Leadership lessons from Leicester City’s league win

Football club Leicester City have just won the English Premier League. For non-UK readers, or non-football fans, this is a team who were 5,000-1 outsiders to win. Manager Claudio Ranieri joined only one year ago and inherited a team who only just escaped relegation last season. This is a big deal for the fans, but also financially. Winning the league could boost the club’s earnings by £150m boost according to this report, driven by prize money, Champions League participation and increased match day revenues.

So, can we learn anything about leadership from this fairytale football fable? A BBC News article suggested some secrets of success and how they might work for you and I share five of them below.

1. To get creative, cut your budget

Having less money to spend can actually force you to be more creative and work harder. You see this in the marketing of brands like innocent, The Geek Squad and Hotel Chocolat, who have grew without the need for advertising. And Claudio Ranieri has managed to win the Premier League on a shoestring budget. The entire Leicester City squad cost c.£54m to acquire. To put this into context, big-spending Manchester City spent that sum on just one player, midfielder Kevin De Bruyne! The Leicester City win is all the more impressive when you consider that in the last 21 years only four heavy spending teams have won the Premier League: Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United.

Action: try building a marketing plan from the ground up (“zero based budgeting”), and see what you could do with half or none of your budget

2. Blend people to build the right team

The arrival of a new leader, in sport or business, often means a clear out of the existing management team. And many people expected Ranieri to follow this approach and sack the club’s existing staff to bring in his own men. Instead, he kept most people in place and added fellow Italian Paolo Bennett. In this way he blended existing staff, with know-how of the club, and fresh thinking.

Action: if you take over as a leader, rather than making wholesale changes, identify the strong performers and blend them with new faces 3. Create the right “playing model”

A lot of focus is put on creating the right culture, in sport and in business. However, I believe that culture is the end result of having a successful “playing model”, and not the other way around, as I posted on here. A playing model is how you go to market, or play the game, in a way that builds on your strengths and neutralises your weaknesses. In the case of Leicester, this meant keeping their high tempo, counter-attacking game that scored goals, whilst improving the defence. “He changed the set-up of the defence… a team without a clean sheet (letting in no goals) on its first 11 games of the season had nine of them since the start of January,” commented Kieran Maguire of Liverpool University’s management school. He also created continuity, by using the same players in the same positions more than any other Premier League team.

Action: rather than trying to create the right culture, consider what playing model you need to win

 4. Mine the data

“Data analysis is something that Leicester have used to improve the team’s performance,” according to the BBC article. For example, players get individual summaries of how well they played after each match (e.g. number of tackles, distance covered on the pitch). They are also monitored in training sessions by means of wearable technology, providing information about their general fitness and levels of stamina. Importantly, it seems that Leicester are selective in the data they collect, and use it to improve their playing model, rather than drowning in information.

Action: define the data you need to refine your playing model, capture it and then act on it, quickly

5. Create the right “human” incentives

Ranieri has used a human approach to incentives that reflects an understanding of his team. Rather than just splashing out money on players who already rich beyond the imagination of most people, he created fun rewards he knew players would like. To encourage the players to defend better, Ranieri promised pizza if they prevented the other side from scoring. The continuity of selection, described above, gave the players a sense of security; the thing sportsmen hate most is being dropped from the team. He has also worked on player welfare, enforcing rest days to give players time to recuperate and allowing a mid-season week off to travel anywhere they wanted.

Action: rather than just splashing cash to incentivise your team, how can you make more human gestures that show you really understand what motivates them?

In conclusion, Leicester City’s victory is an inspiring story that shows how a team can rise from failure to achieve success without the resources of bigger competitors, by creating the right team, playing model and incentives.