Leicester City Football Club’s astonishing ascent to the summit of the English Premier League this season is one of the greatest sports stories of recent times. A club that barely avoided the ignominy of relegation last year punched considerably above its weight, in terms of both expectations and resources, to record one of the greatest underdog triumphs ever.
But is this merely a sporting fairy tale?
The Leicester City saga opens a reservoir of inspiration for several human-interest endeavours above and beyond soccer, perhaps none more so than the entrepreneurial journey. The team, affectionately called “The Foxes” by fans, truly provides some insightful lessons into what it takes to rule the modern-day jungle called the business world. Here are but a few.
Last year, Leicester City FC was on the brink of oblivion. Faced with the prospect of relegation, often lying at the bottom of the Premier League table, the club was fighting for its life. Going down to the lower leagues often spells doom for most clubs. It is incredibly hard making it back to the Premier League. But the Foxes fought and survived, and is perhaps now the living embodiment of that adage, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Startup journeys are the relegation battles of the corporate world. Not every idea makes it; many fall by the wayside. But these ‘trials by fire’ experiences truly make the organisation more resilient. They induce a learning process within the organisational matrix, even if not all of it is formalised. This is why often successful entrepreneurs reflect back on those ‘breaking point’ moments with fondness, saying with a tear in their eye, “We never thought that we would actually make it at that instant.” Usually it was precisely because of such moments that they eventually did.
Leicester City’s entire squad was assembled at a cost that most of the big clubs spend on a single player. This was largely due to a lot of their players being discarded by other clubs and some others being unknown quantities. Even their manager, Claudio Ranieri, with all his rich experience, had never won a league championship, although he had come close a few times. These ‘failures’ were perhaps pivotal to the Foxes’ championship run – both in terms of players wanting to show those who mocked them that they were wrong, plus the manager knowing full well what makes the difference between finishing second and reaching the top.
Frequently, the only thing that gets attention during the hiring process is success stories. But success is sometimes a deceptive indicator. It often glosses over chance factors that played a role. It tends to place disproportionate credit on the ‘winner’. Failure though is another story. For the introspective mind, it offers a wealth of wisdom as to where one went wrong. And that knowledge is an invaluable resource. Startup management teams often focus on resumes with achievements on the page. But perhaps, it is in giving an audience to those who have experienced downfalls that some of the greatest ascents can be made.
It is a time when new ideas are going around the world of soccer. Complex strategies like ‘tiki taka’ and ‘gegenpressing’ are flying around, almost making it an expectation for managers to bring something new to the table. But Ranieri returned his team’s game to the wonderful simplicity of the basics. Leicester City was all about defending with their lives and nicking a goal on the break. In today’s ever-complicated game, this clarity in vision helped players to understand unequivocally the need of the hour and direct all efforts towards that.
New-age startups tend to get distracted by the paraphernalia surrounding the entrepreneurial journey. From creating a compelling narrative and designing a workspace that makes a clear statement, to getting active on social media and having interactions that seem mandated by the industry – all of these are doubtlessly vital tasks. What is more important is to get the basic value proposition fully operational, perhaps much before any of these things happen. Getting the basics right often sounds boringly clichéd in these times of management jargon. But fail to do that and one’s team will simply never get onto the score sheet.
Significant in Leicester City’s title charge, especially when it seemed impossible, was the wonderful manner in which the manager, Ranieri, kept an almost ‘Buddha like’ focus on the immediate present. The first target was to get beyond 40 points and avoid relegation. After that, it was simply a case of taking one game at a time. They were never looking to win the championship, just the next game. Look where that attitude took them!
Long-term vision and planning are absolutely crucial to the success of any venture. But at the early stages, there is also great merit in living in the immediate present. Sometimes the imperative is to first stay afloat and, after managing that, swim towards more promising shores. These short-term perspectives often sew together the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that make for grand businesses. Having daily, weekly, and sometimes even hourly milestones can help to steer the business towards the port of success. After which, every goal seems attainable.
Most of the Foxes were cast in old-fashioned mould – hard work, uncompromising endeavour, and sweat-of-the-brow were all central traits in how they functioned. But there was one who was a little different. The twinkle-toed magic quotient that Riyadh Mahrez provided often proved to be the ‘X’ factor in winning close games. It was thus no small wonder that his fellow professionals named him Player of the Year.
Welcoming the offbeat influence always has its positives. For one, it brings diverse perspectives that are often the fountainhead of creativity. In the present ultra-competitive times, it is this trait of being able to synthesise various inputs into something novel that frequently provides the organisation with a differentiated edge. There is always merit in bringing on board someone who is a little different from the rest. She might just have the ability of sprinkling some fairy dust on otherwise ‘run of the mill’ projects.
Finally, the manner in which the old fox, Claudio Ranieri, conducted himself across the entire season is a lesson in itself. In an era where post-match interviews with managers often sound like spoilt brats broadcasting their complaints to global audiences, Ranieri’s missives were truly a breath of fresh air. Always underplayed and humble, never making an issue of controversial refereeing decisions and ever pleasant. He brought a charm and grace to the managerial position that had gone AWOL for quite a while.
Even if it is a fiercely competitive world out there, a rivalry can always be conducted with class. While it is easier to grab the headlines by making not so flattering comments about others, the world always appreciates somebody who has the poise and confidence to keep the conversation ‘clean’, no matter what the odds and provocations. So while there is a ‘winner take all’ business game on, there is perhaps never a need to indulge in foul play.
Beyond the above, several other lessons might surface as the mind begins to look for connections.
In conclusion, Leicester City FC has given everyone an example to cherish. They have shown us that success is not about having a wealth of resources at one’s disposal. It’s about self-belief, desire and the willingness to work extremely hard. It’s about the confidence of foxes to enter the domain of lions, knowing they have the guile to play any contest on their own terms.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)