The fall and rise of Leicester City: business lessons for managers

Written by
John Hathaway

17 May 2016

17 May 2016 • by John Hathaway

Against all odds

The odds given on Leicester City winning the Barclays Premier League at the start of the season are well known but less well known is how this scrappy survivor confounded all expectations and actually did it? Management gurus and managers of other football clubs in all leagues will ponder the secret of Leicester’s success for many years. Yet even from an external perspective lessons can be gleaned for others to learn from. 

Teamwork is an obvious starting point but sadly a skillset often missing from many actual teams in the first place. Henry Mintzberg explains the managers’ role in building teams as one who resolves conflict and promotes team bonding as part of their remit. Without resolving these internal clashes then energising and developing the individuals within the team is all but impossible. Watching Leicester players week in week out putting a shift in to chase down the opposition with the ball illustrates this well, while setbacks were managed within the team, such as the loss due to suspension of their key striker, Jamie Vardy, at the end of the season. Business leaders should take note - team maintenance and building should be a continuous process, along with developing individuals within that team.  

Leicester’s outstanding performance would not, however, have been possible without a clear and consistent goal in mind. At the end of the 2014-2015 season, a nadir in Leicester’s recent history as they narrowly avoided relegation, another relegation battle was the last thing the club wanted. This season, just avoiding the relegation battle would have been motivation enough but without a clear and realistic objective the potential to drift along could have become a reality. So, Leicester did what many managers faced with such a situation need to do - switched the focus and presented the team with a clear vision that was desirable, feasible and focused. They said that staying up was too bland and limited the imagination and ambition, but winning the Premier League was no longer just a pipe dream. Like The National Lottery says ‘it could be you’?

It's all about counter intuition

The absence of evidence was no indication that a team that small could win the Barclays Premier League - it simply meant that is had not happened yet. Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book, The Black Swan, warns us that absence of evidence is no indication of lack of existence. Just because a firm has not become the dominant player in a market does not mean that one will not emerge from the pack or emerge from nowhere. Billion dollar valuations have been placed upon small and innovative start-ups that have disrupted long-established markets, like Uber and Airbnb. Ask a London black cab or the travel operators if these competitors were on their radar ten or even five years ago and the answer would be an emphatic ‘no’. In a similar vein, at the start of the season had you asked the big four Barclays Premier League clubs which teams would be challenging them for the top spot Leicester would not have even appeared on their lists. Past performance is no indication of future success!       

Leicester’s manager Claudio Ranieri illustrated how to manage teams and turn them into winners through counter intuition. Nicknamed the Tinkerman, Ranieri did anything but tinker with his team and tactics in this season’s campaign. Yehuda Shinar is not a name that most business or sports managers will be familiar with yet his role in shaping the 2003 World Cup-winning England rugby squad is one of his more publicised activities.  Part of his winning strategy formula can be seen in Ranieri’s approach - sticking to what works, getting back to basics and learning to thrive under pressure. While it is easy to stand back and see all of this now with the benefit of hindsight these models and theories have been around for many years. It’s telling how often we ignore them at our peril - just ask the bookies paying out on 5000/1 odds.