Much of the sporting world had never heard of Leicester City until a few months ago. The name itself is difficult to fathom for Americans—just say “Lester”—all you need to know is the English Premier League soccer side from the East Midlands were 5,000-1 shots to win the title. That makes their victory, confirmed at the weekend, one of the greatest outside winning bets across all sports history. Having only just avoided relegation the previous season, now everyone, even the New York Times, is talking about them.
They, claimed the Premier League title, with two matches left in the season, beating down more storied clubs like Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea. How, in a sport where the big clubs have dominated for decades, is this possible? And what lessons can we learn from their success?
The Secret of Leicester’s Success
The story starts in the 2014/2015 season, with the club at the bottom of the Premier League and threatened with relegation to the lower divisions. Somehow, manager Nigel Pearson turned around a Won 4, Drawn 7, Lost 18 side into a team that won seven games out of its last nine to escape the drop. Even after the most impressive escape in many decades, the manager was sacked in the summer and replaced by Italian Claudio Ranieri.
The team spirit built around that year of adversity brought them firing into the new season. Ranieri kept the core of that side and made some subtle tactical adjustments. He moved striker Jamie Vardy into a central role, gave more game time to rising star midfielder Riyad Mahrez and strengthened his defense, with more bite to the game and pressure from all players when the team lost the ball.
The results were electrifying with three wins and two drawn games in the early season going, but key to their title run was consistently beating all the big-name sides around them, except for their first defeat of the season, a 5-2 loss to Arsenal. Ranieri is nick-named “The Tinkerer”—he resists making major changes to his team and has stayed consistent with his planning and execution, something that sets apart any winning team, using only 23 players all season.
The blue machine, nicknamed The Foxes, has rolled through the season, grinding out results when needed (four one-nil victories in a row left fans with barely a fingernail between them), while blasting opponents off the pitch when given the chance. This attitude plus some rival wobbles, which saw traditional title contenders Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City all get off to poor starts, opened a gap for the team, but they have worked every week to earn their place at the top.
This Is How We Do It
There are five key takeaways that any business can learn from Leicester’s success. If you’re still befuddled by the team concept, just think if the Cleveland Browns won the Super Bowl, or a Canadian team took home the Stanley Cup next season:
1. Have a billionaire bankroller behind the scenes. Every Premier League club and most U.S. sports teams have one; this does not make Leicester special. However, Thailand’s travel magnate and owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha helped the club stabilize after years of drifting between relegation battles and lower leagues. If you don’t have one, count every single cent, and get a dollars’ worth of value from each penny. While The Foxes had the backing their team was built a string of bargain players from lower leagues and countries. By ignoring the high wages and primadonna demands of some of football’s top talent, a true team has been formed.
2. Build on the momentum. Even in the offseason after their great escape, Leicester looked forward to the new season and hit the ground running, building on their success and the opportunity afforded them. By only looking forward and never back, they maintained success and winning became a habit. When anything gains momentum, be it an idea, a project or a team, that can be all it takes to build something wonderful.
3. Don’t be afraid to change, but be rational. Endless companies or projects are forced to pivot, to change direction. But there has to be a reason beyond change for change’s sake. Everything Ranieri does revolves around fine tuning and getting the best from his players. Whoever is on your team, look for their true strengths and leverage them to maximum effect.
4. Be a good boss. Despite their high Premier League salaries, Ranieri buys his team pizza when they keep a clean sheet (shutout). He shakes the hand of every press member during interviews, he is impeccably polite in victory and defeat. Basically, he is not an ass. If you’re an ass as a boss, no one will respect you no matter how right you may be. He is also a master of player and team psychology, keeping Leicester a united unit while other teams have had star players diva treatment and cliques dividing the locker room.
5. Americans like soccer. And if you think all true Americans hate soccer, here’s Tom Hanks with a message for Aston Villa fans, one of this season’s relegated clubs! If you want a big bet next season, look at AFC Bournemouth, the smallest club ever to reach the Premier League. Their first season in the big leagues saw them play with a similar attacking style, beating Manchester United and Chelsea in consecutive games to secure a solid mid-table position. If they can improve their defensive ranks next term, who knows how high they could fly.