Legs, hearts & minds: lessons for startups from sporting comebacks

Comebacks are possible. In fact, they happen all the time, but if you have had a major setback, it may seem dauntingly impossible. Life is full of stumbles, no matter who you are – financial problems, health issues, a relationship breakdown – they hit us all. The challenge is how you overcome a setback. How do you dig in and hit back?

It’s the same for a startup. Circumstances and events may have conspired to force you into a number of cul-de-sacs on product development, customers may have backed out of a deal, cashflow could be spiralling downwards, whilst recruiting new folks into your team may be proving troublesome.

Of course, we all love those great sporting comebacks when a team or individual looks down-and-out on the ropes, the scoreboard showing the game is over yet somehow they claw their way back to win with the odds stacked against them. And what a week we’ve had for this!

Spurs and Liverpool, both at some point 0-3 down on aggregate in their second leg Champions League matches, came back to win. The results weren’t tactical, they were just pure heart, it was just giving it everything to try and get to a Champions League final, and both achieved that with winning goals in the 79th and 96th minutes.

It was nothing short of extraordinary. Amid all the euphoria, with its capacity to surprise and conjure up barely conceivable storylines, sometimes football can be thrown back to the basics – legs – the physicality – hearts and minds – the winning mentality. ‘Legs, hearts and minds’ is the club motto of my team, Burnley FC, and it resonates with the passion on and off the pitch.

Beside the Liverpool and Spurs games in the last week, what’s your favourite sporting comeback? Many will cite the cricket in 1981, when Australia were on the verge of going 2-0 up against England in the Test series inside four days at Headingley. Then Ian Botham strode to the crease. His swashbuckling innings of 149 made the Aussies bat again and Bob Willis ripped through the tourists with 8-43 to seal a remarkable 18-run win. England became just the second team to win a Test after following-on.

Memorable and with global attention, but for me, a local rugby game is the greatest sporting comeback of all time I’ve witnessed, and helped shape my thinking on startup recovery lessons.

Rossendale RUFC are based in Rawtenstall, just up the road from the market, with a club house and pitches nestling in the scenic hillside, with stunning views looking down the valley to Manchester. On March 4, 2017 the Rossendale First XV staged a memorable fightback from a 0-28 points deficit against Kendal, to win a National League 3 North game.

Rossendale came from a seemingly irrecoverable position to earn a dramatic win. Curtis Strong crossed over the line in time added on to make the final score 31-28 and win the match after being 26-28 down in a frenetic stoppage time.

Rossendale started slowly to say the least, going in at half-time with a 0-21 deficit, and it seemed all hope was lost when Kendal scored their fourth try of the game shortly after the break. However, Fraser Lyndsay scored Rossendale’s first try and his first of two in the final half hour giving his side a ray of hope. Alex Isherwood, Nick Flynn and Curtis Strong added three more tries, as well as three out of five conversions from Steve Nutt, ensured victory was snatched from certain defeat.

At 0-28 down, generally speaking there’s no coming back. But the belief in the team and never say die attitude, once they scored, kick-started the most remarkable sporting comeback I’ve ever seen. It was an 18-man effort with the substitutes; there was no one player who made the win, it was all of them, together.

Comeback stories like this, and last week’s barnstorming performances from Liverpool and Spurs, are inspiring and cause us to believe there is hope for our own situation in the face of adversity. There are some impressive business comebacks in the past twenty years to take inspiration from too.

Look no further than Apple, which foundered in the late 1990s before Steve Jobs resurrected it to become the most valuable company in the world. In my estimation, Apple’s triumph is the number one business comeback of the last two decades.

Marvel, founded in 1939, is another great bounce-back story. As the home of Spider Man, Captain America, and other iconic characters, Marvel had long been the comic-book world’s biggest player. But in the mid-1990s the comics market crashed, Marvel went broke, and there was no superhero to stave off bankruptcy.

But after restructuring to focus on movies rather than paper and ink, today, Iron Man, the Avengers and X-Men are all billion-dollar franchises, and the company’s master plan to connect many of its characters in a single cinematic universe has turned it into one of pop culture’s most powerful brands.

Entrepreneurs choose the life of challenge and hardship, gambling for achievement, but also inevitably encountering times marked by confusion, chaos and disappointment seen by Apple. The entrepreneur consciously chooses a life in which they are likely to have higher highs and lower lows, in which the peaks and troughs are more vivid than if safer choices made.

Entrepreneurs jump on the roller coaster ride where the tracks haven’t yet been fully built. They’d have it no other way, happy going round blind corners and crazy inclines. A good part of it is fighting the urge to revert back to their comfort zone. Having to pick themselves up from setbacks, dust themselves off and go again, is an accepted part of the journey.

Ryan Holiday, in his book The Obstacle Is The Way, drawing lessons from philosophy and history, shows how to be prepared for knockbacks and be bold and mentally able to handle the pressure of running a startup. Here are some quotes from his book, which I think say a lot about building your mindset to make those stunning comebacks.

Where the head goes, the body follows. Perception precedes action. Right action follows the right perspective. When something happens, you decide what it means. Is it the end? Or the time for a new start? Is it the worst thing that has ever happened to you? Or is it just a setback? You have the decision to choose how you perceive every situation in life.

I can’t afford to panic. Some things make us emotional, but you have to practice to keep your emotions in check and balanced. In every situation, no matter how bad it is, keep calm and try to find a solution. Sometimes the best solution is walking away. Entrepreneurs find it hard to say no, but that can be the best solution at times.

No one is asking you to look at the world through rose-coloured glasses. See the world for what it is. Not what you want it to be or what it should be. Hey, we’re back to being realistic – but it’s also about optimism, the mindset to expect the best outcome from every situation – and that’s resilience to make it happen. This gives entrepreneurs the capacity to pivot from a failing tactic, and implement actions to increase comeback success.

If you want momentum, you’ll have to create it yourself by getting up and getting started. If you want anything from life, you have to start moving towards it. Only action will bring you closer. Start now, not tomorrow. Maintain active optimism, observing how others were successful in similar situations, and believing you can do the same. Equally, it’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.

It’s okay to be discouraged. It’s not okay to quit. Entrepreneurial life is competitive. When you think life is hard know that it’s supposed to be hard. If you get discouraged, try another angle until you succeed. Every attempt brings you one step closer. Don’t have a victim’s mindset. Learn that tenacity is self-sustaining. Great entrepreneurs become tenaciously defiant when told they cannot succeed. Then they get it done.

We must be willing to roll the dice and lose. Be prepared for none of it to work. We get disappointed too quickly. The main cause? We often expect things will turn out fine, we have too high expectations. No one can guarantee your success so why not expect to lose? You try with all your effort, it doesn’t work out, you accept it, and move on. Understand that any decision is usually better than no decision.

The path of least resistance is a terrible teacher. Don’t shy away from difficulty. Nurture yourself: gain strength from the unrealistic achievements of others. Surround yourself with high achievers. Avoid toxic people like the plague. To be remarkable, you have to expect unreasonable things of yourself.

Manager Jürgen Klopp puts the incredible Liverpool comeback down to ‘mentality of giants’, waves of red fury and reckless effort ending in joyous bedlam, an effort of will that, frankly, took the breath away. On a rapturous night Liverpool’s chasing narrowed the deficit, then burst into the most extravagant life as a 1-0 half-time lead against Barcelona became two, then three, then four.

In a startup, when you overcome one obstacle, another one waits in the shadows. Entrepreneurial life is a process of overcoming obstacles, one after the other. The obstacle becomes the way so you might as well enjoy it. For startups, there are many comeback lessons from the remarkable sporting and business turnarounds outlined above.

Hardship prepares ordinary people for an extraordinary effort. Standing over the precipice, the first step to getting somewhere different is to decide that you are not going to stay where you are, and go all in.

I liken it to pushing yourself to the ‘tremor of truth’ moment of giving your maximum in physical exercise when you push yourself to the edge. You grimace as a tremor of unease shoots through your body. Your arm muscles quiver during push-ups; your legs tremble with exhaustion running those yards.

