In my view, sport is amazing. It brings out the best, and sometime the worst in people. It has heroes and villains, inspires the soul and breaks the heart. It’s also an amazing canvas for us all to observe team work and leadership. There are legendary stories of leadership, camaraderie, team work and culture. The focus of this blog is on a recent event, one that would have passed most by outside of the UK, but to a council estate kid and Luton Town supporter like myself, had me on the edge of my seat, fascinating from both a sporting achievement and a leadership and team perspective.
I’m from the UK, and as some of you will know I’m an avid football fan, (soccer for our Australian/ US readers). I always wanted to be David Beckham, even before there was a David Beckham! When I first came to Australia and people picked up on my accent, I was always asked, “Who do you follow in the English Premiere league?”. My response has always been the same, “I don’t follow any team in the Premiership”, to which people always assume I don’t like football. I don’t like football, I love football, and my team is Luton Town, The Hatters. Luton is not a household name for most outside of the UK. It has an international airport, which for those old enough was also the name of a 1979 hit by Cats U.K. reaching number 22 in the charts. Luton Town was the first club in southern England to turn professional, paying players as early as 1890 and joined the Football League in 1897. We’re a small club and have never been ‘wealthy’. Real money came into the game in England, when the Premier League kicked off in the 1992-93 season, and replaced the old First Division. Sadly, in the1991-92 season Luton were relegated from the first division missing out on the Premiership, and in the 30 years since, we have never come even close to getting back to the dizzy heights of the Premiership. That was until a few weeks ago!
This past season Luton Town, against all odds, made it to the play-offs in the Championship League, to have the chance of making it to the Premiership. Twelve years ago, Luton had slipped so far down the leagues that they were relegated to non-professional football in the Conference league. On top of all of this, Luton has had no money, at all. And when I say no money, in football terms they had nothing. As highlighted below, their squad this season cost £1.5million, in comparison to Fulham who won the league and spent £158 million.
Football, like all team sports, is about leadership and inspiring teams to believe in the strategy, all pulling together in the same direction to achieve a goal. Football can be very expensive to build a team of quality players, but history shows that some of the most expensive football teams in the world still don’t succeed, no matter how much they spend. The key then is about great leadership, a leader that inspires the whole team, on and off the field. You get that right and you have a fighting chance to achieve the impossible.
So how did Luton Town do it? Well it starts with great leadership. Luton had a Board that believed in a Manager, Nathan Jones, and backed his every move. He built a team that he believed in, and in turn they believed in him, his abilities and his passion and vision for the team and the club.
Striker Harry Cornick, who joined back in 2017, when Luton were down in the second division, said he believed in the vision that Luton would be in the Championship as soon as he joined. He told Luton Today “I really believed it, the manager, you buy into him, he’s an infectious, character, what he says you believe as he buys into it so much. When you see how much he believes in himself you believe him and credit to him.” When building that type of trust you have to use the leadership mirror the right way. When things go wrong, great leaders look in the mirror and reflect on their actions, when things go right they look outward away from the mirror to their team and give praise and support. Poor leaders do exactly the opposite.
Building the team had to be done through retaining the best talent and good recruitment, both on and off the field. Jones says they recruited the right people for success over the past few years. This can be linked back to the wise words of Jim Collins in his book Good to Great, about the importance of getting the right people in the right seats on the ‘bus’. Without the big money, Luton, by their own admission lack ‘superstars’, but that has meant that the team have come together to become the “superstar’ collectively. Jones also had a belief in himself, to back himself in his decisions, tactics and vision to achieve great things. Many leaders suffer from imposter syndrome and doubt can creep to make the role a very lonely spot. It’s very important to back yourself, especially when results may not be going your way short term, it’s important to believe in the process and strategy you’ve laid down.
When major change is needed, bold leadership is key.
Jones also had to change the culture. Sometimes physical prompts are great to trigger a reaction, drive a behaviour and help cultural change. I’ve written previously about physical prompts as I use them frequently when leading teams, read my blog “How Lego and Hug Can Drive Behaviour”.
Jones told the BBC “When I came in, I felt some of the players were more concerned about being good on the table tennis table than they were about being professional footballers.”
Jones said, “There was a big table tennis culture, so I thought I can either cajole them and try and get them into the gym, or i can burn the table tennis table. It was far easier to burn the table tennis table.” So they did, they broke it up as a team, and had a burning ceremony. It worked. For the record they have a new pool table and games room.
It’s well documented that bold actions from leaders can set the right path and create the cultural shift required for success. Getting individuals to become a cohesive team is key to achieve positive results. Getting the teams buy-in is imperative and there is a “tipping point” in getting the team on board. Until the tipping point hits, the leader can be seen to be a “lone nut”. The key to the tipping point is getting the first followers on board. These followers give validation to the leaders actions and they move them from being the lone nut to starting to create a movement. This great video, an old one but a goody, demonstrates this theory perfectly.
Nathan Jones went on to win Manager of the Season in the Championship for his leadership of a team that had no right to make the playoffs for the Premiership. Testament to the power of bold leadership and the power of team.
So to summarise the Power of Team and what I believe it takes to get amazing results:
- Bold leadership, be brave and prepared be the Lone Nut.
- Set clear vision, strategy and goals.
- Set strong values that are lived and reinforced.
- Recruit and retain the right people, but make sure they’re in the right seats.
- Build trust and excitement about the strategy and goals.
- Use the leadership mirror the right way and look at the team when successful and look in the mirror when results aren’t going the right way.
- As a leader, back yourself, but don’t be afraid to adapt the strategy.
- Use physical prompts to help drive change and culture.
- Build a culture of Growth Mindset and belief.
In business as in sport, success comes from the unity and drive of a group of people, all pulling in the same direction to achieve a clear goal and vision. It’s not about the individual, it’s about the power of team.
About The Author:
Mark Bray is a Director, Mentor and Business Coach with over 35 years’ experience working in the property and construction industry in the UK, US and Australia.
Marks passion, (His Why), is to inspire people and teams to be better than they believe they can be. Through true leadership, questioning the status quo and as a committed mentor, Mark strives to bring positive change and results to everything he tackles.