Leadership Lessons From A Football Team Who Overcame 5,000-to-1 Odds

Whatever a team's previous track record, success in both sport and business comes down to three critical things.

If you asked a fan of the Leicester City Football Club at the beginning of the 2015-16 season, what the odds of winning the Premier League were, you would have been laughed at.

In fact, the odds for the team to win the league that season were 5,000 to 1.

For full disclosure, despite calling England home for over 20 years, I am a Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) fan. However, my ‘real’ team would not work for this story as PSG is now France’s most successful club (bragging a bit, was not always the case) and usually the odds on favorite to win Ligue 1.

Getting back to Leicester, the club defied expectations in what history will remember as one of the biggest long-shot championships of all time, and the team will be forever known as the ‘Unbelievables.’

When describing the impressive feat, BBC said, “Leicester’s closest challengers, Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal, Totenham and last year’s champions Chelsea, have all failed to match their consistency across the season.” Another outlet when talking about what made Leicester successful quoted the team’s “defensive solidarity.” Players were often praised for their work ethic and togetherness which was apparent throughout the team according to coaches and media outlets that covered the season.

I’ve always been drawn to examples of overcoming odds in sport as it provides many valuable leadership lessons that translate directly into business. At a bookshop, I would equally consider picking up a business book or a sport biography especially around great coaches like Sir Alex Freguson.

This is not just because sport is something I enjoy, but because it has always played an important part in my life. At the age of four I started playing tennis and even wanted to pursue it professionally at one point, but I gave it up to become an engineer instead, a bit more boring I know. Now as Group CEO of BAI Communications, I draw on the several important lessons that I’ve taken with me throughout my career and that have shaped me as a leader.

I believe success in both sport and business comes down to three critical things: knowing how to get the best out of the people around you, empowering others and leading with trust, and understanding the importance of evaluating strategy.

Getting the best out of your team

Two of the reasons Leicester was successful was its consistency and togetherness. Great teams operate best when they operate as one collective unit. Organizations shouldn’t place all their bets on the success of a handful of individuals, but should rather create a great ‘system’ as Leicester did—the team focused on its ‘defensive solidarity’ to come together to stop opposing teams. Looking at the stats, the team only scored 1.7 goals per game, but impressively allowed fewer than one goal from the opposing team. Leicester knew that to win they couldn’t simply focus on offense against more talented teams, but rather they need to focus on playing more cohesively and consistently on defense. Although this is not the type of football I enjoy, being able to know your strengths, who who you are (and who you are not) and build a strategy on it is crucial to success in sports and business.

By relying too heavily on the talents of a few, the rest of your teams’ performance can begin to lax as people become complacent and too reliant on others to pick up the slack or drive the organization forward. On the other hand, some may feel that their contribution is not being valued if all the attention is focused on a few individuals.

Organizations should also focus on developing the whole team and for me that means knowing how to get the most out of people. This starts with understanding people on a deeper level. I like to ask questions such as: What are my teams good at? What is their preferred working style? Is there anything we need to change in the way we interact and work together? What are their passions in and outside the workplace? I do this because I believe that only by having an acute understanding of what drives the people I manage, I can forge connections that lead to strong teams and cultures.

Empowering others and leading with trust

Leceister didn’t have the star-studded roster like others in its league, but the team felt empowered to win and a coach who lead with trust. I believe one of the most important responsibilities a leader has is to trust and support the people around them to make their own decisions. Empowering people with the tools required for success can help create more decisive and daring leaders. Coaches trust their teams to perform under pressure and put into practice what they spend hours mastering in training sessions. If there is no trust, teams are bound to fail.

I fell into leadership almost by accident, early on in my career with French telecommunications company Bouygues Telecom. As one of the company’s first employees, I gained managerial responsibilities quite quickly and soon realized I loved managing people. Being given the opportunity to lead others and manage a team at the start of my career taught me the importance of trusting people’s capabilities.

It has served me well in my current job, as well. Leading a global organization through the pandemic has come with its challenges. Being new to the role, there were and still are leaders I have not met in person due to COVID-19, yet we have been able to thrive because of trust. If it weren’t for the trust I had in my team, and they in me, our success wouldn’t be possible. Whether it’s been announcing major partnerships such as our work with Transport for London, or acquiring and integrating new businesses like we did with Mobilitie, trust and resilience has been at the centre.

The importance of evaluating strategy

Famous automaker Henry Ford said that, “The competitor to be feared is one who never bothers about you at all, but goes on making his own business better all the time.” While this has been my experience in business, the same has been true in sport.

Athletes and coaches are masters in strategy—they must be if they want to be successful. Owners and coaches constantly revaluate and adjust the team’s strategy. A tennis player or football team must be capable of doing this on the fly, during a match, and often without the input from the coach. If something is not working they waste no time rectifying the situation.

With the pace and demands placed upon business leaders today, making time to regularly evaluate your business strategy can easily fall to the wayside. At times strategy evaluation can be a difficult task and force you to make some tough decisions, like taking a new direction or abandoning projects. But, if leaders applied the same degree of evaluation to their strategy that coaches do, problems could be avoided more easily, solutions developed more quickly, and new opportunities identified ahead of competitors.

When you take a closer look, there are many similarities between sport and business. Both require passion, perseverance and discipline to be successful. Both need great leaders that empower, inspire and challenge their teams to do better and reach their full potential. And in both, a group of committed people with diverse talents and shared goals can come together to accomplish bigger things than they ever could alone—no matter how great the odds.