Your brain says you can’t do it. But you get a second wind, persevere, and discover unknown mental and physical reserves. And just before giving up, you push through the challenge. ‘Tremor of truth’ builds muscles on the physical plane and a growth mindset on the psychological plane.

So look at the memorable turnarounds in sport last week in terms of resilience, mental toughness, self-belief and handling pressure in the moment. The path to entrepreneurial success is forged via breakthroughs, small steps and iterations, each possible because you have your eyes and ears wide open and you’re able to reflect and adjust time after time, with the resilient mindset to keep going.

Resilience is the virtue that enables entrepreneurs to move through hardship, set backs and achieve success. No one escapes heartache, uncertainty and disappointment, yet from these setbacks comes wisdom, if we have the virtue of resilience.

Many misunderstand what’s at work in comebacks. For me, it’s not about ‘bouncing back’, rather its about the ability to integrate harsh experiences into your entrepreneurial thinking, learn and apply the lessons, and then be motivated to go again, and expecting to go one better. The real glory is being knocked to your knees and then coming back stronger, legs, hearts and minds. That’s the essence of it.

Team success : mind-set, communication and having a strong jaw

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:

  • Communication
  • 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 Processes

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.

High performance teams have a mentality to succeed

Burnley and Bolton dished up a fierce Lancashire derby on Saturday in their Sky Bet Championship league match, the Clarets edging it 2-1 and this morning stand proudly at the top of the league. A large, noisy following of 4,500 Clarets supporters filled up the top and bottom two tiers of the away end at Bolton, providing a quite raucous cacophony of sound.

Twelve games to go in the race to the Premiership, and the Clarets are relentless in their pursuit of a second promotion in three seasons. With a league record of Pl34 W18 D11 L5, Burnley has sustained a place in the Championship’s top five since September. It’s a tight knit squad, Burnley have used the least number of players in the division with only 20 starting league games.

Manager Sean Dyche believes their togetherness and group mentality will play a massive part in their ability to continue to compete for 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.

Examples of high performing teams are pervasive. From surgical teams to Cirque du Soleil to emergency rescue teams, these teams showcase their accomplishments, insights, and enthusiasm and are a persuasive testament to the power of teamwork. The excel because team members apply a strong combination of diverse skill sets and experiences to their work, agree on common goals and expectations, communicate clearly, foster an environment of trust, and take individual ownership in the success

Teams are more successful in pressure environments when they capitalise on the team’s strengths, interests and capabilities and focus on building a sense of community, a teamship if you like. By understanding how teams form and become dysfunctional, harnessing the talents, skills and abilities of each team member and building trust through open and honest communication, we can gain insight and create a framework for high performing teams.

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?

There is clear unity of purpose Make the team’s purposes clear, and articulate the team’s performance goals. There should be free discussion of the objectives until members can commit themselves to them, ensuring the objectives are meaningful to each team member.

Clarify each person’s role in achieving the common purpose Define each person’s role in terms of its contribution to the team’s overall goals. This must be done in specific terms, not in vague generalities.

The group is self-conscious about its own operation The group has taken time to explicitly discuss group process – how the group will function to achieve its objectives. The group has a clear, explicit, and mutually agreed-upon approach on mechanics, norms, expectations, rules, etc. Frequently, it will stop to examine and reflect how well it is doing.

Alignment It goes without saying that trust, respect and camaraderie are underpinning essentials for a high-performing team to sustain a high level of performance. The team values cooperation, coherence and interdependence when the team has a common mission and purpose, and as Jim Collins states, Getting the “right people on the right seats on the bus” is more important than planning “where the bus should go” An army without a goal is just a bunch of violent men.

Each individual carries themself Meeting or exceeding the expectations of other team members, each individual is respectful of the mechanics of the group – arriving on time, coming prepared, completing agreed upon tasks on time, etc. When action is taken, clears assignments are made (who-what-when) and willingly accepted and completed by each group member.

The atmosphere tends to be informal, comfortable, relaxed There are no obvious tensions, it’s a working atmosphere in which people are involved and interested. People are free in expressing their feelings as well as their ideas. There is a lot of discussion in which virtually everyone participates but it remains pertinent to the purpose of the group. Team members listen to each other, every idea is given a hearing. People are not afraid by putting forth a different idea, even if it seems extreme.

Criticism is frequent, frank and relatively comfortable Criticism has a constructive flavour, oriented toward removing an obstacle that faces the group. However, those who disagree with the general agreement of the group do not keep their opposition private and let an apparent consensus mask their disagreement. The group does not accept a simple majority as a proper basis for action.

Acknowledge success, and reward the team as a whole Celebrate the team achieving important milestones. Acknowledgments of incremental successes can be more motivating than big end-of-project rewards. Keep in mind that the team review can never take the place of individual performance reviews.

Acknowledge success, and reward everyone individually, including a review of his or her teamwork As members of a team, the expectations and criteria for individual performance include showing a spirit of cooperation, engaging in good communication with others, and being willing to help others solve problems or get through crunch times. If feasible, encourage all team members to provide meaningful feedback to one another. Be sure to give each team member specific feedback about his or her strengths and any unique role that the person served on the team rather than just focusing on problems or performance gaps.

Pay attention to conflicts when they arise It’s natural for conflict to arise when people work together with intensity. Conflict, handled well, can produce constructive ideas. Sometimes team members will annoy each other, step on each other’s toes, or hurt each other’s feelings. Honest disagreements can become personal and heated. Let problems come to the surface and avoid the impulse to demand that the team members ‘just let it go’, unpack it and resolve it fully.

A sense of modesty & equality Modesty is critical to developing and maintaining positive working relationships. An individual whose ego is so self-inflated with their own self-worth will quickly run into trouble. Team members will reject and avoid them, productivity will suffer. Everyone in a high-performing team contributes through assigned roles. While there are different levels of responsibility, they still deserve to be treated with respect.

Make sure team members interact Encourage team members to ask each other for help and to offer it to each other. Synergy on teams is achieved when team members feel comfortable speaking up with suggestions that build on the creativity of other team members. This requires collaboration not competition.

So that’s the positive side of teams, but what we also need to consider is that things can come off the rails. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni describes the many pitfalls that teams face as they seek to ‘row together’. He explores the fundamental causes of organisational politics and team failure. According to Lencioni, there are five dysfunctions of teams:

  • Absence of trust: unwilling to be vulnerable within the group
  • Fear of conflict: seeking artificial harmony over constructive passionate debate
  • Lack of commitment: feigning buy-in for group decisions creates ambiguity throughout the organisation
  • Avoidance of accountability: ducking the responsibility to call peers on counterproductive behaviour which sets low standards
  • Inattention to results: focusing on personal success, status and ego before team success

Teams that are cohesive, productive, and efficient don’t happen by accident and counter the above threats with their cadence and self-awareness. Successful teams are cohesive because team members work cooperatively, sharing common goals as well as the resources to achieve them. They are productive, not because team members never disagree, but because they have worked out ways to resolve conflicts when they occur.

They are efficient because tasks are assigned in a way that takes into account each member’s skills and interests, rather than letting the team be dominated by the most verbal, most aggressive, or most popular personalities. Managers play an essential role in developing and leading teams that work in these ways.

As Burnley face the run in of twelve games that will define the season, there is a calmness and confidence to the team going about their business, there is a sustained rhythm that all high-performing teams have. You can see the degree of focus, awareness and assurance that individuals have, performing in the knowledge that colleagues are equally on top of their game.

These are good times, when a slightly unfashionable, unheralded team is playing football with a streak of independence that is so invigorating for the people of the town who can be forgiven for wondering whether it could ever get any better.

Football is a team game played with eagerness and passion, based on simple philosophies such as 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 goal. It’s simplicity, like any team, is in the fact that the success is based on unity and collective purpose, and strong leadership.

