Lessons in leadership from Mikel Arteta

This Christmas break I finally got around to watching the Arsenal: All or Nothing documentary released earlier this year on Amazon. The series follows Arsenal for the duration of the 2021/2022 season, which on the surface ended in disappointment but was also one of under-appreciated progress in my view.

Arsenal finished 5th in the league, one place outside the top 4 that would have ensured a place in this year’s Champions League, Europe’s premier club competition. Arsenal notably seemed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, having lead their arch rivals Tottenham Hotspur by 4 points with 3 games remaining, only to lose 2 out of the last 3 games and, as a result, relinquish 4th place to Tottenham.

In spite of an underwhelming finish to the season, there was a lot to be positive about. After two consecutive 8th place finishes and a year out of European competition, the club finished 5th and qualified for the Europa League, Europe’s second club competition. The club managed to purge its underperforming players and rebuild its team around a core of hungry youngsters. And finally, the icy relationship between the club and its fanbase that had built up over the past few years was beginning to thaw.

While accomplishments like these are never the result of a single person’s work, one cannot understate the importance of Arsenal’s manager, Mikel Arteta. Arteta is a former Arsenal player who took on the managerial position in December 2019 when the club was in a state of disarray. Yet in spite of his inexperience—it was his first job as a manager—he took on a challenging task and has done an incredible job so far. At the current time of writing, Arsenal is first in this season’s league and Arteta is widely regarded as one of the most promising young managers in the game.

Throughout the documentary I was drawn to Arteta’s leadership style. While he operates within a football club, I think that his approach can be applied to leaders across almost all organisations. Below are what I gathered to be some of the key tenants of his leadership.

Play the long game

Set ambitious goals to be accomplished over the long term. In football as well as in other industries, there is no such thing as an overnight success. It takes time to achieve great results.

When Mikel was interviewing for the Arsenal job he presented the board a 5 year plan to get Arsenal back to the top. He was fully aware that to get Arsenal back in a position where they could challenge for the biggest trophies, he would need a long term plan and time.

It’s worth noting that time is not a luxury afforded to every manager. After Mikel lost the first 3 games of last season there were strong calls for him to be sacked. After a spell of bad form in the season before, there were similar calls. In both cases the board stuck with him. There’s a telling clip in the series when the son of the owner, Josh Kroenke, sits with Arteta in the club cafeteria and reaffirms his conviction in him after the poor start to the season.

Both owners and managers need to be in full alignment on a long time horizon. Freedom from the tyranny of immediate results has enabled Arteta to consistently work on the composition of the club several years into the future, without worrying if he would would be sacked before his work could show results.

“Trust the process”

There’s a natural temptation to exclusively focus on results at all times. While in the long term results are the ultimate judge of performance, in the short term it’s more important to focus on process. Process is the daily work and routine that’s required to achieve one’s long term ambitions.

When Arteta took over, he inherited an underperforming team without a clear playing identity. Over time, he imposed his own identity of attacking and possession-based play onto the team. The results for the first part of his reign were marked by inconsistencies. Wins against strong rivals were followed by losses against bottom table opposition. His continued emphasis to “trust the process” became a point of ridicule amongst his critics that immediately demanded better results.

Yet Arteta didn’t deviate from his convictions and stuck to his process. He wanted to impart onto the team a clear identity that would enable the team to win with style and to win consistently. Results cannot be directly controlled, but process can. Ultimately a great process is what maximises the chances of great results, and Arsenal’s results this season speak for themselves.

Culture is king

Before Arteta joined, the culture at Arsenal was poor. Too many players were free-riding (enjoying high paying contracts and life in London) and the relationship between the club and its fans was at an all time low. Former club captain Granit Xhaka getting booed off the pitch during a game by the fans summed up their relationship.

The first thing Arteta did when he came in was impose a set of non-negotiables onto his players.

"First of all, respect. The second one is commitment and the third is passion. Those three ingredients are non-negotiable. If you have them then I am sure we will do great things together."

If players didn’t respect his non-negotiables, they were out, bar none. This was most dramatically put into practice in what turned out to be one of the biggest moments of Arteta’s reign: his dismissal of club captain Pierre Emerick Aubameyang (Auba). Auba was not only the club captain at the time but also the best player and top goalscorer. Yet after repeated disciplinary infringements, Auba was stripped of the captaincy, forced to train alone, and ultimately had his contract cancelled. This was a message to all the other players: nobody is bigger than the team.

Perhaps with Auba still in the team, Arsenal would have finished in the top 4. They did after all lose their top goalscorer and struggled to replace his potency in front of goal. But keeping Auba would have compromised the culture Arteta wanted to nurture. In the long run, principles are just more important than short term convenience.

Make the big calls

Leaders don’t shy away from making the big calls. Arteta certainly didn’t when he dismissed Auba, which was viewed by many as a mistake at the time. Today, most people would agree that it was the right decision.

Yet leaders don’t get every call right and a lot of the decisions they make will be unpopular. However, leaders don’t care if their decisions are unpopular and are not paralysed into inaction. They act on what they think is right and do so decisively.

Big calls can also catalyse a leader’s tenure, which getting rid of Auba did for Arteta.

While there is still a long road ahead for Mikel Arteta and Arsenal, the documentary offers an insightful window into the methods of a young manager making his mark on a big organisation. Watching the documentary reinforced my belief that there is a lot of value in leaders learning from their counterparts in other fields. Whether operating in the boardroom of a technology startup or in the dugout of a football club, true leaders across all fields and organisations are cut from similar cloth.