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The Leadership That Turned Around the U.K.'s Underdog Soccer Team

Liverpool hasn't won a championship since 1990. Thanks to the moves one leader has made, that may change very soon.

A whole host of factors contribute to sustained high performance, but confidence is perhaps the most underrated among them. Confidence can overcome many setbacks. A great example of a leader who has confidentally and successfully managed a turnaround in a highly competitive industry is Brendan Rodgers, the manager of Liverpool, the English football (soccer) club. (And if you dislike sports stories applied to business, stay with this--what Rodgers is doing in applicable in any leadership setting.)

When Rodgers began his tenure in 2012, the club had not challenged for the championship since 1990. In his first season, Liverpool finished a disappointing seventh. With six games to play in his second season, the team is now in first place. This is a dramatic improvement that Rodgers has accomplished by focusing on four fundamentals.

Rodgers articulated a vision.

Rodgers started improving the team by articulating a clear vision of how and what he wanted to change, and how each part of the organization contributed to the whole.  

The lesson: Change takes time and must start with a compelling vision of where you want to go; and the vision must be supported by an understanding of what steps everyone takes next. You must have an enticing and accurate vision, or the team will not know where it is going or why.

Rodgers demonstrated the correct expertise.

Rodgers' approach was one of calm self-belief. He observed and deliberated before making large changes; he began a pattern of planning and adjusting that was evident behind the scenes and during games; and he enabled staff members and players to assume full responsibility for their roles, allowing leadership to flourish at several levels.

The lesson: A leader must first, and always, know the purpose and scope of his or her own role--not infringe on someone else's or engage in easier tasks. Don't micro-manage by looking beyond the natural limits of your role; expect this same discipline of others. If you can empower people by delegating, it is more likely that others will, too.

Rodgers got to know his players.

Rodgers got to know his players individually in order to maximize their talents, ambitions, and best fit on the team. By building personal connections, Rodgers created the opportunity to closely observe the team dynamics, communicate the hard truths (positive and negative), and enlist the support of the players for the continual process of adjusting strategy and tactics.

The lesson: A leader must know as much as possible about the key people responsible for doing  the work at hand. You must know your people as individuals, and they must all know each other, if you expect them to form and maintain the shape of a team that trusts itself.

Rodgers built trust.

The core of the leadership relationship is trust. Everything Rogers did helped build this trust: demonstrating the leadership expertise, respecting his players while building strong bonds, and embodying the commitment to the shared purpose that he expects of the entire organization. Trust is the currency Liverpool exchanges daily, and this is the foundation of the team's confidence.

The lesson: Your people need to believe in each other before you can elevate them from a group of talented individuals into a team. And first, they need to trust you as their leader.

Steven Gerrard, the team's much-respected captain, was recently quoted praising his manager, "He makes you go out on the pitch feeling a million dollars with confidence and belief."

By focusing on trust, Rodgers has set in motion a team that may win a Championship this season, and a transformation that will pay dividends to the organization for years to come. 

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IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: Apr 2, 2014

BRIAN EVJE | Columnist | Management Consultant, Slalom Consulting

Brian Evje helps people and organizations lead change and growth. This involves a process consultation approach to leadership (coaching and development), change (organization and culture), and organizational health (strategy, design, effectiveness, and fitness.) Brian is a Principal of Equipoise Alliance, an organizational consultancy, a Member of The Change Leaders, and an Executive-in-Residence at Astia, a global not-for-profit propelling women's full participation as entrepreneurs and leaders in high-growth businesses. He is a graduate of Santa Clara University, and the Master's program Consulting and Coaching for Change at HEC School of Management, Paris/Saïd Business School, University of Oxford.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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