Well-integrated, high-performing teams – those that ‘click’ – never lose sight of their goals and are largely self-sustaining. In fact, they seem to take on a life of their own. Besides the quality of the team, it all comes down to leadership. Research shows that sustained high performance teams always have a leader who creates the environment and establishes the operating principles and values that are conducive to high performance. The leadership formula involves working backwards – leaders envisage the future before dealing with the present.

The four most significant behaviours consistently demonstrated by high-impact leaders in high-performing teams are:

  • Defining clear goals or a vision of the future in accordance with overall organisational aims (the ‘big picture’)
  • Creating blueprints for action to achieve those goals
  • Using language to build trust, encourage forward thinking and create energy within the team by powerful conversations.
  • Getting the right people involved

Smells like team spirit at Burnley, on and off the pitch. As Dyche said after Saturday’s victory at Bolton, they know the mentality to be successful and we have that in abundance.



An outstanding team of individuals will always beat a team of outstanding individuals

It happened to Burnley FC on a special day, 100 years ago last Friday on 25 April 1914, just four months before the outbreak of war. We won the F A Cup. In 100 years since it remains Burnley’s one success in the competition to date, and as such, the team remains unique. The Burnley F A Cup winning team 1914 was: Sewell, Bamford, Taylor, Halley, Boyle, Watson, Mosscrop, Lindley, Freeman, Hodgson and Nesbitt. All are legends, heroes. They are the reason Burnley’s name is inscribed on the Cup.

The previous season Burnley had lost to Sunderland after a replayed semi-final, could the team improve on that performance the next year? A first round 3-0 victory on a frosty day over South Shields at home was followed by a 3-2 home victory over Derby in round two, and another home victory, 3-0 over Bolton in the third round, and we were into the Quarter Finals – and an away draw to Sunderland. Could we avenge last season’s defeat?

An epic encounter ended 0-0. A replay four days later at the Turf in front of a new record crowd of 49,737 saw Burnley kicking off the first half playing towards the Bee Hole End having won the toss, and goals from Hodgson and Lindley sealed a 2-1 victory. The match kicked off at 3pm on a Wednesday, and many factories, collieries and mills closed at 1pm to have a half-day. At some mills weavers’ wives stood in for their husbands so they could attend the game. After the match, Burnley was pandemonium, reported the local paper.

The semi-final versus Sheffield United was at Old Trafford. It finished 0-0 and replayed three days later. Twenty eight minutes into the replay, captain Tommy Boyle scored the goal to secure a 1-0 victory and Burnley were in the Cup Final. The team had momentum and was building. In the previous season a club record of scoring at least three goals in ten successive games was achieved and promotion back to Division One. Three players – Mosscrop, Boyle and Watson – played for England in the Cup Final season

Cup Final day, April 25 1914, kick–off 3.30pm. Ahead of the game, Ernie Edwards and Charlie Bates, the Burnley backroom staff, set out the long-sleeved claret and blue shirts, hanging on the wall hooks. The shirts had the Royal Arms, embroidered in silver thread on the left hand side of the chest, positioned over the heart to commemorate the first F A Cup Final being played in front of a reigning monarch, King George V.

Cup Final day was too sunny for football and the ground was hard and dry. Lindley hit the cross-bar in the first minute for Burnley, but half-time came at 0-0. With almost an hour gone, Burnley had a throw in on the right, and the ball was picked up by Billy Nesbitt. He found Teddy Hodgson with a high cross. Hodgson beat the Liverpool full back in the air and a precise header laid the ball into the path of Bert Freeman, steaming into the penalty area.

At knee height, Freeman met the ball on the perfect half-volley and drove it into the net. Goal! Burnley took the lead in the 58th minute. It was a great reward for Freeman’s father, Tom, who had travelled 13,000 miles from Australia to be at the game. Thereafter, Hodgson hit the post, Nesbitt stumbled with the goal at his mercy, and Lindley shot wide.

At the final whistle, the Pathe News reel reveals Burnley captain Boyle pausing half-way up the steps to pull up his shirt sleeves to the elbow before collecting the cup. Four days later when the team returned to Burnley, the town went bonkers, 10,000 greeted the team at Rosegrove station.

What a great team. But it is a sobering thought that this starting XI only played alongside each other on four occasions, and sadly they were never to line up together again after that memorable day. On the 4 August, just three-months after the final, war was declared. Five of the Burnley players in the 1913-14 squad, including Teddy Hodgson, the leading goal scorer in Burnley’s 1914 Cup campaign, made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

In 1920-21 season, two years after the Great War ended, Burnley, still under the management of John Haworth, won the Football League Championship for the first time with several players who won the Cup in the team. During that season they went on a record-breaking run of 30 league games undefeated, a record, which stood until Arsenal bettered it in 2004. It wasn’t until 1925 when the team started to fade, after over a decade of great performances, results and success.

Looking back at the poignant sepia images of men long since gone, match reports and stories of the heroes of the day creates a wistfulness, an almost melancholic feeling despite a victory that created such euphoria at the time and history we can recall with pride. What lies behind the success of that Burnley team of a century ago, and what can we take from it into creating winning teams in our organisations of today?

Visionary leadership Harry Windle was appointed Chairman at Burnley in 1909, and he recruited John Haworth as ‘secretary-manager’, probably the best decision he made in his tenure. It was also Windle who saw investment in the Turf Moor ground that built capacity from 15,000 to 50,000.

All organisations need to look towards the future, have a vision and build momentum, and not just operate in the present. Windle’s foresight in building the football club for the long-term was just as vital a contribution as anything that season.

Strong management John Haworth spent 14 years as secretary–manager of Burnley, appointed in 1910 and was highly successful, guiding the team to both the FA Cup victory in 1914 and Football League Championship in 1921. He was an innovator and thinker, but kept a low profile. He was responsible for changing the colour of Burnley’s green strip to that of claret and blue to match that of reigning champions Aston Villa, and he also signed Tommy Boyle and Bert Freeman. Haworth was a truly great manager who achieved many great things during his tenure: 1913 F A Cup Semi-Finalists; 1914 F A Cup Winners; 1920 League Runners up; 1921 League Champions; 1924 F A Cup Semi-Finalists. Alas he died of pneumonia aged just 48 when still manager.

Having a consistent, long-term focus to management is a key driver of success. It’s true in business as it is in sport – a manager needs time to build his own team.

Motivational leadership Tommy Boyle scored the winner in the replayed semi-final with Sheffield United, and is the only player to have captained a cup winning Burnley team. Having lifted the FA Cup, he then became the first Burnley captain to lift the League Championship Trophy in 1921.  Boyle remains an icon in the town, every fan knows his legacy with his image on the Turf Hotel pub sign on Yorkshire Street.

During the game, and in the everyday cut and thrust of business, it’s vital that there is effective organisation, man-management and overseeing of performance. Boyle inspired confidence, had something to prove and lead the team when the chips were down.

The leadership team of Windle, Haworth and Boyle shows the impact of a clear leadership focus on vision, strategy and tactics. The most powerful thing a leader can do to foster effective collaboration in a team is to create conditions that help members competently manage themselves. The second most powerful thing is to launch the team well, the third is the hands-on teaching and coaching that leaders do after the work is underway. That’s what Windle, Haworth and Boyle achieved.

Research suggests that condition-creating accounts for about 60% of the variation in how well a team eventually performs; that the quality of the team launch accounts for another 30%; and that real-time coaching accounts for only about 10%. Leaders are indeed important in collaborative work, but not in the ways we usually think.

Experience David Taylor, the Burnley fullback, played in Bradford City’s Cup winning team of 1911, whilst Tommy Boyle was in the losing Barnsley team in 1910. Eddie Mosscrop, Billy Watson and Boyle all played for England together that season – three Burnley players in the same England team, imagine that!

A successful business needs a combination of experience, potential and talent to blend into an effective team. Burnley in 1914 had it in spades.

Camaraderie Haven Street is just a stones throw from the Turf Moor football ground, a street of humble but solid terraced houses that still stand today. It was on this street that the majority of the victorious Burnley team lived in close contact.

