Sir Alex Ferguson, what can leadership learn?
When we think of the country’s greatest leaders, Sir Alex Ferguson might not necessarily be top of the list. However, whilst watching the recent BBC documentary on Alex Ferguson entitled the ‘Secrets of success’ on BBC iPlayer, it struck me that in terms of leadership this guy had it all. Not only did he re-build a failing organisation from the bottom up, he addressed the ‘this is the way things are done around here’ culture and actively changed it (albeit one of the existing cultures was that of the drinking kind – by no means an easy feat to change!). He created a family feel within the club, which was demonstrated by his ability to remember everyone’s name; from the reception staff to the players in the junior teams. In his words, ‘Everyone Matters’.
Ferguson knew each of his players as individuals and knew how to flex his style to get the best out of them individually; be it the famous ‘hair dryer’ treatment or ‘hand around the shoulder’ management. As Sir Michael Moritz once said of Ferguson, “He could be the father confessor, the motivational speaker, the priest, the judge, the jury, the Lord High Executioner, the puppet master and the inspirational figure all in the course of one day”.
Indeed such is the respect for him as a leader, the documentary showed him giving a presentation to students at the London Business School. Let’s remind ourselves that this is not the CEO of Apple or Microsoft; this is a manager who leads men kicking a football around a field! But when you consider the fact he has consistently led winning teams over a management career of nearly 40 years, you start to sit up and take notice. The driving success of his teams led to huge revenue for his organisation, Manchester United. Man Utd consequently became one of the super brands in world sport under Ferguson’s stewardship. For the doubters who think that his success was due to the disposal of the right tools at such a big club, he also succeeded at smaller clubs such as St Mirren and Aberdeen in his native Scotland, where he won in Europe as well as breaking the stranglehold of the two Glasgow clubs domestically.
So what were some of Ferguson’s “secrets to success”? Well in the documentary they were highlighted as a healthy talent pipeline, generating a return from long term thinking, the ability to flex his leadership style where appropriate and knowing when to renew his team. Add succession planning to the mix and knowing when to step down, all these elements would not be out of place on any leadership development programme. Of course we have to be mindful that he was leading young male footballers and not different generations like in today’s world of work so his style may not work for ALL individuals – and of course he did made mistakes in his career, like we all do. By his own admission, selling Jaap Staam only to see him go on and develop into arguably a better defender was a misjudgement that would follow him throughout his career but isn’t being humble and self-aware also a quality of leadership?
Will we see Alex Ferguson’s name be referenced in Leadership Development programmes on a consistent basis moving forwards? In terms of football leadership he is arguably up there with the all time greats as a result of consistent success over many decades. As I always say; football is more than just a game! I just wish there was a Sir Alex Ferguson at Tottenham Hotspur!
Watch the BBC documentary on iPlayer here.