Football is a team game played with eagerness and passion, based on simple philosophies and physicality, running fast, tackling hard, moving from one end of the pitch to the other end quickly, using simple, direct, forward passes and then, crossing, shooting and heading whenever you are anywhere near the opposition goal. It’s simplicity, like any team game, is in that success is based on unity, collective purpose and strong leadership of the team.
These are the best of times at Burnley FC, Champions of The Football League, 2015/16. A 23 game unbeaten run – half a season – has seen an unfashionable, unheralded team playing football with a streak of independence that is invigorating for the people of the town who can be forgiven for wondering whether it can ever get any better. The team create a sense of identity for the town, civic pride renewed, everyone is a Claret.
Turf Moor has been the home of the team since 1883, the oldest, longest continually used ground for a professional football team in the world. The theme of football and geographic identity can seem sentimental, overblown, but it’s real at Burnley. However, despite the new football economy, Burnley is still a traditional working-class sort of atmosphere, and the crowd feels like it’s got a bit older.
The players were out in the town on Sunday evening, larking around, pulling pints behind the bars and buying drinks for fans, a conspicuous, intimate and visible sign of success and connection in a town smaller than Bournemouth. However, whilst a football club can be an emblem for an area, it can’t be its principal economic driver and the idea of a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ would be laughable if it wasn’t so patronising.
Amid the rush to over-complicate football, words such as respect, work ethic, discipline, pride and passion sometimes seem quaint, but they are tenets of the leadership philosophy of manager Sean Dyche, and key ingredients in extracting the honest toil he expects from his players, without which the importance placed on sports science would not mean so much.
Manager Dyche believes their togetherness and group mentality has played a massive part in their ability to gain promotion. Dyche is methodical in his trade, articulate and intelligent in his analysis and communication, respectful to the opposition and has an enthusiasm for research with a learner’s mentality – a powerful combination for an effective manager leading a high-performance team.
Endeavour is as entrenched at Burnley as ego is absent. Speak to what is largely a British core of players and they will tell you they have not encountered a dressing room like it. The impact on the dressing room of players such as goalkeeper and captain Tom Heaton, midfielder David Jones and centre-half Michael Keane, all of whom came through the ranks at Manchester United under the watchful eye of Sir Alex Ferguson, has been contagious.
Teams are more successful in pressure environments when they capitalise on their strengths and capabilities, and focus on building a sense of community, teamship if you like. By understanding how teams form and harness the talents, skills and abilities of each team member, building trust through open and honest communication, we can gain insight and create a framework for high performing teams.
As Burnley faced the run in of final games that defined the season, neck-to-neck and point-to-point with rivals, there was a calmness and confidence to the team going about their business, a sustained rhythm that all high-performing teams have. Dyche described it as ‘having a strong jaw’.
You could see the degree of focus, awareness and assurance that individuals had, performing in the knowledge that colleagues were equally on top of their game, as despite having four players in the Championship PFA team of the year – Heaton, Keane, Barton and Gray – the PFA player of the year – success was about team rather than individual performance.
So casting an eye over Dyche’s leadership style, and observing his Burnley team shaped in his own persona, personality and guile, what are the attributes of high-performing teams, in terms of their consistency of attaining and sustaining high performance levels and results, we can see in his team?
I believe there are three key attributes:
- Team Processes
- Mind-set and self-belief
There was always clearly visible communication between the team on the pitch, and leadership off it, during games. Heaton, captain and goalkeeper was vociferous and organised in front of him with clarity and rigour, Dyche always directing the team with positive and calm instruction, whilst engaged with his management team on the touchline throughout the game.
I admire the work by Alex Pentland, director of MIT’s Human Dynamics Lab, whose research into team communication found that there are patterns of communication between great teams:
- Communicate frequently In a typical team a dozen or so communication exchanges per working hour may turn out to be optimum; but more or less than that and team performance can decline.
- Talk and listen in equal measure, equally among members Lower performing teams have dominant members, teams within teams, and members who talk or listen but don’t do both.
- Engage in frequent informal communication The best teams spend about half their time communicating outside of formal meetings or as asides during team meetings, increasing opportunities for informal communication tends to increase team performance.
- Explore for ideas and information outside the group The best teams periodically connect with many different outside sources and bring what they learn back to the team.
Team selection and structure, organisation and discipline were outstanding attributes of the winning Burnley team – fewest yellow cards, no red cards, and eight players made 40+ appearances in a 46 game season. So what are best practices for effective teams that we can see in the Burnley team?
Here are ten themes from Best Practices in Team Leadership by Kevin Stagl, Eduardo Salas, and C. Shawn Burke.