One of the traits of winning teams is the effective social bonding between the individuals, knowing each other outside of the work context sees camaraderie develop, building rapport and closer relationships, and team spirit builds mental resolve and ‘togetherness’.

Talent Bert Freeman scored the winning goal that day, and his shirt and boots worn at the match are priceless artefacts displayed in the Turf Moor Boardroom. Transferred for a fee of £8,000 from Everton, he played 189 games for the Clarets and scored 115 goals. He was top scorer in the Football League in 1911/12 with 32 goals in 33 games, and again in 1912/13 with 31 goals in 37 games. He also played five games for England scoring three goals. His Cup Final winner in the 58th minute set him firmly in the pantheon of Burnley legends.

Every team needs talented individuals, but Freeman was a team player too. In many businesses the star performers get all the headlines, but a team of outstanding individuals will never beat an outstanding team of individuals.

Teamship Jerry Dawson holds the appearance record at Burnley FC with 569 games, and was the goalkeeper for many seasons. However, Dawson is mostly remembered for one match, the 1914 FA Cup Final, even though he did not play. The day before the game, he told manager John Haworth that he didn’t think he would make it to the end of the game as a result of a rib injury. As there were no substitutes in those days, this would have left Burnley without a goalkeeper. He thus stood down from the biggest game of his career, putting the team before his own personal glory, and Ronnie Sewell took his place. As a sign of respect of his unselfishness and humility, Dawson was given a winner’s medal.

Dawson showed another key trait of individuals in successful teams, that of putting the interests of the team before their own personal ambitions and needs. The team’s success comes before any individual success, is the winning team ethos.

Teamwork Halley-Boyle-Watson. These three players are revered in Burnley folklore as our best half-back line in the history of the club. It was on March 15 1913, in the home fixture against Bury, that the Burnley half-back line read Halley-Boyle-Watson for the very first time. Alas they only played 115 games together, football like life being disrupted by the Great War.

Teamwork is everything. However, also significant is the mental strength of the individuals in a team. For members of the 1914 F A Cup winning team to survive the trauma of the Great War and then reform seven years later as the backbone of the 1921 Championship winning team says something quite remarkable about both the individuals, and the teamwork.

Determination Burnley had won through the previous season’s F A Cup competition only to lose in the semi-final.  Despite the absence of Dawson, Burnley went into the final with confidence. Sewell was a talented deputy and the other ten members of the team had played together in every round.

Unity and collaboration are critical to an organisation that has to respond quickly to changing circumstances. The longer members stay together as an intact 
group, the better they do – they develop a determination to succeed as a group. Teams that stay together longer, play together better.

The larger the group, the higher the likelihood of social loafing and free riding, and the more effort it takes to keep members’ activities coordinated. Small teams become tight-knitted as a cohesive unit.

Fast-forward 100 years to today, and Burnley are celebrating another successful team, winning promotion to the Premier League. In many respects the traits and characteristics of the 1914 team can be seen in the 2014 team – although I don’t think the 1914 heroes had as many tattoos! However, the same conclusion can be drawn: an outstanding team of individuals will always beat a team of outstanding individuals.

Relentless: leadership lessons from Sean Dyche, manager Burnley FC

Burnley moved five points clear in second place in the Championship on Saturday, beating fellow promotion hopefuls Derby County 2-0 to extend their unbeaten run in the league to 11 matches, and complete a full calendar year unbeaten at home.

With a league record of Pl33 W18 D12 L3, Burnley has sustained a place in the Championship’s top three since September. It’s a tight knit squad, Burnley have used the least number of players in the division with only 18 starting league games. While the squad is small, manager Sean Dyche believes their togetherness and group mentality will play a massive part in their ability to continue to compete for promotion.

What Dyche doesn’t state is the significant impact he has had on the squad – with just one player added for a fee of £750k to the team that finished 14th last season, conceding 1.3 goals per game. This time round the team has let in just 26 goals in 33 games to date, and just for good measure, last season’s top scorer Charlie Austin left for QPR for £4m four days before the season started. The Turf Moor crowd have given Dyche the accolade ‘Ginger Mourinho’, although he’s known not to like the tribute.

Sean Dyche played a total of 460 football league games. Perhaps his most famous game was an FA Cup semi-final against Middlesbrough, when Middlesbrough won despite Chesterfield scoring a legitimate goal that was over the line, but decreed it hadn’t. It robbed Chesterfield of a Cup Final appearance, as they lost the replay 0-3.

Dyche won promotion with four clubs as a player, maybe this is his time as a manager. He is developing his own clear style. There have been tracksuit-clad tyrants such as former Forest boss Brian Clough, urbane intellectuals like Arsenal coach Arsène Wenger, and ego-centrics such as Mourinho, a polyglot sophistication and a taste for the theatrical.

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. Having studied his interviews, watched him closely at home and away matches, and assessed his impact at Burnley, here are my thoughts on Dyche’s management principles we can take into business.

1. A balanced management team Dyche’s management team of Ian Woan, Tony Loughlan, Billy Mercer and Mark Howard are all different. That makes for a good process because if everyone gives the same answers, or you have yes-men, then you never get a better outcome. Dyche uses his management team proactively on match day, they are as animated and engaged, he works closely on the touchline with his team, constantly observing, pointing out and engaging with them to highlight areas for improvement. Attention to detail and in the moment creates a focus.

Dyche says, All give a different opinion and we’ve all got different ideas, whether it’s training, planning, team preparation, or on players. So we all throw them about as wisely as we can then, of course, it’s up to me to make the end decision, but it’s nice to have that support system of a staff that is very honest and very open with their opinions, in order to get the best outcome we can.

2. Who cares wins. There is no denying the phenomenal passion that Dyche has for football and for Burnley. It’s a simple truth but one that is often forgotten – the very best leaders acre deeply about what they do. As Apple founder Steve Jobs said: the only way tobe truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work, and the only way to do great work is to love what you do.

3. Maximum effort is the minimum requirement Dyche has transformed the Clarets into a well respected side, as a result of a high-performance cocktail of an ultra-dedicated backroom team, meticulous planning, and a team willing to go that extra yard with one of Dyche’s favourite sayings as their backbone: maximum effort is the minimum requirement. From that, you can see the organisation, commitment, spirit and determination that makes the whole much greater than the sum of the parts.

Dyche said I had a chat with each of them individually and made it clear what I wanted. The demands were laid out openly. It was about mentality, fitness levels, how we were going to play as a team and how each individual was going to contribute. I want to believe it is possible – I always trust my work.

4. Connect with individuals Dyche consciously takes time to connect with every member of his organisation as individuals – from first team players to office staff – to get to know them personally, and understand their different drives and ambitions. This enables him to judge the true mood of the group and tailor his communication to each person individually.

Dyche has personally mentored and supported a number of players this season who have transformed their performances such that they are having the best season of their careers – Sam Vokes, Keith Treacy and Scott Arfield are the obvious picks in an over-achieving team.

Dyche has a sense of purpose and determination derived from his passion, but with a deep vein of humanity and treating people with genuine interest. I watched a video of him in a training session. He was encouraging Keith Treacy, watching him closely. Treacy stuck at it – Decent Keith, decent! encouraged Dyche, followed by a celebratory Champagne! accolade from Dyche as Treacy produced an outstanding piece of skill. As Treacy acclaims, Dyche is capable of connecting with you individually and changing your mentality.

5. Be the man that makes the difference Another of Dyche’s sayings which resonates. His shaven-headed, physically imposing presence belies a sophisticated approach to the game. I know how to treat injured players. I don’t go in and say: ‘are you fit yet?’ That’s acid. You don’t want to hear that from a manager. I just say: ‘How are you feeling? Keep going.’ 

Our players don’t walk off the coach with their headphones around their neck. They are smart in and out of the building. I’m a humble lad with good morals from my parents. Work hard. If you have to clean the floor, make it the cleanest floor ever.

