relied on each member delivering an outstanding performance.
One simple tactic employed by Ranieri to galvanise this team effort was to offer (in a glamorous world of six figure bonuses) a pizza dinner for them all if they managed to maintain a clean sheet. This served to make the whole team focus more on defence and keeping the opposition from scoring. Team spirit was encouraged through socialising together. They had fun together off the pitch as a group and this deepened the connections they felt on field.
- As a leader, don’t focus on cultivating your own sense of superiority; but rather, build and nurture a sense of shared identity with your team.
5. “Keep dreaming, why wake up?”
As the season successes continued to astound the footballing world, Ranieri speaks of the moment that he started to believe that the impossible could actually happen. Having all along been cautious and restrained when talking of this improbable likelihood, he recalls starting to think “slowly, slowly: why not?”. This step by step attitude coupled with Ranieri’s natural enthusiasm and belief in his players proved a powerful mix. “You are better than you think”, he would say to his team… and so they proved to be.
And what now for Leicester City? Ranieri’s message to the fans at the presentation ceremony was as follows: “Keep dreaming, why wake up?”
- Whatever the world might be saying, a strong and steady inward belief and focus is essential for strong performance and cool heads over the long term; constantly feed your team’s sense of self-belief, and remember to ask yourself: “why not?”
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