Define and create interdependencies. There is a need to define and structure team members’ roles. Everyone has their position to play, and success happens when all of the players are playing their roles effectively.
Establish goals. Teams need to be focused on shared goals and outcomes. Commitment to that goal is essential for success. Team goals should allow both the team as a unit and the individual members to achieve both personal and group goals.
Determine how teams will make decisions. Whether the leader makes the decision, or it is a democratic or consensus process, the team needs to understand beforehand how decisions will be made. This reduces conflict within the team when a decision or choice has to be made.
Provide clear and constant feedback. Teams need to know how they are doing in order to stay motivated and to correct performance problems or inefficiencies. Ideally, a system should be in place so that team members receive on-going feedback.
Keep team membership stable. It takes a lot of time for team members to learn to work together at an optimum level. In sports, there is a relationship between how long team members have played together and their winning record.
Allow team members to challenge the status quo. It is critical that team members feel secure in being able to challenge processes if they feel that there is a way to improve. In order to innovate, teams need to be open to considering and constructively criticising existing practices when needed.
Learn how to identify and attract talent. Just as processes sometimes need improvement, teams can get better by attracting new talent. Organisations that put a lot of resources into identifying and recruiting talent simply do better.
Use team-based reward systems. Too much emphasis on individual rewards can lead to in-fighting and resentment. A combination of individual and team-based rewards is often best.
Create a learning environment. Emphasise the development of the team, learning through successes, but particularly through mistakes. A team with a culture of continuous improvement and where members are motivated to develop their skills and knowledge are high-performing teams.
Focus on the collective mission. Mission-driven teams perform better because they see beyond their individual workload and tasks and feel as if they are working for a higher purpose. It is imperative that team members be committed to the shared mission, or they should be replaced.
Success is most often achieved by those who don’t know that failure is inevitable. Believe you can and you’re halfway there, as the saying goes. The worst enemy to Burnley on the field would have been their own self-doubt.
So what gave Burnley this self-starter attitude and self-belief, what was their framework for his mental toughness and inner confidence?
Belief in self: First and foremost, every player has to believe in their abilities and strengths. They believed they could make great things happen. I’ve never met a successful person with low self-esteem. Self-belief is vital, how many things have you not done or tried because you lacked belief in yourself? As Eleanor Roosevelt so deftly put it: Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.
Belief in beating the odds: To be successful, we have to be open minded, with no sense of what you cannot do. But, bit-by-bit, life starts to teach you to limit yourself. There is no second-guessing. As they say, those who say they can and those that say they can’t are both right. If you don’t believe you can beat the odds – chances are you won’t.
Belief to deal with the inner negative voice: When you start to doubt yourself listen for a moment to that negative inner voice. Whose voice is it really? It’s often a collection of lots of different voices from different times and people from your past that causes self-belief to wane. One thing’s for sure, that inner self-critical voice shouldn’t be yours. It may masquerade as belonging to you now, but it doesn’t really. One of the first steps is to re-examine and discard many of the limiting ideas you have about yourself, ideas that you’ve somehow collected along the way. Get rid of the baggage!
Belief in flipping a weakness into strength: Dumbo, my favourite cartoon character, was humiliated by his outsize ears. He hated them at first. But, through time, he came to use them, to fulfil his destiny, even changing his attitude. Like Dumbo, if we just focus on what is not right about ourselves rather than what is, then we miss opportunities for self-belief. Focusing on perceived weaknesses without either taking steps to improve them or also giving fair focus toward our strengths gets us nowhere. Know that the positive flipside of a weakness, in the right context, can be put to good use.
Belief in perseverance: This is a big attribute of successful people down the years. The obstacles that cause many to quit are minor setbacks for the true champion – relegation in 2015 was a key motivation. Winners persist, losers desist. It is often that simple difference in self-belief that separates the successful person from the frustrated failure.
Belief in the vision: For Dyche, his vision was bigger than just the winning. It was a vision of being part of a champion team. It was never about his personal success, but being part of a collective team. His self-belief got him into the role, his self-belief helped him be part of a winning team.
Life has a unique perspective. Along the way, various landing pages, trials and tribulations will offer themselves up. It’s self-belief that determines your direction and ultimately success – its not how often you’re knocked over but how many times you get up that makes the difference.
Whilst modern football can be disillusioning for supporters, this squad played like they were all born and raised in Burnley. The communication, team processes and dynamics, and self-belief were palpable underpinnings of their success. So was their strong jaw when it mattered most.
We must all hang together assuredly or we shall all hang separately, said Benjamin Franklin. For many organisations, developing highly successful teams can be a tricky task. Simply putting talented individuals together does not always deliver the best results. In an increasingly competitive world high performing teams is critical to success.