More than anything, it seems Dyche greatest talent is selling his players on the importance of putting the team before the individual as a core responsibility. He’s got the remarkable ability to merge individual talent as a team rather than being dazzled by individual brilliance.

6. Strong at home, strong at work This communicates a man with a strong attachment to his family. I have no doubt he is great father, husband and brother as much as he is a great manager. There is no point in being successful everywhere else and failing to be a hero to your own family. A strong family builds a strong support structure and ensures a stable and focused mind. Dyche often talks about his brothers, and his family ethic.

This underpins Dyche’s broader model of man-management that shuns the old-school approach of haranguing people for bad performance, and instead treats his team as an extension of his family. The loyalty and devotion he shows to his players is met in kind. He’s a master at instilling belief into those he himself believes in. People talk about transformational leadership, Dyche portrays a confident leader, whether or not he’s actually feeling pressurised, who is able to make a difference to the situation.

7. Open Mindedness Dyche attributes Burnley’s success on open-mindedness and freeing his side from fear. Dyche has made open-mindedness a mantra, encouraging it from his players and employing the term frequently at press conferences. Once they have done the basics, they have the freedom to play. They are encouraged to do that and it enhances what they can offer as individuals. I think these players can achieve whatever they want to. It’s about being open-minded. They know they’re organised, they know they’re fit enough and it allows them that mental clarity to go for the performances.

If you don’t believe in yourself, you should not expect anyone to believe in you. You have to trust your own decisions and have faith in your own abilities. Often self-confidence is misconstrued for arrogance, an overbearing, excessive opinion of one’s self. Dyche’s approach is more about valuing and respecting your own perspective, and being the best you can be.

8. Pride When Dyche took the job, he said, They asked me what was the thing I remembered most about Burnley after playing here. I noticed there were always Burnley shirts around the town. You would drive through the town and there would be shirts everywhere. There is an obvious connection between people and the club. It’s a good old-fashioned trait that the people genuinely support the club. Dyche has used the bond – our town, our turf, our team – to build a strong connection between the team and the fans, a sense of responsibility that the team has for wearing the shirt and representing the town, and the fans. It’s become tribal.

9. Look after your team Dyche has eased down the physical hands-on coaching, he looks more at players’ body language. Are they up or down? Are they ready? He monitors players and staff. You have to know players as people, know their quirks. I can almost smell their mood. I call it ‘horse whispering’. I watch them, then pop around after training, ask them if they’re OK. I tell them: ‘Well done Saturday, different class.’ I read ‘The Horse Whisperer’. If that can apply to a horse, with all due respect to a horse, it must apply to humans. Treat them correctly, respectfully. I ask their thoughts. They open up.

Perhaps one of the worst impacts of the economic downturn has been the growing tendency to pass the buck, managers attempting to safeguard or promote their own ambitions, ahead of the wider goals of their team or the company they work for. For Dyche, it’s all about the team and there is no question that he inspires fierce devotion in his players. In many ways his large but understated persona ensures that he is a dominant figure. He takes the pressure off his team, as he becomes a bigger focus than the players.

At a time when many managers are loather to go beyond the corporate soundbite, the power of a genuine, passionate and honest figurehead should not be underestimated.

10. Winning is a mentality.  It’s a great feeling when you look into their faces in the tunnel before kick-off and know how hard they are going to go to win.  I was promoted four times with four different clubs and that same level of respect and honesty was there each time. I can feel that with these Burnley players. It’s not about the money, but the glory of winning.

If you believe you can, or can’t, both ways, you are right, Henry Ford said. Dyche sets high standards for himself and believes in a winning mindset. Watching Burnley play under Dyche is like watching hungry lionesses pouncing their prey. They show zeal, hunger and unquenchable thirst to emerge the best.

You should not be okay with average. As Michelangelo says, our biggest tragedy is that we set low goals and achieve them.

11. Learner’s mentality I tell the players I’ve had my time as a player but I now have a chance of making you better. My job is to guide them. For my Pro-licence, I went and studied the Oxford University Boat Race and I use snippets from there to inspire my players. I got down to the boathouse at 5.45am and the lads were there. They have these ergo rowing machines, set up facing a wall with a blackboard.

Written in chalk is ‘Boat Race’ the start time and date. They all face that. I loved that. ‘That’s where we are going’. Those rowers want to be part of history. They don’t get money. In the Oxford boathouse, there’s this meeting room with massive boards all the way round containing the names of all the people who have been in the boat. They are desperate to get on there. I’ve said to the players, Burnley is a founder member of the Football League, a heritage to respect. You can make your own Burnley history this year, be relentless, be limitless in your performance.

Ask me the secret of Dyche’s success so far this season, and I will say it is his honesty, simplicity in his communication, and the empathy he has for his players.  Last season 79 points won Hull promotion, today Burnley has 66 points from 33 games with 13 remaining.  April sees the centenary of Burnley’s 1914 FA Cup final win, our only cup win, what a double celebration we could have! Our town, our turf, our team, our time, with Dyche’s management framework getting us there:

  • Maximum effort is the minimum requirement
  • Be the man that makes the difference
  • Be relentless, be limitless

F A Youth Cup: Manchester United 3 Burnley 4 – hail a victory for the underdogs

Burnley boys won in grand surroundings on Friday evening to stun Manchester United at Old Trafford and reach the FA Youth Cup fourth round. Jason Gilchrist’s hat-trick proved decisive in a thrilling tie that saw Burnley lead through Cameron Howieson’s first half header, then twice fall behind before finally grab a stunning extra time winner to end 4-3 victors. Oh how we owned the bragging rights at the final whistle!

Burnley’s Youth were the underdogs, and entered the cavernous ‘Theatre of Dreams’ to face the 10-time winners of the competition. No one expected us to win, despite having a proud youth tradition ourselves. However, after twenty minutes Luke Conlan’s persistence in chasing a lost cause earned a free kick near the left corner flag and when Nathan Lowe drilled the resulting free kick to the near post, Howieson lost his marker to bullet a header past a startled keeper. The underdogs were winning!

The task then was to get to half time with the lead intact, but within seconds of the extra one-minute being signaled at the end of the half, United were level, a classy move seeing the equaliser scored with virtually the last kick of the half. United buoyed by that goal, started the second half on the front foot and went ahead despite the Clarets valiant attempts to hold back the red tide. Had the underdogs had their moment? No! The pendulum immediately swung back Burnley’s way as their never-say-die attitude restored parity, Gilchrist bundled the ball home to make it 2-2.

Having been pegged back, it took just five minutes for United to again grab the initiative. That might have been it for lesser teams, but dramatically Burnley were level once more with 10 minutes remaining the ever-alert Gilchrist gleefully slotted the ball into the gaping goal from the right hand corner of the box.

United threw bodies forward in search of a late winner, but keeper Jakovlevs’ safe hands ensured the tie went to extra time. Tired legs were now opening up the game at both ends, with players on both sides clearly struggling. With six minutes gone in the second period of extra time, it was the fresh legs of 15-year-old Burnley substitute Bradley Jackson that paid dividends, with a magnificent driving right-wing run and cross picking out Gilchrist for the simplest of headers. 4-3! The underdogs simply refused to lie down!

United were now desperate, but as they threw everything at Burnley they found keeper Jakovlevs unbeatable. First the young keeper made a magnificent double save to protect the precious lead, and from the last throw of the dice, Jakovlevs palmed another goalbound drive wide of the post to spark wild celebrations. The underdogs had done it!

BURNLEY: Jakovlevs, Dummigan, Conlan, Lowe, Whitmore, Holt, Daly (Galvin 110), Ly (Jackson 63), Gilchrist, Howieson, Frost (Hill 70). Subs; Mitchell, Bianga

Manager: Terry Pashley; Assistant Manager: Andy Farrell

The whole experience gave you goose pimples, the audacity and resolve of the underdog to keep fighting against the odds. It reminded me of the passion shown by many startup businesses as they seemingly face a no-win situation. How on earth can a startup win against established, large companies?

