Learning leadership from Leicester City

leicester-city-v-doncaster-rovers-sky-bet-championship-487946415-5728bc783a801Leicester City’s triumph in the Premier League has been hailed as a miracle; even “the most unlikely sporting triumph ever”. On the surface, it appears as though manager Claudio Ranieri is as surprised as anyone at how it turned out. In an interview yesterday he was quizzed on the secret of his success:

Interviewer: “What has been the reason for Leicester’s success this season?”

Ranieri: “I don’t know, ummm, to play with the heart and the soul.”

Well, there you go! No grand strategy, no thoughts at the beginning of the season that they might do it. Just playing “with the heart and the soul,” it seems, can sometimes take you a long way.

And yet, as I have read the accounts of Leicester’s win, some important things have stood out – and which resonate with authentic Christian leadership.

1. Look to the unlikely

One of the notable things about Leicester’s line-up has been the presence of players that other clubs passed over or positively rejected. The most high-profile has been the prolific goal-scorer Jamie Vardy. Vardy was dropped from the Sheffield Wednesday youth programme at 16 and had to play for non-league Stocksbridge Park Steels while working part-time as a medical technician. For some of that time he had to be substituted in the second half in order to fulfill a probation order following a conviction for assault.

Riyad Mahrez, who has been a key coordinator in the team, was reckoned by most observers to be too small to play professional football. He learnt his game not in any youth academy, but playing on the streets in his hometown of Sarcelles in France.

It is fascinating to compare this with the unlikely crowd that Jesus selected for his apostles. Unlikely profiles, unpromising beginnings, and mistakes along the way didn’t exclude them from being in Jesus’ top team.

2. Gifting matters more than ego

Football is notorious for being a game for individuals with big egos, often contrasted with rugby which puts a priority on team commitment. Leicester has spent less than one seventh of the amount on players’ wages that Chelsea has, yet it is Chelsea that has struggled while Leicester has come out on top – in part because expensive players come with big egos as well as big bills. Leicester has a well-developed scouting system which works hard to spot talent that others have passed over.

It is fascinating to see in the gospels how Jesus spots potential that others have not seen. Could a fisherman in Galilee have imagined that, in a few shorts years, he would be preaching to the pilgrim crowds in Jerusalem? Could a zealous Pharisee imagine that he would one day change the course of history?

3. Build relationships

Ranieri has been unusual in being informal and accessible as a manager, investing in time spent with the team both on and off the pitch. Instead of coming in and changing everything to his way of doing things, he has been happy to trust those who know what they are doing, and build a sense of mutual respect and responsibility.

Jesus worked with the Jewish model of rabbinical training where disciples not only listened to their master’s teaching, but observed all aspects of his life and conduct. It is a form of leading which puts relationships at the heart.

4. Have fun

When Ranieri realised that the team needed to improve their defence, he (being Italian) promised them that the next time they kept a clean sheet he would take them all out for pizza. He was true to his word – but instead of buying pizza, they went to a restaurant where they could all make their own pizzas together before eating them. It became known as ‘the pizza moment’ and signaled the turning point in the team’s fortunes.

The one thing Jesus’ opponents accused him of consistently was having too much fun – “this man eats and drinks with sinners!” It is clear from the gospels that Jesus loved life and so drew people into his company. And church growth research shows that healthy, growing churches are consistently places where people laugh and have fun together.

5. Attend to the needs of individuals, not just the task and the team

During interviews as Leicester were heading for the title, one player made a poignant comment: “It was my birthday, and Claudio remembered. You don’t find many managers who do that.” It might be a sad indictment of management techniques – but attention to the individual made all the difference.

Time after time in the gospel narratives, we see Jesus attending to the needs of an individual. The crowd might be pressing around, the disciples urging him on, the needy all clamouring for attention – yet Jesus finds time to stop and focus on the needs of the one person before him.

6. Keep the first thing the first thing

Ranieri quickly spotted the key things Leicester needed to attend to and focused on those. Rather than get into too much detail, he consistently pointed to the key issue – in their case, keeping the ball out of their own net.

Jesus demonstrated his own focus on what God was calling him to do, “setting his face to Jerusalem”, Luke tells us. And he invites us to “Seek first the kingdom of God – all the other things will take care of themselves.” Churches that grow are ones that focus on a few things and do them well.

7. Rest

Ranieri tore up the rule book when it came to working his players. “My boys are training a lot, but not too many times. In England the game is always high intensity and wipes people out. They need more time to recover. We play on Saturdays and then Sunday is free for everyone.”

Jesus invited those who are “weary and heavy laden” to come to him for rest. Milton Jones jokes that people are afraid of church like they are afraid of helicopters: “They worry about being caught up in the rotas.” Can we recover the idea that church is not about joining this team or that team, about every-member exhaustion, but instead about finding rest?

This piece was first published in Christian Today on 4th May 2016.

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