6 WAYS WATCHING THE EPL MAKES YOU A BETTER LEADER
FROM TIME TO TIME, LEADERS WILL GET THE GLORY. BUT MOST OF THE TIME LEADERSHIP IS A SLOG. IT’S TOUGH. AND IT’S OFTEN THANKLESS.
‘Don’t expect to excel everywhere. Find your niche. Some teams and projects will just gel. Others won’t. When you find a culture that fits, you’re more likely to give it your all, be successful, and enjoy the journey.’
Jahda Swanborough is a World Economic Forum Global Leadership Fellow. The World Economic Forum is a Swiss nonprofit foundation and is recognised as the international institution for public-private co-operation.
Amidst all the drama, goals, and penalty shouts, if you’ve been paying attention, this remarkable season in the English Premier League just might have made you a better leader. As a Global Leadership Fellow with the World Economic Forum*, I learn a lot about leadership in all facets of life. For me, like millions of others, this includes my weekly fix of the English Premier League. Here are six ways this season has taught us to be better leaders – whether of sporting teams, in workplaces, or even within our families.
1. Don’t shift the goal posts
By now, most people know the Leicester City story – from bottom of the table with 9 games to go last season to champions this season. When Claudio Ranieri was appointed manager in the off-season, he set one goal for his players – avoid relegation. By the middle of this season, his team were top of the table. Fans and pundits alike starting asking ‘could they actually win the league’? After all, they’d lost just once all season. Ranieri refused to buy into the hype: “I told the players we need another five points (to stay up)… I put a target of 40 points at the beginning of the season and when we achieve this we change the target.” Only once that first goal had been reached – and properly celebrated - did he set a new goal for his players. Ranieri wasn’t lacking ambition; he was providing consistency and predictability. By sticking with the original goal he took the pressure of his players. They knew what was expected of them and what ‘success’ looked like.
2. Leadership is a role, not a status
Club captains play important leadership roles, but often they are not the best player or even the most important one.
This season, the 100 most-used players in the premier league averaged around 30% more playing time than the 20 club captains. Only 8 of the 20 club captains even played enough to be in that top 100.
Whether through injury, age, or tactical fit, the group of club captains played less than many other players. They had to lead wherever they found themselves – on the field, on the bench, in the dressing room, or on the training ground.
A formal ‘leadership’ position doesn’t make you the ‘best’ or ‘most important’ person and it certainly isn’t a determinant of your worth as a person, player, or employee. It’s a role.
3. Cultural ‘fit’ matters
Leadership happens in a broader context or ‘ecosystem’ that usually exists before the leader comes along. In the premier league, it includes the fans, the players, the owners, the sponsors, the staff, the history of the club, and even the city. Together these things form the fabric of the team’s culture. Successful leaders both understand the culture and are aligned with it. Think back to Manchester United over the last two decades (Liverpool and City fans, bear with me). It had a history of arrogance on and off the pitch and it was often matched by results. Fans, staff, sponsors, and players bought into that swagger and began to embody it. Sir Alex Ferguson revelled in this culture. Few would say the same about his successors in David Moyes (an understated, no-frills style) and Louis van Gaal (a defencefirst, technical tactician). It’s no wonder the club now seems to at odds with itself. Each season we see a steady stream of player transfers and managerial changes at clubs – most of which go through a rigorous scouting and recruitment process – yet while some are successful, others are ‘flops’.
As a leader, don’t expect to excel everywhere. Find your niche. Some teams and projects will just gel. Others won’t. When you find a culture that fits, you’re more likely to give it your all, be successful, and enjoy the journey.
4. Leadership is about people - and people need trust to perform consistently Chelsea won the league last year and they were unplayable at times. This year – with mostly the same players – they will finish 9th at best. Several factors contributed to their demise, but at the heart of it all was the fact their manager, Jose Mourinho, (who once proclaimed himself ‘the special one’) lost the trust of his players. In one incident early in the season he publicly criticised the team doctor for being too quick to run on the field to treat one of their most valuable and important players. Sceptics say Mourinho was just diverting attention away from a poor on-field performance. Regardless, it didn’t go down well in the dressing room. Many players had formed good relationships with their doctor, to the point some attended her wedding even after she was no longer working for the club. A few months later the team was in disarray and performing terribly. Mourinho – one of the most successful managers in the modern game – was fired less than a year after his team won the league. No matter how good you are or how much success you’ve had - trust matters. In an interview with Harvard Business Review, Gianpeiro Petriglieri, Associate Professor at INSEAD, put it like this: “When you’re in a powerful position, there are lots of ways you can get things done. You can coerce, manipulate, deceive, threat, force. But unless you have the trust of people who are supposed to follow you, you’re not actually leading.”
5. Good leaders know how to manage both themselves, others
Managing one’s own emotions and biases is essential as a leader - it fosters an open mind and the ability to see opportunities where others cannot. It also helps you avoid common mistakes.
Consider this familiar scenario: a new manager comes in to a team and observes the players, usually forming an initial opinion based on ‘intuition’ or just a couple of interactions. From then on, the manager only seems to see things that reinforce their early judgement (in behavioural economics this is called ‘confirmation bias’). If that judgement was negative, the manager will start treating the player differently (usually subconsciously. Often that treatment will actually push the player into more of the behaviour/mindset the manager doesn’t like. Very soon the player is ‘out of form’ and the team has lost a previously valuable asset.
This pattern has been called the ‘set up to fail syndrome’. It is found in relationships in sporting teams, workplaces, families, and social groups the world over. Overcoming it requires managers who are self-aware enough to catch themselves from perpetuating a dynamic for failure and changing the conditions so the other person can thrive.
6. It’s not about you. Leaders are never bigger than the team
From time to time, leaders will get the glory. But most of the time leadership is a slog. It’s tough. And it’s often thankless. Good leaders understand that they are stewards of the resources, time, and talents of those they lead. They are not the ‘top dog’, but rather the one responsible for ensuring everyone else thrives while moving toward a common goal. They make everyone else better. Even if the leader happens to be the smartest or most skilled person in the room (or in the stadium), they are rarely the only smart person in the room. Good leaders know this. They draw on the experience, skills, and ideas of the whole team. This is their true skill. Managers don’t win premier league games, players do.
In the cut-throat world of the premier league, leaders come and go rapidly. This season, 9 premier league managers have been fired or resigned and at least 2 more will change in the off season. Last season it was 11 and the year before that 13. This is out of just 20 teams.
In the world outside of football, our leadership roles may last longer, but none last forever. As another season comes to an end, perhaps it’s a timely moment to consider what we are doing with the leadership roles currently entrusted to us.
Managing one’s own emotions and biases is essential as a leader - it fosters an open mind and the ability to see opportunities where others cannot.
Leicester’s defender Wes Morgan celebrates during a game...The English Premier League has taught us to be better leaders – whether of sporting teams, in workplaces, or even within our families.