Startups have little choice but to stand and flight using their limited resources, they don’t just tuck tail and run when they they’re up against a large competitor, the passion and focus of a bootstrapped startup is difficult to replicate within a big company and it’s this spirit which sees them through. We see the potential, the creative spirit in younger companies, this little v big scenario is played out time and time again in business – recall Apple v IBM in the 1980s, Virgin Atlantic v British Airways and Dyson v Hoover.

In any market the little guys can quickly dominate by using their opponent’s size to their advantage. That’s because giant-killers can afford to shake things up and take bold steps. In his thought provoking and insightful book Killing Giants, Stephen Denny describes how a small, new player in any industry can topple the industry leader through a combination of brains, and underdog street-fighting agility. Giant killers can launch surprise attacks, pick unfair fights and hijack the conversation, stealing the customers out from under the giant’s nose. Denny outlines some interesting thoughts on how the underdog can compete and win:

  • Compete on the Thin Ice The Thin Ice strategy is about making the giant compete on ground where its size and relative strength no longer matter. It’s where giants fear to tread. Thin ice is dangerous to companies which are too big to venture far from the relative safety of familiar ground. When the giant shifts, the ice groans and cracks under its feet. But you know the ice can support your weight. You made the patch of thin ice in the first place. So taunt the giant all you want. By creating your own thin ice, you change the environment to suit your needs. You move the customer dialogue to a place where the giant is unprepared to go and rather than risk losing the fight, it may well choose not to fight at all.
  • Winning in the last yard Winning in the last three feet is a reminder never to assume that a customer has made up their mind. It’s not over until it’s over and the last three feet is where giant killers find success. There’s a gap between when the giant thinks it’s got the sale and when the customer hands over the cash. Giants are giants because they get the attention of lots and lots of people, but here’s the flip side – win with a strike just when the giant thinks it’s done its job and has moved onto the next item, you’ll catch them off guard and its all too late.
  • Eat the Bug – is exactly what it sounds like, doing what is taboo and unthinkable to the giants in your industry. Much of what giants do is given, they do things this way and never like that. What they consider taboo, is where opportunity resides for the underdog. Be willing to do what they aren’t and you can build a business out if it. Senior managers in large companies are paid to say no to risky ideas – they fear change and resist it at all costs. Think of things that only the underdog can do.
  • Inconvenient Truths Make customers think for a moment, get them to realise that your offering makes more sense than the giant’s. Denny calls this ‘making the inconvenient argument’, it comes down to your ability to move customers off their established anchor point and allows your argument to be heard. You have to flip the emotional polarity of your customers. Some have to move from the emotional to the rational, others from the rational to the emotional.
  • Seize the Microphone Being nimble gives you the advantage of being the only one talking to customers and anticipating their next need while the giants rest on their marketing laurels. Take up all the oxygen in the room. Your competitors may be big, but that does not mean they have to lead the conversation. Size, revenue and market share do not equal personality and emotional connection, so don’t be afraid of grabbing the microphone. Being polite and standing back will not get you anywhere. The right ideas will set your audience on fire, put forward ideas that make you become the conversation. This takes meaningful interaction over a long period of time, but the results can be remarkable.

Just like the competition at Old Trafford, the mouse fears the elephant, but the elephant fears the mouse – each look at the battlefield from their own, different perspective, and that can make all the difference. Underdogs who win refuse to compete by the same standards as their opponents, instead they use an entirely different strategy that exploits their stronger opponent’s weaknesses.

This is the ‘judo strategy’, a way of disruptive innovation, enabling smaller competitors to fight the more powerful industry players. The idea is to use skill to defeat size. Here are ten techniques of judo strategy, as defined by David Yoffie and Mary Kwak of Harvard Business School that may help your underdog business:

1. Keep it under wraps Over-aggressiveness can kill you early on, but by staying out of view you aren’t seen as a threat to bigger rivals that could easily crush you if they devoted the resources to taking you head on.

2. Define the competitive space Don’t try to match what the bigger company does. If you try to compete at the same thing they already excel at, you’ll always lose. Invest in your own core strengths to develop uniqueness.

3. Follow through fast Small businesses have to execute quickly while they have a window open, but not to the point where they become obsessed with speed ahead of quality.

4. Grip your opponent Build positive relationships with your larger rivals. This will create less incentive for them to fight back. Forming strategic partnerships and joint ventures may seem like a win-win situation for everybody, when it’s really a way to defend your position.

5. Avoid tit-for-tat When the bigger company makes a move against you, don’t try to match it. Instead, respond with a counter that plays on the strength that you’ve developed. Do something different.

6. Push when pulled Giant companies have momentum, and it’s harder for them to halt and change a strategy once committed to it without it taking time. So if they get caught in a strategy that is hurting them, use their inability to change and be agile yourself.

7.  Practice ukemi You’re going to lose some battles, so accept this and practice ukemi – fall safely with minimal loss. It takes a level of discipline to be able to retreat, reload, and head back into the fray from another angle. Emotional responses can be devastating if you let a loss take hold of you – instead, just try to minimize the loss and continue.

8. Leverage your opponents assets Big companies have invested into building up their assets and processes, but they’re also limitations. Sometimes they can’t shift their culture enough to respond adequately to an agile, small company.

9. Exploit differences between your opponent and its customers Even a company’s most loyal customers will always look out for themselves, so create situations that makes these customers curious, it weakens the relationships. It’s the old tactic of divide and conquer.

10. Let other competitors wear them down It’s not all down to you, a small company can actively use its other small competitors to take on a common enemy. Find a way to complement your competitor’s products with your own, and ‘gang-up’ on the larger company.

United were the giants – big, strong, quick and aggressive – and dare I say it – wise to the cynical side of professional football. Our Burnley lads were proper players but they’re slight, when one of our subs came on I thought he was a mascot.

However, just like a startup company, it was the hunger, determination, enthusiasm and passion of the Burnley youth that made them proud Claret winners. After the second United goal I saw players encouraging each other. When the third went in I feared the heads might drop and we could take a heavy defeat. Not on your life, they kept at it and were finally rewarded, underdog winners.

Forget about the price tag, it’s not about the money

Anyone who lives in Burnley, a humble, honest industrial northern town, feels a warm glow of familiar nostalgia whenever they see the towering stands and floodlights of the football ground amidst the rows of terraced housing. Turf Moor has been the home of Burnley FC since 1883, a landmark in the town. Everyone connects with the club, it’s a reference point for giving visitors directions, and the heartbeat of the town on match days. Walking by the ground yesterday, as always it stirred memories of games gone by.

There were wandering friendly dogs, a teenage couple snogging ferociously on the steps of the pub, old men in overcoats and flat caps, and the local chippy opening up for dinner time customers. But it was the giant hording outside the ground that caught my attention: ‘Next game: Burnley v Wolverhampton Wanderers’, broadcasting a call-to-arms.

Although classified as a fan, I am a ‘customer’ of football in a business sense, but it’s not that straightforward. It’s more than 90 minutes. Football has a unique relevance in a fan’s life, building heroes in our minds when we are young, and that never leaves us – more so in a week when John Connelly died, playing 265 games, scoring 105 goals for Burnley in the 1960s. We have detailed, indexed memories of previous seasons results and games, and live in hope about a great winning run just around the corner. Football is an ever-present beacon of unfounded optimism in our lives.

If you’re a fan of a football team you go to their matches and your support is unconditional – it isn’t based on the likelihood of victory, your position in the table or how much you have to pay – however, the average cost of the cheapest adult ticket in the top four divisions of English football has risen by 11.7% – more than five times the rate of inflation. The BBC Sport Price of Football survey recently found that the average price of the most affordable ticket has gone from £19.01 to £21.24 in the past year. The figures showed the most expensive adult match day ticket was Arsenal at £126, and Arsenal also have the most expensive season ticket at £1,955. Meanwhile, the most expensive tea in British football is in Manchester, where both City and United charge £2.50.

