Arsene Wenger's Soccer's Impressive. His Lessons for Business Even More

Nov 13 , 2021
By , Solomon Girma

Arsene Wenger of Arsenal has had a long and winding relationship with the team that could serve as both inspiration and lesson for anyone in business leadership today, write Senay Lemma, regional human capital manager for Eastern Africa at Elsewedy Electric, and Solomon Girma, a freelance human capital consultant.

Arsenal has been in decline for the past 15 years. It went from an entire season without a loss, a forty-nine-match unbeaten streak, to rock bottom of the premier league until recently. Arsenal is a club that has lost its philosophy, identity, fans, fames and trophies during those years.

“It's harder to detect but easier to cure in the early stages; and easier to detect but harder to cure in the later stages,” as Jim Collins described institutional decline as a disease in his book, “Why the Mighty Fall.”

In the same token, the ceaselessly unfolding decline of Arsenal since 2007 makes us believe that the same thing must have been happening to the default identity of the team. Obviously; Arsenal has been looking good on the outside while it had already been sick on the inside for some time.

To understand why, we need to go back to the earlier history of the Arsene Wenger saga.

The world knows the recent story of Wenger – that he was able to transform Arsenal and mould them into a European powerhouse. He was able to engineer an amazing team synergy that showcased the most attractive football on the planet. Quick passes, single touches and nimble-footed players were all features of Arsenal's play.

Wenger believed in playing beautiful, attractive football. He built his Arsenal team with players who had class and elegance, coupled with the right mixture of strength.

He spent twenty-two years at the club, was invincible and had the winning spirit all the time. His visionary youth policy was magnificent and a courageous attempt to succeed and reap rich rewards. His mission was something that very few managers would have dreamt of let alone execute with such perfection. However, the Frenchman was often criticised for such an obsession that left room for a disproportion that ultimately resulted in the decline of the team’s performance.

Although it may be ineffective at times and frustrating in equal measure, Wenger's success in changing Arsenal's approach was a big achievement and its success makes it another of his great accomplishments. Despite getting numerous offers to move to several other clubs, Wenger decided to stay with Arsenal and continue to fight out to achieve more success. Like any great leader, however, Wenger could see into the future.

What was Wenger’s success?

After arriving at Arsenal's Highbury Stadium in 1996, Wenger’s first major contribution was to win the Premier League and FA Cup at the same time. That proved to be the beginning of what were to be the most fertile years of his managerial career at the club.

Wenger’s team won three league titles and seven FA Cups. In 2003 and 2004, he captivated the soccer world by going on a forty-nine-match unbeaten streak, becoming the first English team since the 1880s to go through an entire season without a loss. However, since that high of 2003-04, Arsenal has been on a steady decline.

The inability of Arsenal to win the Premier League since circa 2003 was his biggest failure. In his final years with the club, Wenger was unable to pull the best from his players. Too often, his team looked uninspired. Even when they played well, it was often as islands of individuals rather than as a cohesive unit and the team’s style of play was very predictable.

Wenger was in a big struggle to adapt to change as he was suffering from an obsession of extreme faith in youth and an exaggerated cost-consciousness while the rule of the game in the contemporary market was in array with his hesitant approach.

Observing Wenger’s failures and successes, there are a number of takeaways business leaders could take from him.

We can start from leadership. Wenger was successful in changing the way the club played football to the art of beautiful football, in consistently keeping Arsenal in the top four for many years, in building a world-class team that translated beyond borders, language, and history, and in building a new stadium for the club and ensuring a clean profit and loss statement, which is difficult for many football clubs.

Leaders can make or break any organisation. If leaders fail to nurture, motivate, and inspire their people, the survival of their organisation will become under scrutiny. The ability of leaders to foresee the future, their invincibility, and agility are among the core competencies needed to save organisations from falling apart.

Wenger was also professional in his treatment of the people around him and in maintaining good relationships during his career. However, during his introduction as a new incoming manager, he tried to convince fans about the quality and leadership skills he has for the job instead of addressing this to his players first. The takeaway from Wenger for newly joining leaders in any business is that they should immediately endear themselves to their teams and prove their effective calibre to customers and other stakeholders in due course.

No less inspiring was Wenger’s eagle eye for spotting youth talent amid the difficulty of identifying potential at early ages. Wenger has been successful in bringing the best out of young players and most of them thrived under his guidance and generally had their best years in an Arsenal jersey. Leaders need to pay respect to the youth and make the effort to raise and build young talent instead of grabbing seasoned talent from similar organisations, which is unethical.

A disadvantage here was Wenger’s obsession with young talent, which put his team in imbalance and contributed to his lack of major silverware at Arsenal since 2005. In view of building an effective team, organisations need to avoid overindulging in having only seasoned or young talent; rather they need to ensure a proper balance between the two.

It is also crucial to inspire commitment and dedication to a meaningful purpose.

“If you want success, you have to commit and dedicate completely. Football is the meaning in my life. I have no regrets on that,” he once said.

Having too many purpose statements in stock is only a layer that is not lived. A clearly defined purpose is mandatory. In order to be able to inspire commitment and action, leaders must put a clearly defined purpose in place. That purpose needs to be deeply rooted in what customers, people and leaders themselves personally believe in and care about.

What goes together with purpose and commitment is loyalty and longevity. Provided attractive offers by other clubs, Wenger had decided to stay with Arsenal and continue to fight it out to achieve more success. Genuine leaders do not move to other organisations for a mere financial benefit. They are loyal to their organisation. Their loyalty brings with it the loyalty of the people around them and thereby stability for the organisation. Just as Wenger did in his tenure with Arsenal, longevity is important as this can over time build an enviable regime and a unique organisational culture.

A great business leader also needs to deal with failure openly to learn and build back better. Embracing failure has become a call for action in our age – be courageous and make mistakes to ultimately succeed. This is absolutely right but it only works in practice if a leader deals with failure and uses the lessons to benefit the team as a whole and help everyone commit to moving on.

Part of not being afraid to fail is adapting to change. Wenger had completely changed the philosophy of the game and achieved great success in his first ten years. He then took his eyes off the ball. He missed the next set of big changes that forged how the Premier League evolved. Wenger failed to adapt to changing situations during the conclusion of his career at Arsenal. Leaders should never stop adapting in order to compete and become successful. Adapting with change is mandatory and should apply to policies, strategies, technology, and even business philosophy.

These lessons from Wenger’s leadership experience are not exhaustive. However, it is still possible for everyone in a similar role to at least benchmark, and translate them into practice based on their own situation. Individuals, teams, and organisations can learn from both the best practices and failures. A constantly growing and evolving leadership capability is a must for sustainable development and success.

PUBLISHED ON Nov 13,2021 [ VOL 22 , NO 1124]

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