His Autobiography is released today, so what lessons can we draw from this sporting icon ?
When Manchester United boss Sir Alex – the most successful manager of a British soccer team in decades – announced his retirement back in May, it generated more than 1.4 million Twitter mentions within the first hour. This ranked as more significant than the death of Margaret Thatcher, if slightly less so than the announcement of the new Pope.
So here are Sir Alex’s 7 Leadership lessons :
1) Face Tough Reality And Sort Problems Out Head-On :
The son of a Glasgow shipbuilder, Ferguson’s grit was forged during 17 relatively unspectacular years as a player in Scottish football. He reflected: “The adversity gave me a sense of determination that has shaped my life. I made up my mind that I would never give in.”
When he became manager of Manchester United in 1986, the tough reality was that the side hadn’t won the football league for 26 years – Ferguson was depressed by the players’ level of fitness and worried that they were drinking too much. However, as he would do many times in later years, Ferguson drew strength from adversity, managing to increase their discipline and improve results.
A key lesson for CEOs is not to let problems fester but to tackle them head-on. As Ferguson says :
“No one likes to get criticized. But in the dressing room, it’s necessary that you point out your players’ mistakes. I do it right after the game. I don’t wait until Monday, I do it, and it’s finished. I’m on to the next match.”
2) Only Accept Winning :
“I’ve never played for a draw in my life,” boasts Ferguson, and with 49 trophies, 13 Premier League titles and two European Cups to his name, it shows. He has inspired by his passion, convincing players that they can push their performance on through a brick wall.
Ferguson is also passionate about his politics, leading his friend and Labour spin doctor Alistair Campbell to comment :
“If there is one lesson politics can take from sport, and someone as successful as Fergie, it is that if winning is what matters, make sure you do everything you need to do to win. That sounds obvious. But it is a mindset that combines the big vision with microscopic attention to detail.”
The temptation for Western CEOs is to get stuck in the mindset of incremental improvements, where 5% sales growth will get them through. However, as they come up against the big dreamers of increasingly professional Chinese companies, they would do well to adopt the mindset of the binary world of sport, where there are only winners and losers.
3) No-One Is Bigger Than The Team :
While he made solid transfer decisions, a big part of Ferguson’s success was the ability to spot talent and nurture from within. He turned exuberant “show ponies” – such as the 17-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo – into team players, while providing a home for talented misfits like Eric Cantona.
If you think there are big egos and strong characters in your organization, just look inside a Premier League dressing room. Ferguson’s genius has been to make everyone understand that the glory and the riches that they enjoy flow from being part of a winning team. It doesn’t matter how big a star you are. The team is always bigger. Either he was in control or the players were – as Roy Keane, Ruud van Nistelrooy, and David Beckham found out to their cost.
“Many CEOs should apply this to their top teams and deal more firmly with the big individuals who end up casting a dysfunctional shadow on team spirit and the company culture”.
4) Command Loyalty as A True Father Figure :
One of the great characters of football, Ferguson is often associated with his volatile temper. His “hairdryer” – whereby he dressed down a team member with such force and directness that it was said to dry his hair – is the stuff of legend. However, his role as a mentor and a father figure should be not be overlooked.
Ultimately, Ferguson has been more about building players up than knocking them down :
“ There is no room for criticism on the training field. For a player – and for any human being – there is nothing better than hearing ‘Well done’. Those are the two best words ever invented in sports.” Whatever the private exchanges, he always defends his team externally :
“There is no point in criticizing a player forever. And I never discuss an individual player in public. The players know that. It stays indoors.”
CEOs can learn much about loyalty and the importance of seeking external perspectives from Ferguson, who also told Alistair Campbell :
“ You know my definition of friendship – the real friend is the one who walks through the door when the others are putting on their coats to leave… I know from my position here that sometimes there can be so much noise and fury going on around you that you need people outside your own bubble who can take a slightly different perspective for you. We all need that.”
5) Work Hard & Stay Fresh :
Renowned for his work ethic and 7am training sessions, Ferguson says : “I tell players that hard work is a talent, too. They need to work harder than anyone else.”
