Regardless of whether you follow football (yes, soccer), Sir Alex Ferguson is a name that needs little introduction. Hailed the most successful manager in the history of the sport (and a darned long history at that!), such is his legendary stature that his sudden announcement of stepping down from his coaching role at Manchester United in May 2013, after 26 years at the helm, became a story that utterly dominated the main headlines of major news networks worldwide for several days thereafter.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Sir Alex Ferguson’s career was his sheer longevity in a results-obsessed sport where many a manager’s tenure barely lasted longer than you could say “Manchester United Football Club”. What was the secret behind his uncanny ability to repeatedly build and rebuild championship-winning teams over a span of nearly three decades? What methods did he apply to bring out the best in batch after batch of young, rich and sometimes spoilt footballers?
As a manager not primarily known for his football tactical prowess, a lot more has been said about his extraordinary leadership skills as key to his success. This led to a Harvard Business School case study on him, and later even landed him a lecturing position at Harvard. In 2015, Sir Alex published his fourth book, unambiguously titled Leading, allowing the world a look into the mind of a leader who came, saw and conquered it all.
While reviews on Leading have been largely positive, one criticism often levelled at the book is that it dwells too much on his personal experiences and operations at the clubs he managed, rather than on the principles of his leadership.
To be sure, Sir Alex makes no claim that the book serves as a leadership manual (à la John C. Maxwell stuff). In his words, “this book contains the lessons and observations about how I pursued excellence on and off the football pitch”. In other words, it’s what worked for him!
That isn’t to say there aren’t gems on leadership advice that can be found throughout Leading. I’ve picked out 10, among many others, of Sir Alex Ferguson’s noteworthy ideas from the book that can give both aspiring and accomplished leaders food for thought:
1) Leadership vs. Management
The lines between leadership and management can oftentimes be blurred, especially in the corporate world where we are required to be very task-oriented to meet certain objectives within defined roles. We may even judge our leaders based on how well they coordinate activities and manage resources. Sir Alex, though, goes back to the essence of leadership:
At United we had plenty of people who could manage aspects of our activities far better than I could… I slowly came to understand that my job was different. It was to help everyone else believe they could do things that they didn’t think they were capable of. It was to chart a course that had not been pursued before.”
Leaders are at the forefront of making decisions that have implications on those who follow. But seldom do leaders have the luxury of time and complete knowledge to make well-informed choices. Yet imperfect action is better than perfect inaction, as Sir Alex puts it:
You have to make decisions with the information at your disposal, rather than what you wish you might have… if I was going to err on making one of those mistakes, I far preferred to make the decision earlier rather than later.”
One of the most common weaknesses of leaders is their lack of interest in listening to what others may have to tell them, preferring to trust only in themselves. Sir Alex, though, offers an interesting perspective on the advantages of being a listener:
It always pays to listen to others. It’s like enrolling in a continuous, lifelong free education with the added benefit that there are no examinations and you can always discard useless comments.”
Another mistake leaders tend to make is trying to do everything by themselves, particularly when the work is very close to their hearts. Sir Alex was no exception during his early managerial days, getting overly involved in matters from grass feed to match-day programme contents, but eventually learning to empower others to do what their expertise allowed them to do best:
It is better to explain to the people around you that you care about little details, but that it’s their job to attend to them. When I hired someone to do something I trusted them to do it.”
As leaders, what do we look for in our teams? Hundreds of players with immense talent had passed through the doors of Manchester United under Sir Alex’s watch, but not all became world-beaters. From his vast experience in managing players, he has no doubt what brings about success:
If I had to pick drive or talent as the most potent fuel, it would be the former. For me drive means a combination of a willingness to work hard, emotional fortitude, enormous powers of concentration and a refusal to admit defeat.”
Sir Alex recounts how on occasions when his team had fallen behind in the game, some of his players would start taking hopeful and improbable shots with little chance of scoring. Similarly, do we as leaders get so carried away in the midst of our fervour to put things right that we lose sight of the pragmatic and try to achieve the miraculous? Do we spot signs of our team members doing the same when matters get seemingly desperate?
One aspect of managing high-achievers is the need to restrain them from trying to do the impossible… Disciplined perseverance pays far more dividends than impetuous attempts at individual heroism.”
7) Setting Targets
Following up on the point of pragmatism, it is also important for leaders to establish realistic goals that set their teams up for success, not disappointment. Lofty, far-fetched targets may add unnecessary pressure on teams. Sir Alex’s approach to this was to make provision for a degree of flexibility and vagueness, such that it conveyed a spirit (“At United we expect to win every game”) rather than a specific goal (“We expect to win the League and two pieces of silverware this season”):
Be careful about the way you define success… Winning anything requires a series of steps. So I would be careful to divide everything up into digestible chunks… There’s a balance that needs to be weighed when conveying a sense of what’s possible with the reality of the circumstances.”
8) Settling In as New Leaders
We all know this type—the one who comes in as a new leader and turns the organisation upside down overnight with sweeping changes, well-meaning as they may be. Before you know it, the leader has, in football terms, “lost the dressing room”:
There is no point suddenly changing routines that players are comfortable with. It is counterproductive, saps morale and immediately provokes players to question the new man’s motives. A leader who arrives in a new setting, or inherits a big role, needs to curb the impulse to display his manhood.”
Teams are made up of individuals with different characters, and leaders should consider how they can communicate with each of them in the most effective manner to bring out the best in them. Some leaders may believe that it is fairer to treat everyone equally, but in a team made up of players of various nationalities, backgrounds and cultures, Sir Alex realised that not every player responded well to his infamous tongue-lashings when trying to get a point across.
Every player is different, and I came to learn that they all required different care and feeding… Any leader needs to put himself in the shoes of the listener.”
To wrap things up, how do leaders motivate their teams? For Sir Alex, understanding his players, showing them genuine loyalty in times of difficulty, being consistent in his leadership approach and even just being present during training sessions went a long way in winning their respect and trust, which in turn allowed him to inspire them towards greater results:
You don’t get the best out of people by hitting them with an iron rod. You do so by gaining their respect, getting them accustomed to triumphs and convincing them that they are capable of improving their performance… It turns out that the two most powerful words in the English language are, ‘Well done’. Much of leadership is about extracting that extra 5 per cent of performance that individuals did not know they possessed.”