5 Leadership Lessons from the World’s Leading Football Managers

Football management is a pressurised leadership role – creating strategies to win against different competition, adapting tactics in real time, and galvanising individuals to work together to deliver results. There are parallels with the challenges faced by business leaders in an equally competitive environment, so what learnings can we apply from the approach of the world’s top football managers to the world of business? Here are 5 leadership lessons to put into practice:

1 - Inspire commitment to a meaningful purpose  

Too many purpose statements are laminated not lived[1]. Leaders can only inspire commitment and action behind a common purpose if it’s rooted in what your customers, your people and you as a leader personally believe in and care about.  

Pep Guardiola created arguably the finest club side of all time at FC Barcelona but when he took over in 2008, the team seemed to be on the wane. At a famous first meeting on a tour of Scotland, Guardiola set out his purpose for the club – total football played with style, intensity and possession of the ball - this is what he cared about, what the players aspired to, and what the fans demanded. As Guardiola said “The style comes dictated by the history of this club and we will be faithful to it”.[2]

If you’re a challenger brand, there is also great inspiration in Diego Simeone’s achievements at Athletico Madrid. Simeone has brought his own fierce competitiveness to galvanise players and fans in their role as underdogs willing to battle for every last inch to topple the established giants of Barcelona and Real Madrid.

2 - Create strategic agility 

Given the disruptive external environment, businesses must constantly adjust and adapt their strategies based on future trends and learnings from the present. This requires leaders to develop strong foresight, be prepared for every situation, and flexible to adapt to evolving situations.    

Over the course of his career, Jose Mourinho has proven himself to be a master tactician in this regard. A lot of this is built on his meticulous preparation for all possible scenarios and ensuring every scenario has its own game plan if needed. After beating PSG in a Champions League quarter final in 2014, captain John Terry revealed ‘we worked on a lot of scenarios, 1-0, 2-0, 3-1, what we would do if Demba Ba comes on. Every scenario has a game plan”[3]. Similarly, when he was suspended for an away game at Stoke in 2015, Mourinho is reported to have provided his backroom team with over 1,000 scenarios so they could adapt to every situation in the moment.[4]

3 - Deal with failure openly to learn and move on

Embracing failure has become a call to action for our age - be courageous and make mistakes to ultimately succeed. Absolutely right but it only works in practice if as a leader you deal with failure openly, use the learnings to benefit the team as a whole and help everyone commit to moving on.

Jurgen Klopp, the manager of Liverpool is a great exponent of this leadership approach. He gives his players the confidence to express themselves through attacking football and deals with failure in a way that enables his team to move forward with renewed energy. An example of this was after the Europa League Cup Semi Final, when Liverpool had just lost the first leg to Villareal to a late goal caused by a defensive error by his full back. In the post match interview, Klopp dealt with the failure head on –  it was the only big mistake they had made in the game and they must all learn not to switch off, he wanted his team to get angry and shout about it for 10 mins and move on, it was only the first leg and they have to come to Anfield. Liverpool won the second leg 3-0.[5]

4 - Nurture a winning mindset as much as skills

In today’s ambiguous world, nurturing people with the right mindset (e.g. resilience, curiosity, resourcefulness) is as important as developing their functional skills.

Sir Alex Ferguson was a leader who placed great importance on developing the character and mindset of his players. Ferguson tested his players to see how they responded to criticism, and whether they displayed a ‘growth mindset’[6] focused on self- improvement. He instilled a ‘never say die’ mentality to keep going in the face of adversity, leading to numerous late winners in so called ‘Fergie time’. He was also not afraid to move star players on who still had the technical skills, but had in his eyes, lost the “Manchester United mentality” – no individual was ever bigger than the team.  

5 - Cultivate a playful culture

Finally, leaders need to actively cultivate a culture of playfulness, which alleviates pressure from the team and gives individuals the freedom to be creative and experiment with new possibilities. 

Claudio Ranieri guided Leicester City to the English Premiership title through a relaxed management style that put the players at ease and enabled them to express themselves. For example, when they kept conceding goals, he promised to buy them pizzas for every clean sheet. He also used his famous imaginary bell (“dilly ding dilly dong”) to keep his team focused and energised in training sessions.[7]

All these top football managers make leadership a daily practice, working hard every day to improve their leadership capabilities and achieve long term success. In business, individuals and organisations must apply this same focus, constantly growing and evolving their leadership capabilities to sustain success in a competitive arena. Put into practice the leadership lessons here and continue your progress to being a leader at the very top of your game.

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[1] Brand Learning research 2016

[2] Pep Guardiola: Another Way of Winning, Guillem Balague, 2012

[3] Daily Telegraph, April 2014

[4] Daily Mail, October 2015

[5] BT Sport post-match interview

[6] Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck, 2006

[7] The Economist ‘What do the Foxes say’, May 2016