March 5, 2017

LEE | The Power of Management

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On May 2, 2016, Claudio Ranieri etched his name into sporting history. With his guidance, Leicester City Football Club — a team that had barely escaped relegation the season before — achieved one of the greatest and most miraculous moments in sporting history by overcoming 5000:1 odds to become Premier League Champions. Ranieri was subsequently named the Premier League Manager of the Season at the end of the season, Italian Manager of the Year and FIFA’s Coach of the Year at the end of the calendar year.  Then, things took a turn on February 23, 2017 when Ranieri found himself out of a job less than a year removed from the greatest of triumphs.

Few expected Leicester to maintain their lofty position, yet somehow its fall was almost as steep as their rise. At the time of Ranieri’s termination, defending champions were one point away from the relegation zone, in the midst of a five-game losing streak, and had already been mathematically eliminated from defending their title.  Something had gone horribly wrong and ultimately Leicester’s ownership decided to pin the blame on the manager.

Of course, Ranieri’s dismissal does not necessarily deem him responsible for Leicester’s demise, and there will always be question marks over the decision.  What is known, however, is the role of the players in Ranieri’s sacking. Prior to the decision, senior players had reportedly met with the club’s owners and made their displeasure known. Within a fortnight, Ranieri was gone.

Ranieri is hardly the first to be ousted by the dissent of the players, and he will hardly be the last. His sacking, however, reminds us just how much influence is outside of the manager’s control.

More and more, it is the players that decide what gets done, and this is not strictly a soccer phenomenon. Four-time MVP LeBron James has had well-publicized spats with coaches. In Miami, only Pat Riley’s iron grip of the organization prevented James from having then-rookie head coach Erik Spoelstra from being fired. Upon James’s return to Cleveland, David Blatt quickly found he couldn’t handle the superstar and was fired one-and-a-half years into his tenure. And James is also hardly the only NBA player guilty of this; friction with Dwight Howard caused Stan Van Gundy to lose his coaching job, while Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant had well-documented difficulties.

Player power should not come as a surprise in many respects. Players are the most important part of a sports organization and as the decades have gone by, they have only increased their influence, not just within organizations, but in culture as a whole. In that respect, it may seem only natural that players, and particularly stars, can wield so much influence. But just because something is natural does not make it optimal, and the current setup — with players lording over management — is certainly not optimal. For teams to win consistently, it is important to establish a certain tone in the locker room which unites and focuses the players in pursuit of a common goal.  All this must start with the man at the helm of the operation, the person whose job it is to lead the locker room: the manager.

Just look at the most successful sports organizations in any sport over the past several decades. With Sunday’s win in the league cup, Manchester United has now won more trophies than any other club in England. That this milestone was reached under Jose Mourinho will not fool anyone, as every Manchester fan is aware of who the real mastermind behind their success is. Past success includes the now-retired Sir Alex Ferguson, who won 38 trophies in his 26 year tenure: arguably the most successful managerial spells of all time. It is important to note that Ferguson was given every chance to succeed while at United. Three years into his tenure, Manchester United sat just outside the relegation zone — much like Leicester just a few weeks ago — yet, the board informed him that they had no intention of dismissing him, even when Ferguson quarreled with star players such as the glamourous David Beckham and Roy Keane.

Such stability and faith in management is a hallmark of successful organizations in every sport.  The Patriots have placed faith in Bill Belichick, who is one of two current NFL coaches with general manager responsibilities. The San Antonio Spurs’ Gregg Popovich has been with the organization for over 20 years, delivering five NBA Championships in that timespan. The Showtime Lakers of the 80s had Pat Riley for four of their rings. Michael Jordan won all six of his rings paired with Phil Jackson. No matter what sport you look at, a winning culture matters, and the tone for the locker room is set by its leader: the manager. When players are given disproportionate power over their manager, it can lead to a toxic and divisive culture that fails to win. Kobe’s quarrel with Jackson led to the termination of the latter, and without Jackson the Lakers failed make the playoffs until Jackson returned.

Those that may try to justify Ranieri’s sacking will rightly point at Leicester’s recent results in winning two in a row and now sitting at a much more comfortable five points outside the relegation zone. Yes, perhaps Ranieri was not the right man for the job. And yes, the players are still the most important part of the organization. But in the future, Leicester’s owners should be warned that an environment where a manager is so easily usurped by his players cannot bode well for long term success.

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