From The Locker Room To The Board Room: Lessons On Leadership From Watching The Arsenal Football Club
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I've always been a fan of the beautiful game. While watching football is one of the most entertaining joys for me, I've also always believed that there is management gold to be found in the way great teams of the game conduct themselves on the pitch and off. Being an Arsenal fan, I've felt the ecstasy of thrilling wins, and the pain of crushing defeats.
Watching the last game against Everton, I had a realization: while things were going wrong for the team, they could get worse. The question remained, though: how much worse? Often, business owners see their companies failing, their toplines decreasing, their bottom-line getting cut off entirely, and they ask this same question: can it worsen? Here is my take on business lessons from watching Arsenal slump to their worst record in three decades.
With Arsenal playing Everton, two things were immediately evident: the first being the lack of Arsenal's team ethos, and second, Arteta watching from the stands, recently appointed as Arsenal's new coach. It was evident that the newest member of Arsenal's support staff had his work cut out for him.
If one thing stood out within the game, it was the fact that Arsenal was reminiscent of a team in decline– no specific culture, no strong leadership on the pitch, and a complete lack of direction by having undergone two different coaches in one season, and the third watching their every move.
It's not challenging to liken this timeframe in Arsenal's history to a failing company. When toplines are on the decline, bottom-lines seem challenging to manage, and the team feels rudderless, how can business owners reinvigorate their teams and revitalize the organization a la great football coaches? Here is my take.
1. Culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Here’s something to keep in mind: you can have the best resources, the best approach, and the best people (the best people who help build the culture), and yet still be failing as a team.
Culture, at least in the MENA and APAC regions, is usually created from the top down, but in an organization, it starts at the entry-level. The strongest leaders have an innate ability to build culture and get their team's buy-in.
When Granit Xhaka, captain of Arsenal, was booed off the pitch by fans, it was a clear message that the fans no longer believed in his ability to lead their team. Despite the captain's armband, he lacked the fans' respect for his lackluster performances, and for his inability to charge up an uninspired team.
But when things are bad, great leaders step up, whether they are of the pitch variety, or the corporate kind. They own their failures, and inspire confidence that they have a plan to turn things around.
When they can, it's a result of belief– the team's faith and commitment to making their leader's plan work. A winning culture inspires people. A leader's ability to shake off the gloom of failure and shake up his team creates a shared mentality for all.
Practicing that mentality in the face of defeat establishes a culture of winning. Teams cannot get behind a leader who abandons resilience for an easy out– Aubameyang, Arsenal's current captain, is a classic example. With talks abound of him leaving in the summer, the Arsenal squad can't get behind his vision on the pitch.
Similarly, leaders in organizations set an example– they are the embodiment of the company's culture. When they are defeated, their teams are too. It's often too easy to blame “market conditions” for a company's decline, but when it's an easy answer from a management leader, his team can't see a prosperous future. But when a leader displays resilience, his team has that strong culture to put their faith in– the conviction that it may seem bleak now, but soon we will win.
Aubameyang, Arsenal's current captain, needs to commit to the future, or give the armband to someone who will ensure Arsenal can get back to winning ways. All great leaders have been through a phase where the ship is sinking, but when this happens, the team usually steps in and resolves it, because the leader has built such a winning culture that loss is unacceptable.
2. Good coaches win trophies. Great coaches build legacies.
Arsene Wenger was possibly Arsenal's most influential coach of the century, and yet when he left, there was no succession planning, no specific goals insight, and a talented team with no faith in itself.
Individually, most of the players then and even now could make magic happen on the pitch; however, since then, they have collectively forgotten to believe in themselves. It isn't very different at companies, and we often see that teams deflate after a strong leader has departed.
Succession planning avoids that eventuality. A coach creates processes and fallbacks so that the machine of the organization functions smoothly even when individual cogs are missing– even himself.
A coach, just like a leader, cannot do the work for them, but they are responsible for creating a winning mindset. If you played well and lost, it is acceptable, but losing without giving your 100% is unfathomable.
A good coach will never take credit, just like a good leader always gives credit to his team. A company with a great leader will have employees so riled up tuned in to making things happen that they won't need any micromanagement.
A good coach is usually transparent, working with the team, not over them. It was a shame to see Emery, Arsenal's last coach, during his final days standing alone, while the Arsenal team practiced far away. If a leader is ever distracted from his responsibilities towards his team, it is time to call an emergency meeting.
Business leaders need to draw from this and value their performing assets, protect their investment, and always create an environment of mutual respect up to down the management hierarchy.
3. You are only as strong as your weakest link.
Arsenal had one of the most exciting summer transfer windows, spending big on bringing players that would resolve their team issues. On paper, these players could have changed the game. However, they did not get enough time to practice under their new manager before the start of the league.
Contrary to getting accustomed to the situation, the players were thrown right into the deep end and then blamed for lack of performance. Imagine hiring the best talent and not providing an orientation structure or enough support to bring out the best. Not aligning with KPIs, not aligning on values, or even the skillsets needed to perform, cannot lead to success even if it is a a great team.
Startups especially do not have the luxury of time. There is always the hunger to capitalize on opportunity, while simultaneously putting out the fires of being a new entity. Finding the best talent may seem like the answer, but leaders need to realize it will take time even for the best talent to understand the culture and expectations, and the best solution is for leaders to take the time necessary to cultivate them to become the best they can.
Half the Arsenal team would not get in the first line-up of a champion team. Even though Arsenal bought a handful of strong players over the years, it has been a rocky ride. Sure, they are talented, but is that talent nurtured at every level of the squad– from its academy players to its first team?
Every member of the team needs to rise to occasions, and a great example of this is Bukayo Saka, an 18-year-old who was brought in to the first team to play as a winger and then deployed as a right back. He performed better than some of the Arsenal veterans.
Business leaders should empower their junior staff to be able to perform at the highest level, and this is possible through a structure of the right support, encouragement and the opportunity to play with “the big boys.”
Like some Arsenal players, though, some employees are their own worst enemy and are unchangeable. These are the organization's weakest link. The best teams know who their opponents' weakest links are, while remembering that teams are only as strong as their weakest link.
The same goes for business owners– would you rehire your weakest link? Would it bother you if they left? If the answer is no, then you need to take decisive action, and let them go. All you need is for your strongest players to see that mediocrity is acceptable, and you lose the winning attitude even from your best.
Over to you, Arteta.