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Winning And Losing With Culture

What leaders can learn from English football clubs.

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The Premier League has broken the record for the number of managers sacked by their respective clubs in a season. That record can be attributed to the collapsed cultures of those football clubs.

Culture is the daily working environment the players find themselves in. It’s what they are a part of.

Whether it ends up being a competitive advantage over their rivals depends entirely on what sort of culture it is.

On display: the successful versus lackluster football cultures in England.

To be successful in football, teams must live up to the values of their clubs, develop concrete behaviours and commit to the purpose. When in training, or standing in front of the press, every player must be able to answer the question: “why do you play for that football badge?”

The impact of culture on players has priceless benefits: humility, hard work, and putting the team first (to name a few).


Yet the ability to recognize, change, and impose culture relies entirely on how the Head Coach provides clear direction under pressure.

If the coach does not have authentic leadership, hone cultural architects in his squad, or remind the players of the “why” — they might as well let themselves out the door.


The 5 cultural environments in football:


The Star Model (Chelsea FC)

After two transfer windows, Chelsea have spent a whopping £550 million on players alone this season.

This fits a certain vision that Todd Boehly, the co-owner, wants the best of the best. Influenced from the Real Madrid era of dominance, a decade earlier, Boehly planned to create a star-studded team full of the future’s brightest players.

This generated enormous excitement over the summer, even though football critics labeled the recruiting as “chaotic”.

This vision was the team’s downfall.

At the height of Real Madrid’s supremacy, everyone could name the starting eleven. At Chelsea, the Head Coach could barely stick to a single team sheet.

Having just taken a U-turn in 7 months, the lack of leadership and absence of cultural architects in the team leaves Chelsea in its worst season since 1928/1929.


Autocracy (Tottenham FC)

Although autocracy is supposed to make winning easy, it is far from that at Tottenham Hotspurs.

As another team that has sacked its manager this season, with no clear successor, Tottenham are clearly bogged down in their owner, Daniel Levy’s, autocratic culture.

Levy controls the team’s identity as much as the purse in the transfer market. He wants Tottenham to play with an identity; one that is yet to stick.

With a trophyless history for the last 15 years, the culture at the club is fading into complacency — the worst situation to be in.

The last manager to depart, Antonio Conte, called out the culture at the club to be the worst he has seen in his career.

Conte imposes a winning culture wherever he goes but could not transform Tottenham. It is clear the lack of financial support from the owner and the complacency of the players broke Conte’s big picture.


Engineering (Arsenal FC)

On a positive note, one theme associated with Arsenal this season is work ethic. Head Coach Mikel Arteta has his young players relentlessly and frantically running all over the pitch.

Though their football may first seem chaotic with players swarming the opposition from kick-off, it is actually a highly controlled strategy. The players, who are super-fit and well-versed in the theory of the game, chase down every ball.

Rather than relying on moments of talent, their engineered teamwork leaves them top of the league.

Proved by the club’s recent history, this winning culture has definitely been imposed by Arteta, who is a cultural architect himself as one of the club’s legends.

His dedication to Arsenal’s purpose is seen when he and the players celebrate every goal as if it was the first.


Bureaucracy (Southampton FC)

Known for developing players from a young age and selling them on to bigger clubs is Southampton.

However, a club which has produced brilliant talent over the last decade finds itself at the bottom of the league with a new manager in the hot seat.

Following a business model in football is not out of the ordinary, but it cannot be confused with a winning one.

The business model buys players to sell them for a greater profit, while the winning model looks for the best players to integrate into the team to win.

It was apparent that previous manager Ralf Hasenhüttl tried to transform the club into a winning culture, working hard with the academy talent to integrate them into his future first team.

But the confusion between business and winning cultures became apparent when the team stagnated in form and failed to win a string of games.

Running out of time in such a demanding industry, Hasenhüttl did not impose his culture fast enough.


Commitment (Manchester City)

Finally, one of the only teams to showcase commitment to a winning culture is Manchester City who have won the league 4 times in the last 5 years.

Head Coach Pep Guardiola has taken winning culture to another level, echoing the successes of his mentor Johan Cruyff (one of the football legends).

Guardiola demands total commitment to what he calls “total football”.

He imposes the values of the club from the very first training session and gives the players clear behavioural direction on the pitch as well as off the pitch.

Players cannot turn up late for training, drive luxury cars to the club, and must leave their egos at the door.

He has imprinted his style of football on the Premier League. Fans will hope that his legacy and influence will last long after his reign.


Final thoughts: a good leader imposes culture, but the best leader creates a winning culture that thrives under pressure.


This article was inspired by the following book: The Barcelona Way, written by Damian Hughes. 

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