ULSB PhD student Rasim Kurdoglu (rsk15) considers just what we can learn from Leicester City’s lack of success this season.
Unlike most industries, managers in team sports are paid less than many of the team players. Sport is an activity in which team players’ performance is directly visible, therefore clearly appreciable. But surely the manager is important too? Most people who work in a Business School would agree that managers have important leadership and decision making roles in any organization. But does that mean that they are magicians, heroic leaders who produce success or failure?
It was fascinating and surprising to see Leicester City Football Club as the champions of 2015-2016. However, the same team’s struggle in the Premier League in 2016-2017 is equally surprising. So, assuming that not that much has changed about the team, the fans, the league, the stadium, then is the success and failure down to management or not?
Let’s look at some academic theory and see what we can learn. The economist Friedrich Hayek asserts that if a game is played fairly then there is nothing wrong with rewarding people for the results they achieve. In that sense, he would see no problem with managers claiming full credit for success and then reaping the financial benefits of it. Therefore, for him, managers could be understood as the creators of success or failure.
The sociologist Max Weber had a different view. He believed that social inequalities lack a rational explanation, are not the result of justified rewards for success. Instead, the successes and failures that we see in society have more to do with luck, or who your parents happen to be. Despite Weber’s common sense, it seems that Hayek’s is the dominant view in our time, particularly amongst the winners.
Turning back to Leicester FC’s success then. Of course we should credit the value of manager Claudio Ranieri’s strategies and tactics, his team line-up, his communication skills and so on. It would be perverse to ignore his contribution, but to say that the manager was responsible for the success would be an incomplete explanation. Even more so since we currently observe a serious decline in his team’s performance, although it has the same management and only a few changes in the team.
Indeed, we only need to listen to Ranieri himself. I have watched his interviews many times. There is a single notion I consistently hear in his explanations, and which reflects his general humility. This notion is ‘spirit’. He regularly talks about the ‘good spirit in the team’. Spirit is a beautiful and a poetic concept, perhaps an invisible element of success which cannot be captured by any single factor. Probably, Ranieri was also struggling to make sense of what was happening as he repeatedly invoked ‘spirit’ like a ‘ghost’ in the team, and which could explain their astonishing success.
What is the ‘spirit’ which gives rise to all the confidence, enthusiasm, courage and ability last season, but which seems so lacking this season?
It seems to me that the ghost in the team is something that couldn’t possibly be reduced to the manager. In 2015-16, the players, the manager, the club’s Thai owners, were in some sort of harmony, combined with luck, that could never be reduced to one factor. If there is a lesson, it is that spirit, harmony, is a complicated prescription for success. Trying to make our lives simple with explanations such as the superiority of a single manager simply doesn’t work.
This isn’t to say that Ranieri didn’t matter. Of course he did. Yet we should not forget that Ranieri is himself a product of the spirit he describes. He was born out of this harmony just as much as he can take some credit from creating it. In that respect, it is neither fair nor accurate to isolate one cause for success. Last season was a culmination of a beautiful collective effort, and both manager and players should be proud to have been a part of it. And the lesson for the Business School? Simply that one should not imagine that a heroic leader with an MBA will guarantee success, because luck and spirit matter just as much.
Thanks to Martin Parker for helping me with this piece.