When the pressure is off and expectations are managed, underachievers with potential flourish.
Last month we witnessed one of the biggest upsets in global sporting history.
Leicester City, a club that last came close to winning the top division title in English football in 1929, began the season with many experts expecting it to be relegated from the 20-member Premier League. Before the season started, the odds of Leicester winning the title were 5000 to 1.
Ranieri was seen to be leading a team of ‘no hopers’. His focus and top priority for the team and fans was simple and realistic—to save the team from relegation.
Leicester’s apparent destruction of the prevailing economic theory of football—that you get what you pay for—delighted Leicester’s fans and sympathizers. For the past 20 years just four wealthy clubs have won the English Premier League title: Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, and Arsenal. The massive influx of cash from mainly foreign billionaires has reduced European club football to a mathematical formula. Teams with the highly-paid, high-performing players and the ‘best’ coaches generally become champions.
To a great extent, this upset can be attributed to Claudio Ranieri’s positive, pragmatic and tactically astute leadership style which is perfect for underachieving high potentials.
In reality, he was leading some established players of whom some had won league titles in their own countries. Nevertheless, he treated everyone as an individual and rated them on their own merits. Yet, when asked to compare the players, he refused and stressed every player is different and no one should be put under undue pressure. For him, team unity and cohesiveness was paramount. His mantra was simple, “Enjoy yourselves and try to do your best”.
He emphasised the need to respect opponents; “In defeat we shake the hands of the other team and congratulate them”. He encouraged his team to “do something special,” to continue to dream but to focus on working hard and having fun. Every match was treated as a final.
All players and staff put their heart and soul into his project. After they had won the title, he graciously thanked everyone who had made it possible. When asked about the future, he pointed out that they have to start from the beginning again and explained he is happy for players to leave if they wish as he does not want unhappy people on his team.
Fit is essential. New players will be welcomed if they are prepared to accept the ethos of the team.
Ranieri, in an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera, afterwards observed, “In an era when money counts for everything, I think we give hope to everybody”. In fact, he has demonstrated that underachieving high potential individuals can flourish when they are treated as individuals, given realistic expectations, support, and a compelling leadership story.
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