Handling Success as a Leader – Lessons from Claudio Ranieri’s Dismissal

A mural of Claudio Ranieri in Leicester, England Photograph: Chris Radburn

I am a football fan, and this week the world of football received one of the most shocking news in a long time. What was the news all about? Claudio Ranieri, the Italian coach that led Leicester City Football Club to be crowned Premier League Champions in England last season in what was football’s greatest fairy tale come true, had been sacked just about 9 months after delivering the trophy. I was left speechless and so were many other people.

Now, we are not aware of all the background issues that led to the sacking of Ranieri, but the key one is the fact that current results are poor and if not careful, the club is headed to relegation to a lower division, as such the club’s board took the difficult decision to sack the coach (the leader), as replacing the club’s players would not be a viable option. From a romantic’s point of view, this looks very unfair and unkind to a man that achieved such a great feat in the history of the club. From a business point of view, the board was left with no choice than to try and salvage what’s left of the season before all is lost. Whichever side was right or wrong, there are many leadership lessons to learn from this incidence and I will quickly share three of them:

1. Leadership success is not a destination but a journey

Though what happened in Ranieri’s situation looks new, this is actually not the first time a coach was sacked few months after tasting success – Mourinho, Ancelloti and Del Bosque have all been sacked few months after being successful. The first lesson to learn from Ranieri’s situation is that success is not a destination, it is an ongoing journey. As a leader, never get to a state where you feel you have “arrived”. Success in leadership is almost like you have to keep running in order to stand still, stop running and you regress. When Ranieri won the FIFA coach of the year award for 2016, the next question would have been where do I go from here? We have the likes of Lionel Messi and Christano Ronaldo who have consistently shared the gong for the best players among them for many years running, but these two guys keep running, they remain hungry in order to win more. Once that hunger and drive stops, the journey fizzles. As much as Ranieri’s situation is unfortunate, it is also important to know that it is all part of his leadership journey. Depending on how he handles this, he could come back stronger or never again be able to attain to the heights he achieved last year.  We might not be happy with Leicester’s board decision but old success counts for so little in a game  in a game where “current results” and feelings seem to be everything.

  2. Managing success is more difficult than achieving it

In the case of Leicester and Ranieri, beating the odds and surprising the whole world with their exploits meant they attract a greater weight of expectations. The team started the season as defending champions and everyone was interested in how they would fare. Every team Leicester plays each week suddenly becomes aware that their match is against the defending champions. Also, more attention get paid to what made them successful last time out, and teams generally prepared better in order to beat “the champions”. This generally meant that Leicester needed to do more to remain successful. Also, as a champion, more distractions abounded. You get called up for more interviews, more TV appearances, more sponsorship deals and generally more things to handle. The team had to play more matches than last season, travel for international cup competitions, and generally had more to handle than they had previously been prepared for. Success has glory but it also has weight. He that is down needs fear no fall, when you fall in obscurity no one sees you, but when you are in the spotlight a fall becomes more costly. As such a leader needs to anticipate all these and prepare himself and his team to effective handle their new success terrain in order to avoid failure.

3. Success achieved as a team must be sustained as a team

Every great team success takes great team effort. While the spotlight might be on the leader and few individuals, it should be remembered that success will not be maintained in isolation. There is a need to keep the strong bond between the team and manage the “big egos” as much as possible. In the case of Leicester, because of last season’s success, naturally some few individuals were rewarded. For example, some players got new contracts with bigger wages and members of the team were given BMWs. However, these actions caused divisions in the team. With the review of the contracts and weekly wages of some of the players, other members of the team felt that they also deserved better wages. Long-serving backroom staff were not given any BMWs (and possibly nothing like a close substitute), and as such felt underappreciated. All these left cracks in the team’s unity. While the cracks might not be apparent on the surface, benignly the sum of positive emotions and efforts applied by the team dropped, and this eventually shows in on-field performances and results. When a leader achieves success, managing his team becomes even more important. Watch out for actions that might lead to disgruntlement. Carry everyone along as much as possible, understanding that the contribution of even the least member has a bearing on the success of your team. Once the team’s bond is broken, it is a matter of time before the weakness of the team reveals itself in poor performance.

I am a romantic, and I strongly feel sad for Ranieri, but after recovering from my initial shock it became more of a battle between the head and the heart, between feelings and objectivity, I will leave you to decide just as I had to, which one wins in the long run.

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