However, Ferguson – whose outside interests span racing and military history – is an unlikely advocate of work-life balance, commenting :
” Mental and physical fitness are two sides of the same coin. You have to build rest into any program. That’s another thing that applies in all worlds, not just sport. I don’t think you can do high-pressure jobs now without being physically fit… there were times I could see [the leader] was getting tired, and I was thinking he’s probably doing too much himself, not delegating, not spreading the load.”
Only when they apply this insight can CEOs consistently perform at their best…
“Being able to analyze a situation and then decide what to do – that is such an important part of these top jobs. Reaching the right decisions under pressure.”
6) Build An Enduring Institution Of Which People Want To Be A Part :
Ferguson told the Harvard Business School that core to his success at Manchester United was building a “club” and not just building a “team” to survive :
“The first thought for 99% of new managers is to make sure they win – to survive. They bring experienced players in, often from their previous clubs. But I think it is important to build a structure for a football club, not just a football team. You need a foundation. And there is nothing better than seeing a young player make it to the first team. The idea is that the younger players are developing and meeting the standards that the older ones have set before.”
With a 27-year reign that’s eclipsed that of most CEOs and political leaders, Ferguson has excelled in managing multi-generation succession at his club. The baton has passed from the likes of Lee Sharpe and Nicky Butt, to Phil Jones on the inside and Robin van Persie from the outside. This would-be dinosaur has actually moved with the times, embracing new technology and medical advances to build a state-of-the-art training facility at Carrington. Ferguson has kept on developing his style and systems – and, professing that the modern player is somewhat more fragile – even claims to have mellowed a bit over the years.
7) Leave On A High :
Back on top of the English Premier League, Ferguson was wise enough to step away from the touchline of the beautiful game at a time of his choosing; without being given the red card. While it’s tempting to stay on and have another go and the ‘treble’ and the UEFA Champions League, the smart move is to leave space for someone else to take it on. That way his legacy has room to grow.
Many great leaders are true ‘one-offs’ and it is too simplistic to suggest that they should seek to bottle their essence to be preserved in aspic. Rather, the big challenge for them is to groom the next generation and ‘blend the essence’ so that it’s fit for their current and future organisation. Ferguson’s anointed successor, David Moyes, is said to be another Scot in the same mold but he is still going through a difficult transition.
His 27 years in the job have even inspired academic research at Ivy League institutions into Sir Alex’s leadership DNA , such as HBS’s Anita Elberse.
Note to soccer fans : As a passionate lifelong fan of Leeds United, a competing soccer team, it’s hard for me to write this post in praise of Sir Alex (easier though after Leeds’ 1-0 FA Cup Victory over Manchester United in 2010!). However, I have to respect what Sir Alex has achieved and the lessons we can draw from his leadership.
*** And Don’t Forget To Add Some “Fergie Time” ***
One of the most revealing passages in Sir Alex’s new autobiography is when he deals with the matter of “Fergie Time”. He admits that theatrically tapping on his watch as matches reached their conclusion was a psychological ploy.
The long-held popular belief was that this tactic would intimidate referees into granting Manchester United a little extra “stoppage time” (added with injuries, player changeovers etc.) at the end of either leg of a match. It was often in these vital extra seconds that his team would successfully score the goal that needed to level up the match or clinch victory. As BBC TV soccer presenter Gabby Logan would often say during her commentaries : “ They’re playing Fergie Time !! ”
I think the lesson here is that leaders and sports players – when in really matters – are able to get fully “in the zone” and into a state of peak performance. In this moment, we seem to lose track of conventional “clock time”, and the usual physical obstacles melt away. American football player John Brodie brings this concept to life :
“Time seems to slow way down… It seems as if I had all the time in the world.. and yet I know the defensive line is coming at me just as fast as ever.”
A truly great leader can shift other people’s perceptions of reality – inspire people to do the impossible. “Fergie Time” reminds me of Steve Jobs’ famous “reality distortion field” – which famously inspired his team to create ever-smaller, faster “insanely great” products – and convince us to buy products that we didn’t even know we needed.
With Sir Alex’s retirement, have we really seen the end of “Fergie Time” ?