What can a 63-year-old Italian soccer coach teach us about leadership? A lot more than you might think. When we think of leadership, we often think of assertive alpha personalities delegating tasks. But legendary Italian soccer player and coach Carlo Ancelotti sees it differently.
While other coaches shout, push, and prod, Ancelotti harnesses what he calls “quiet leadership.” And it works. He’s one of the most successful soccer coaches of all time, winning more UEFA Champions League trophies than any other manager in history and multiple domestic trophies and championships across top leagues in England, Italy, Germany, and France.
The secret to Ancelotti’s success is his effective leadership style. And while managing a soccer team quite different from leading in the Coast Guard, some of his lessons can be useful to any leader. Here are four leadership best practices from the Italian maestro’s career.
Put people first
Ancelotti’s most defining trait as a leader is the fact that he sees his players not as players, but people first. “I like to take care of the people above all,” Ancelotti once said. To him, players should be understood far beyond their professional identities. Leaders need to listen intently to their staff to understand their life stories, ambitions, and energy levels. That will help leaders figure out how to motivate them and “align them with” collective goals.
“Don’t always be obsessed with drawing loyalty from the people with whom you work,” Ancelotti advised in his memoir. “Aim to inspire greater performance in the moment and focus on showing that you really care about them as people and their professional growth.”
Lead from behind
One of Carlo Ancelotti’s core principles is to lead from behind. At every team he has coached, Ancelotti takes time to analyze players and team leaders and to give them responsibility and ownership of team strategies and tactics. By putting egos aside, leaders can make their team feel like they are shaping the process and executing it. This leads to more unit cohesion and success, especially in high-stress situations.
In a recent Champions League semi-final, for instance, Ancelotti made what many in soccer called a shocking decision. In the last minutes of a game that had gone to extra time, Ancelotti decided to bring on substitute players to win the match. He deputized two of Real Madrid’s star players and team leaders to choose who would enter the match. As one reporter put it, “the prevailing orthodoxy of modern coaching is control: control of the ball, control of the situation, high intensity and high stress. And yet in that moment Ancelotti relinquished control, handed over the keys to a decision for which he would ultimately be held responsible.”
Commentators and pundits later praised the substitutions as critical to Real Madrid’s hard-fought victory that day. They won the Champions League a few weeks later.
Ancelotti is famously relaxed, especially when it comes to handling failure. In his mind, good leaders embrace it. They take setbacks in stride: “Failure is an important tool with which one can reassess and reconstruct an idea or process, it is an essential element of the feedback loop. Failure should be used to step back and question your method and weaknesses.”
Adapt to your team’s strengths
Another hallmark of the Italian manager’s winning formula is his flexibility. Most elite soccer coaches have formations, strategies, and tactics that they force on their players with little room for compromise. Many corporate leaders approach their jobs with the same zeal. Some soccer managers even sell off superstars to other teams if they don’t fit the manager’s mold or vision.
Ancelotti, on the other hand, has no ideology. He adapts to players’ strengths and needs. When he coached for Italian giants AC Milan in the early 2000s, Ancelotti faced a new challenge: he had four superstar midfielders and only three starting slots for midfield players. All four had delicate egos and needed regular game time to develop and thrive.
Ancelotti’s ingenious solution: just play with four midfielders and ignore the conventional three-midfielder formation. His strategy was unusual, no doubt, but helped AC Milan and all four players soar to new heights in Italy and across European competitions. The “diamond formation,” as it is now known, is world-famous, and that AC Milan squad is considered one of the best of all time.