The Italian’s sacking as manager of Leicester City, only months after he held English football’s most prestigious trophy aloft, appears to call an abrupt halt to the search for management insights from his unexpected success last season.
But it should not. For all the differences between business and sport, business leaders and managers can learn more from this season, which has seen Leicester drift perilously close to relegation from the Premiere League, than from the last, when they won the title.
Lessons to learn
– It’s hard to beat reversion to the mean. Nobody disputed that Leicester’s success in 2015-16 was out of the ordinary. The club was helped by a dash of luck, rivals’ underperformance and the element of surprise. But the effect on the league teams was not as positive as it should have been. It opened a discussion that anybody could win. Better to start with a realistic idea of what is possible, and be ready to grab opportunities for glory when they occur.
– Competitors adapt – so must you. Leicester’s 2015-16 stars faced better-informed rivals this season, who knew how to deal with some of the club’s tactics and were alert to the threat posed by Leicester’s best players. Mr Ranieri, whose cheerful “nothing to lose” approach suited the unexpected success of a year ago, was less appropriate to the “everything to live up to” requirements of the current season. If reports of how he “lost the dressing room” are true, it took more than Mr Ranieri’s ludic “dilly ding, dilly dong” training regime and pizza dinners to manage team members’ inflated expectations.
– Success will not always breed success. In fact, it may be harder to manage a team that has reached a peak – particularly a peak that virtually nobody predicted. Big and renown football clubs in Europe have over time created a culture of success that allows them to maintain momentum. But a flash in the pan is no basis for a long-range strategy. Research into the results of decades of US basketball playoff games has confirmed what is often obvious: that victories sometimes lead to overconfidence and failure, “whereas failure at earlier tasks can motivate individuals toward greater achievement in the future”.
We all share Gary Lineker’s distress at the outcome for Mr Ranieri. Mr Lineker told the BBC that he had “shed a tear” over the manager’s dismissal. The Italian’s sacking does tarnish last season’s silverware. But it was too much to hope that Leicester would repeat their Premier League success. Similarly, it was over-optimistic to assume, once the club’s performance started to flag, that sentiment and loyalty would override Leicester owners’ hard-nosed commercial priorities and safeguard Mr Ranieri’s position. The 65-year-old Italian is wise enough to know about the unforgiving, short-term nature of the modern game. It is not so different from the unsentimental way corporate boards (and particularly private equity owners) sometimes deal with chief executives who are no longer suited to the task.
By exposing flaws, failure often teaches more than success, which glosses over errors. So business schools should now redouble their efforts to enlist Mr Ranieri for a lecture series. Provisional title: “How the laurels of victory contain the seeds of disappointment: my part in Leicester’s rise and fall.”
(adapted from the article in Financial Times 2017)