While Premier League grounds are over 95% full, teams are struggling to sell tickets where previously this wasn’t an issue. The recent Tottenham v Chelsea match, one of the biggest games of the season, saw tickets on general sale. With money tight and high-profile matches on Sky, the inclination not to attend and watch games on TV instead may increase. With the latest Sky deal seeing a 70% increase in revenue for Premier League teams, the number of Sky subscriptions is probably of more importance to clubs than selling out home games. Arsenal earned £56m last season from broadcasting revenue – do they really need to risk alienating their ‘customers’ and charge £126 for a ticket?

There is a belief that football fans are very loyal to their clubs, rain or sunshine they will be there for it, but research shows the assumption of deep loyalty to the game is far from the truth. Dr Alan Tapp, at the University of West England, undertook research about fan loyalty. The results shattered the assumption of fan’s undying loyalty. He found the game has ‘fanatics’, ‘repertoire football lovers’ (just love the game) and ‘carefree casuals’. The fanatics will attend every game and know everything about their team. The repertoire fans go to enjoy football if they can (they see the game as an entertainment option) and the casual carefree will support from afar, just waiting for results.

This research tells us that football customers cannot be categorised in the traditional business sense, because their loyalty does not purely depend on success of their team, or the quality of games, but in the same breath it can not be taken for granted if their team struggles. The fans do not stop supporting the team, they simply withdraw their custom and become armchair fans, from the TV or Internet. But football is not similar to other businesses as this custom is not transferable to another team.

So, who are the customers – match day fans or Sky subscribers? The Sky TV money feeds the mouths of the elite, yet there are as many supporters of clubs in the English professional game outside of the Premier League, as there are in the Premier League. Yet the conclusion is this: Premier League teams don’t need the revenue from fans, such is the quantum of the Sky money. The customers that built the clubs are no longer important, yet are vital to creating a match day atmosphere, the essence of the 90 minutes and as for Burnley, the heart and soul of the town.

The threat that a generation of fans may miss out on the experience of attending live football due to price appears to be a real one. This is an example of a common mistake in understanding pricing. A business does not lower the costs of one product because another is selling for more. It will always charge whatever it takes to maximise revenue from that product/market segment. However, if charging more and attracting fewer fans brings in more revenue than a full stadium at a lower price, that’s what they’ll do.

This approach is short sighted. Clubs may continue to do well from current supporters but their numbers will decline, and it needs to create new customers to ensure long-term stability. Despite the eye-watering Sky TV-deal monies, only 10 clubs in British football remain profitable as player wages have spiraled. I think the pricing in place will prevent the next generation from enjoying live football. As it is, it will become a sport in which relatively well-off people will be able to go and watch it live and nobody else. That seems to me to be a tragic historic reverse of ‘the working man’s game’.

For many fans, the football brand is a passion. Due to their cultural ties and emotional appeal, football clubs generate significant brand loyalty, seen on the streets via replica shirts and scarves, a display of allegiance to their club. It is evident that football without fans wouldn’t be the sport that it is today. Fans, as customers, are the historical base of a club’s economic model and should not be taken for granted, they fill up stadiums, buy merchandise, and attract sponsorships. The club’s highest value customers are those who build their lifestyle around the club’s identity and attend matches. Long-term oriented relationships are crucial in the football industry.

Sky’s injection of cash is only funding the elite, what happens to the rest? What are the industry’s pricing options? Marco Bertini from the London Business School and John Gourville from Harvard Business School identified five pricing principles that the committee organising the London 2012 Olympic Games adopted, facing an extraordinary business challenge: How to price 8 million tickets in a way that gives equitable access to 26 sporting events, meets revenue and attendance targets, and adheres to the explicit social objective of making the Olympiad Everybody’s Games?

To accomplish this, the committee took what Bertini & Gourville call a ‘shared-value’ approach to pricing, looking beyond the mechanics of ‘running the numbers’ and recognising the way to generate revenue can open up opportunities to create additional value. That means viewing customers as partners in pricing options, based on value creation, a collaboration that increases customers’ engagement and taps their insights about the value they seek and how firms could deliver it. The result is benefits for firms and customers alike. This is clearly a pricing model for the football industry. By studying the 2012 Games and the pricing process, they determined five pricing principles that every business could profitably adopt:

Focus on relationships, not on transactions
Ticketing and pricing is the most visible aspect of your relationship with your audience. The solution was to value customers more than their money. First, they increased the number of pricing tiers, which kept some ticket prices low while still hitting revenue targets. Second, it offered a pay-your-age pricing plan for young customers and discounted tickets to those over 60. Third, for the opening ceremony it chose high and low price points – £20.12 and £2,012, whose symbolic rationale everyone understood.

Be proactive There was no bundling of tickets to a more popular sport with those to a less popular sport, a tactic sometimes used in previous Olympics to increase ticket sales and boost attendance at the less popular events. Ticketing of every sport stood on its own, creating 26 different pricing plans detailing how tickets should be sold to the appropriate market demand. The committee did bundle public transport into the ticket price, recognising the opportunity to reduce traffic congestion and add customer value.

Put a premium on flexibility The committee had to price all events more than a year and a half in advance of the Games, before it had a clear understanding of demand. Besides increasing the number of price tiers across events, it also promised more expensive tickets would have a better view of the event. In the spring of 2011, fans placed requests for tickets through an online ballot, revealing how much they were willing to pay for various events. This allowed the committee to gauge demand at each price point and reallocate some seats accordingly. By not predetermining the number of seats in each tier, the committee had the flexibility to better satisfy actual rather than anticipated demand, which resulted in more seats sold and happier customers.

Promote transparency One of the explicit goals in pricing the Games was to limit negative media attention. From early on, a continuous flow of information about the rationale and process of ticketing, key dates in the ticketing time line, price tiers and the number of tickets available, were communicated. At times the systems didn’t work and there was some bad publicity, but at least the openness prevailed.

Manage the market’s standards for fairness From the moment the ticketing process began, the committee communicated the pay-your-age and senior discounts and the percentage of tickets that would be sold at £20, at or below £30, and so on. The committee rejected any suggestion to auction the tickets in highest demand, instead, ticket allocation was enabled via a simple lottery, reinforcing that there was no preferential treatment.

Shared-value pricing is a new and evolving strategy, but given the fundamental shifts in consumers’ power and expectations, customers will have dwindling patience for traditional pricing. Considering the benefits to be gained by increasing the pool of value in the marketplace and sharing it with customers, any firm that is not evaluating its pricing through a shared-value lens should ask whether it can afford not to. Furore over the price of Rolling Stones tickets, the latest round of Energy price rises, the growth in price-comparison web sites shows how pricing has a high profile, and how the social networks quickly chatter.

What I can tell you is the feeling I get at Turf Moor as a customer is indescribable. I get this feeling in my stomach which I never want to go away. I get this sudden rush which makes me feel like I can take on the world and win! And hearing ‘Come on Burnley!’ roared by 15000 people brings a lump to my throat every time. You can feel the emotion of everybody in the ground, you know they mean every word. No amount of Sky money contributes to this part of my customer experience.

At it’s core football is a social activity. Football originally resonated with people because it tugged at our local tribal instincts – Us versus Them. Nowadays that has been lessened but football has the same power to exhilarate. You can’t put a price on that.

Customer loyalty means nothing if you don’t have loyalty from your leaders

Buy any six cups of our freshly ground full-bean coffee and get your seventh cup free. Sky Rewards, exclusive for Sky customers, 2 for 1, tickets to the UKs’ top attractions. Up to 25% off your line rental, for life. McDonalds, Sky and Orange – their current loyalty offers, and now eBay is to start offering loyalty points to its customers – the online marketplace giant has signed up as a member of the Nectar loyalty programme allowing holders of the loyalty card to collect points when they spend money with eBay.

The launch is one of three new partnerships announced by Nectar as it marks a decade in business. The scheme has also teamed up with Oxfam and restaurant group Tragus, owner of Bella Italia, Café Rouge and Strada restaurants, to offer points when purchases are made. For years we’ve become accustomed to living in a fast-paced dog-eat-dog world, told that loyalty gets you nowhere, and that we must look out for number one, because no one else will. Now in business there is a scramble on with customer loyalty schemes.

