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Leadership Lessons from Football

In the 2015-16 English football season, there has been a real shake up as the Premiership was won by Leicester City Football Club, who at the beginning of the season were placed as 5000 to 1 outsiders. So what has created such a turn around, and what relevance does this have for non-football fans? In the June 2016 edition of the Psychologist (the journal of the British Psychological Society), Alexander Haslam and Stephen Reicher suggests that much is transferable to business and organisations.

Leicester City were promoted to the English Premiership in 2014, but the 2014–15 season saw a dismal run of poor form and they only just avoided relegation at the end of the season. So who would have thought that lowly Leicester would triumph over the mighty global football brand names of Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal? Even Gary Lineker, former Leicester and England striker and now TV presenter, vowed in December 2015 to appear on TV in his underwear if his boyhood club pulled off the unlikely achievement! Well some Leicester fans have won thousands of pounds after placing bets with odds of 5000 to 1!!

132524In their article in the Psychologist, Haslam and Reicher say that the success of Leicester had much to do with the approach of team coach Claudio Ranieir, who was appointed in 2015. Instead of viewing himself as a ‘special one’, Ranieir took a collective approach to help the team discover their collective will, rather than imposing his own. Ranieri said “…I always thought the most important thing a good coach must do is to build a team around the characteristics of his players.”

This team ethos is very different to the traditional view of a charismatic figurehead leading from the front. Haslem and Reicher focus on the ability of the leader to engage followers and their research suggests that leaders must communicate three things to their team:

  1. They are one of us – that they share our values and our concerns and understand our experience.
  2. They are doing it for us – that their efforts are aimed at advancing the good of the group.
  3. They are making us matter – that their actions and achievements are a practical expression of our shared beliefs and values.

You may be familiar with the Dancing Guy YouTube video (over 3 million views), which brings this to life in a very light-hearted way.

In this video you can see the importance of the ‘first follower’ and as Haslam and Reicher say “… however great their vision, leaders are more likely to be dismissed as lunatics than lauded as heroes if they cannot convince others both to share their vision and to work hard to translate it into material reality. Without special followership, special leadership is nothing.” We can see this clearly in the Dancing Guy video.

Coaching and developing leaders around this team approach is very different to developing someone to be their individual best. Firstly the leader must have the mind-set that “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts”, and that the leader is one of many actors within the system, creating the conditions for everyone in the team to succeed. If this belief is in place then there is the foundation for success. I wonder if the absence of this mind-set limits what is possible.

I remember talking with Ben Hunt-Davies, who in 2000 won an Olympic Gold Medal for men’s rowing eights at the Sydney Olympics. In his book “Will it make the boat go faster”, Ben describes how a group of rowers, with no star performers, worked together to become the best team in the rowing world.

Sometimes in the West there is a focus on the individual and the star performers, maybe it is time to think differently.

Think about a time when you have lead a team that was high performing, or when you worked within a high performing team, and reflect on what helped to create the conditions for success?

If you are interested in the links between football and leadership, you might want to read my blog about Alex Ferguson.

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