Why do we coach? Why do we lead? What inspires us to take on the challenge of being the talisman of any group? Dave Wright determines what it means to be a leader by examining the 2016 LMA and Premier League Manager of the Year, Claudio Ranieri.
Whatever your context, whether it’s in the office, on the training pitch, leading a group of U8s or taking your Leicester City team on a magical mystery tour to Premier League glory, leadership is an art form that takes strength of character, adaptability and shrewdness. It’s not for everyone, but as coaches, we are in positions of leadership whether we like it or not.
When we reflect on the flawed, extrinsically focussed systems within which we operate in football, it’s interesting to note that more often than not, a top-flight coach is referred to as ‘The Manager’. In Stephen Covey’s excellent book The 8th Habit, which focuses on finding your own voice and helping others find theirs, he states, “People cannot be managed. Things can be managed, inventory, systems, equipment, but people cannot be managed, rather they need to be led and inspired.” When I read this it struck a chord with me straight away. There is nothing inspiring about systems and structure, but it could be argued it’s required to bring order to an organisation. What can be inspiring is how that order is brought about, who owns it, what it means to people, how every individual involved interprets it and what story that culture is telling.
The Claudio Ranieri story has become one of the most written about in recent sporting times – and for good reason. The man has led his team of football misfits to arguably the greatest sporting underdog story in history. Many football fans will talk of Nottingham Forest’s conquests under the legendary Brian Clough in the 1970s (and rightly so) but in the current climate, I believe The Foxes’ achievements usurp what Clough managed to do with his players both domestically and in Europe. The reason, because in 2016 we live in an era where to the game’s detriment it has been fundamentally corrupted by money, driven by profit and ego and where huge finances have been seen to be the only way to success. Leicester have turned the football world upside down and their success could be the trigger which redefines the modern football paradigm.
Ranieri has built something that is so prevalent at his club that despite it being intangible and immeasurable, his players exude it. Self-belief, confidence, harmony, culture and togetherness appear to be the dominant factors in their organisation. These Leicester players are a band of brothers, in the trenches together and of course at Jamie Vardy’s parties together! They are willing to put their bodies on the line, sacrifice for the team and, from the outside looking in, they seem to have removed their own egos from the collective goal.
If I reflect on why I coach, I look at Ranieri as the definition of what I feel is the magic of coaching and indeed, leadership. We all watch sports movies where Denzel Washington leads a team of young men to glory, Rocky Balboa overcomes all the odds to win the heavyweight title or Mark Wahlberg trains in the rain and snow to make it in the NFL. Despite the obvious cliché, we love these movies because they make you believe that anything is possible – it’s Hollywood. However, Ranieri has brought that romantic notion that anything is possible in the wonderful world of sport, to life.
In a recent interview on Sky Sports, Kasper Schmeichel revealed that in week one of his tenure at Leicester, Ranieri introduced himself to the players upon his arrival and proceeded to sit back and observe for over a week. He changed nothing, observed what attributes his players had, kept a lot of the previous regime on board (as they knew the club, the players and the culture) and said very little. This decision is not rocket science, but it’s perhaps a shrewd move which demonstrates experience, confidence and composure. As coaches, if we remove our ego from a session or a season, this can be scary; we have to be prepared to make mistakes, embrace chaos and get things wrong without fear. In going in quietly, Ranieri gave himself a chance to breathe, time to observe and importantly for his players, illustrated that his arrival was not about him.
Of course, it’s well documented that at the start of the season, Leicester were scoring plenty of goals, beating top teams but were vulnerable at the back – something which seems strange now they have won the Premier League and their defence has been hailed as watertight. However, it wasn’t always smooth sailing, so Ranieri – in a fairly old school mentality – dangled the carrot of free pizza for his team if they kept a clean sheet. It’s highly unlikely that the carrot and stick incentive was the only catalyst for their defensive turnaround; in fact, Stephen Covey would argue that this extrinsic motivation would be detrimental in a psychological sense. However, if Ranieri wasn’t just dangling the carrot (let’s face it, these Premier League players can afford a pizza if they want one), he was in fact challenging the group and saying in one mozzarella metaphor that he believed his team had the defensive ability but they needed to show it. Of course it was revealed that Ranieri didn’t buy the players pizza in the end, he took them to make their own, sending the message that they had to earn everything. History now tells us that they showed the football world just how well they could defend. As Kasper Schmeichel said in that same interview, “My back four unashamedly defend. They take pride in putting the ball into the stands and stopping the opposition.”
So what can we learn from the man now known as ‘The Thinker Man’ or in some Leicester fan circles, ‘The Godfather’. I believe Ranieri has shown us that no matter how many possession purists or modern tactical thinkers are in the game at present, the soft skills and subtleties that make leadership and developing culture such an art form are so much more valuable. We all have our beliefs on how the game should be played, whether it’s in the style of Mourinho or Guardiola, Klopp or Simeone, but the lessons we can take from this quirky Italian hero seem to be:
- Know your players
- Adapt to your environment
- Show unwavering support, care and belief in your players
- Be subtle in your tactical adjustments
- Create a culture of autonomy
- Demonstrate self awareness, know your own strengths and weaknesses
- Work hard
- Enjoy the moment
With only a few weeks to reflect and celebrate before the pre-season for the 2016-17 Premier League commences, Ranieri now has perhaps the biggest challenge of his coaching career ahead of him. Will his eclectic mix of players stay loyal to the cause? So often they have spoken of the relationships within the squad, but if the clubs with unlimited riches come in and start waving the cheque books will their resolve be tested? Ranieri has already stated in the media that he only wants players who want to stay and conversely will only bring in players who buy in to the fighting mentality of the team. Of course the fight is now different, they are defenders of the title, all eyes are on them and they can no longer sell the true underdog mentality. With the managerial merry-go-round under way and the transfer window approaching, we will watch with interest as to whether the culture and values that Leicester have built will remain intact and be reflected in their performance going forward.
The challenge now for Ranieri personally, will be whether he can in fact be a coaching chameleon. Can he adapt and adjust? Will he be able to finely tune his squad and his own approach to ensure this monumental success is not just a once in a football-lifetime miracle but the foundation for a strong Leicester legacy.
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