In our youth, loyalty was easy, you stood by and stuck up for your friends. You kept their secrets, you made sure that no one bullied your younger brother. As adults, loyalty is not nearly so simple. We operate in a network of overlapping loyalties. Some are trivial or temporary, others provide the foundation to our very identity. Paradoxically, while we all value loyalty in our friends, our sense of what loyalty actually means tends to be vague.

Dogs are famously loyal, but that’s not loyalty really, that’s obedience. But I’m loyal back to my dog, that’s what matters. Loyalty is about accepting the bonds that our relationships with others entail, and acting in a way that defends and reinforces the attachment inherent in these relationships. Harley-Davidson is commonly cited as having one of the most loyal following of any brand. A group called Harley Owners Group has more than 1 million members. These Harley enthusiasts regularly meet up for group rides. Going a step further, many loyal fans have the H-D logo permanently tattooed.

Jim Becker was a Green Bay Packer fan who attended NFL games for 56 years. Becker regularly sold his blood to offset the cost of season tickets for himself, his wife and 11 kids. Then Becker’s doctor found that his father died aged 43 from a condition of the blood retaining too much iron.  Donating blood is the only known treatment for this condition. Becker may have also died at a young age had he not given blood as a result of his loyalty to the Green Bay Packers.

Cicero, Rome’s greatest orator, observed more than two thousand years ago: What is the quality to look out for as a warrant for the stability and permanence of friendship? It is Loyalty. Nothing that lacks this can be stable. The great works of literature are almost universally tales of loyalty and betrayal. To the ancient Greeks, a hero could not exist apart from loyalty. Tests of loyalty are the cornerstone of great drama, and we reserve our utmost contempt for the traitors who betray their loyalty for personal gain – a Judas!

Ah, Judas! News that manager Owen Coyle was sacked from Bolton Wanderers rekindles memories of one of the greatest acts of disloyalty and treachery known to mankind. Ok, I exaggerate, but it mattered to us Burnley folk. A lot. Whilst a 2-0 home victory in the opening game of this season versus Bolton was some solace, the second victory the returning turncoat/traitor/defector (delete which you think best applies), Coyle’s departure from Turf Moor back in January 2010 highlights the very essence of loyalty.

Think back three years ago. Burnley’s promotion to the Premier League – our first season in the top flight of English football since 1976 – was one for the romantics. Automatically installed as the favourites for relegation – as if people are incapable of even hoping to dream that anything other than exactly what we expect could happen. Then something happened. Burnley, playing attacking, attractive football and wearing a sumptuous kit based on their 1960 First Division championship winning team, started to win matches – and not just any matches.

August 19, 2009. Burnley 1 Manchester United 0. Burnley’s first goal in the Premier League was something very, very special. For you Robbie Blake, freedom of the borough of Burnley. The defending Premier League Champions. Beaten. I can still recall being awake at 3am that morning reading for the umpteenth time on the BBC web site the match report. It still said 1-0. Putting a man on the moon was now second in the Greatest Human Achievements In My Lifetime. And Coyle was the architect of that achievement.

Owen Coyle was receiving plaudits. Half way into the season the job was half done, we had a strong home record and batting well. We joked he’d turn down the Real Madrid job, such was his affinity with the club, the fans, the town – Sorry Senior Perez, can’t come to manage your Galacticos, we’ve got Wigan at home on Saturday. Then he went and blew it. January 2010, Bolton’s Fatty Arbuckle look-a-like, Phil Gartside, came calling, and Coyle swallowed his ‘greater potential at the Reebok’ line. It proved too much to resist. Bolton got their man.

Previously, Coyle said: The fans know the rapport I have with this football club. We have an exciting challenge ahead of us and I want it to continue. He had turned down an approach from his boyhood club Celtic: I’m a Celtic fan. But I looked at what we had built at Burnley, I thought of the players I’d persuaded to be part of this, and in the end I knew I had to stay and carry on this incredible adventure. Then in the winter, Coyle said: I don’t want it to continue. What changed in those six months? How did the loyalty dissipate so rapidly? Coyle gave me and 18,000 other Clarets the best 18 months in living memory. We dared to dream. An apparently decent, loyal man, his departure was a really grotty tale.

What did we learn about loyalty from Owen Coyle? Well, we learned that apparent authenticity, sincerity and honest personas count for nothing. He had said at a pre-match conference I enjoy being at the football club, I enjoy my work and coming through the door every morning. A week later, he was gone. It was the greatest act of disloyalty since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. At Burnley, the world was his oyster. Alas Burnley were relegated from the Premier League at the end of the season, there was no recovery or happy ending. From Moses, leading us to the promised land, to Judas in the space of 18 months.

The lack of loyalty was mind-boggling, the turbulence he created led to our demise and collapse. His first game in charge, a dreary 0-0 at home to Stoke, was not a glimpse of things to come. He built a team based on togetherness, commitment and team spirit, and he got it back in lumps from the terraces.

But we shouldn’t have been surprised. Loyalty is dead, and the research statistics seem to bear them out: American companies lose half their customers in five years, half their employees in four, and half their investors in less than one. We seem to face a future in which the only business relationships will be opportunistic transactions between virtual strangers.  Josiah Royce in his 1908 book The Philosophy of Loyalty presented loyalty as a virtue, defined as the basic moral principle from which all other principles can be derived.  Without loyalty, you have nothing.

Animals as pets have a large sense of loyalty to humans, which may be more human-to-human loyalty. Famous cases include Greyfriars Bobby who attended his master’s grave for fourteen years, Hachiko, who returned to the place he used to meet his master every day for nine years after his death, and Foxie, the spaniel belonging to Charles Gough, who stayed by her dead master’s side for three months on Helvellyn in the Lake District in 1805. (The fact that Gough’s body was eaten by his dog was ignored in subsequent romantic accounts of the story).

There is now something about Coyle’s leadership and communication that doesn’t feel authentic, and it would be the same for any person who unravels sincerity in such unsubtle and spectacular fashion, a previously cast iron personal commitment to an organisation. In walking out of Burnley mid season, he showed himself to be an opportunist, self-interest before loyalty. I suppose this is fine if you succeed, but he didn’t. He placed a higher priority on personal financial gain, over loyalty, authenticity and integrity. It’s not a recipe for long-term success, and surely you tarnish your reputation forever with such behaviour. Trust, a core element of leadership, has been lost, how do you recover that, and respect?

Our ancestors learned that loyalty towards your tribe was a valuable survival tool. In the jungle, the desert, the cotton mills of industrial Lancashire, loyalty to your tribe increased your chances of surviving harsh weather, unreliable supply of food and water, and built the warmth of human togetherness, humanity and community. Now, please excuse me, but I’m soundly in the camp that Coyle has got his just deserts, while we wait with eager anticipation to watch him fall flat on either of those two faces. He let us down. As you sow, so shall you reap, as the plane flying over Turf Moor in the opening game versus Bolton trailed the banner through the skies. He made the wrong decision, and will be forever tainted by his lack of loyalty and ripping the heart out of Burnley, over shadowing his finest hour.

Coyle’s loyalty was a veil of rhetoric. He lead a team that had previosuly achieved stability and consistency, but no real chance of success, and turned us to something special. A manager in business would be lauded with such results. The images and emotions of the Wembley 2009 play-off final victory, and Martin Paterson’s and Steve Thompson’s goals in the 2-0 away win at Reading in the semi-final, will always be with me. That first home game versus Manchester United will never go away. This was our time. He created it, and his disloyalty dismantled it. The Burnley customers still came through the turnstiles and bought their annual season tickets, our own loyalty card. But without loyalty, honesty and trust, decency and dignity in the behaviour of your leaders, the heart and soul of any organisation will have a damaged, fractured culture that creates a destabilising vacuum with its customers. Three years on, it still rankles.