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Leadership lessons from Sir Alex Ferguson

Manchester United chose me. I was born near Manchester and I have no recollection of deciding which team I would follow all my life. Nick Hornby says in his best-selling book, Fever Pitch,

“I fell in love with football suddenly, inexplicably, uncritically, giving no thought to the pain or disruption it would bring with it.”

There was plenty of ‘pain and disruption’ in the early days when United went 26 years without winning the league, including relegation to the old Division 2. Sir Alex Ferguson took over as Manager in 1986, and his lack of league success until 1993 would probably not be tolerated today. He described 1989 as "the darkest period (he had) ever suffered in the game", as United were nearly relegated again. Fans and press were calling for his head.

Yet now, he retires as the greatest sports manager ever, leading United to 13 Premier League titles and two UEFA Champions League wins among 38 trophies. His reign feels like one long, glorious party. What it also shows is incredible resilience in the face of adversity, and a single-minded determination to follow a course and rebuild the club in spite of almost universal criticism. A leadership lesson in believing in yourself.

Meeting Sir Alex

On 27 October 2007, I was in the ‘VIP’ area at the back of one of the stands at Old Trafford, home of Manchester United, talking to a local businessman after a game. The only reason I had access to the area was I had been doing some business with Mark Ferguson, eldest son of Sir Alex and Chief Investment Officer at Generation Investment Management. Mark told me to introduce myself to a lady, Lyn, who had been with Sir Alex for decades and had known Mark since he was a lad running around the training grounds. When I picked up my match ticket from Lyn, she told me to come to the VIP area after the game.

It was not really Very Important, as we were buying our own food and drinks, but it was a good atmosphere as everyone was a United fan and we had won 4-1 a few minutes earlier. The businessman told me Sir Alex rarely came into the room, but the owners of the club, the Glazer brothers, dropped in for a quick chat. I asked one how they separate business from football, and he said they leave all the football decisions to Sir Alex.

Then came one of those moments where you take a risk, and you’re glad you did forever. I looked up and through a glass door and down a long corridor, and I caught a glimpse of Sir Alex as he turned into another room. I decided I had one shot at this, so I headed for the room he had just entered. Then I had a massive slice of luck. Lyn was ‘guarding’ the door, and she immediately recognised me. Without hesitating, she smiled and grabbed me by the hand, pulled me through a small group of people, and almost pushed me to stand right next to Sir Alex.

“Alex, this is Graham, he’s a friend of Mark’s, come from Australia.”

Well, shoot me down with a feather. I’ve died and gone to heaven. I had not even thought about what I might say. Here I am, shaking his hand and chatting, and he’s nothing like the terrifying ogre depicted in the media, the man known as ‘The Hairdryer’ due to the outrage sometimes inflicted on his players. He had a massive grin on his face, looked very happy, and he called the waiter over to give me a drink. We talked for only a minute or two about football in Australia, when I was intercepted by someone I recognised, an old United player, Paddy Crerand.

The room was actually Sir Alex’s personal ‘den’ at Old Trafford – a small space with no windows, capable of holding only about a dozen people in comfort, with the walls covered in photographs of many of United’s great victories.

Then something amazing happened. People started to leave, and I decided I would stay until someone chucked me out. There were only four or five of us left, and Sir Alex came up to me, put his arm around my shoulder, and told me to sit down. The waiter gave me another drink. And there I stayed having drinks with a few Scottish guys talking about the old days in Glasgow, conversations full of politically incorrect references and loud laughter, strong accents where I could barely catch the story, and lots of bawdy jokes.

I chatted with Vince, an old friend of Sir Alex who had been with him since the Aberdeen days, and asked if it were true that Alex would have been sacked if United had not won the FA Cup in 1990, his first trophy after four years in charge. He said that Alex had enormous support at the United Board level, and he believes the Manager would have kept his job. So much for that myth.

I was wearing my United shirt, and at one stage, Alex grabbed a felt-tip pen and scrawled his signature across my chest. That shirt now hangs on my wall. He reached for a couple of matchday programmes and gave me more precious autographs. The waiter topped up the red wine. Paddy Crerand told a long joke which I could not fathom but we laughed like drunken sailors.

It all went by in a flash. I had to concentrate on being in the moment. It was one of those instances where you’re almost outside your own body, watching yourself and wondering if it were really happening. Lyn came in and took photographs, Alex putting his arm around me like we were old friends. By the time I walked away, into the cold Manchester evening air as if in a dream, I had been there for over two hours.

What other leadership lessons can we learn?

Several things stay with me, and combined with watching Sir Alex for a quarter of a century, they give insights into his great success.

  • Loyalty and support. Even when Sir Alex ended a player’s career, they left with the greatest respect for him. In his 1999 autobiography, Managing My Life, he says, “ … loyalty is something I regard as one of the most precious human qualities … the inclination to stick by friends and allies was bred into me and strengthened by my working-class upbringing in Scotland.”

  • Stay grounded. When I saw Sir Alex at Old Trafford, it was about half an hour after the game had finished. He must have seen the players and fulfilled his media obligations, and come straight up to chat with his mates. These people had been his friends for decades. And he always made decisions for the good of his team, not himself.

  • Take control. Watch any United game and there’s no doubt who’s in charge. Alex Ferguson never tolerated any player becoming bigger than the team, and even when stars like David Beckham and Ruud van Nistelrooy were still at the top of their game, he moved them on when their attitude was not right. Alex never lost control of the dressing room, in the same way a corporate CEO cannot lose control of his executives.

  • Regenerate the team. Ferguson rebuilt United many times, often at great expense but also by fostering youth. He knew a diversity of skills and ages was required. The United Youth team of 1992 contained the baby-faced images of David Beckham, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt, all future England internationals who were part of the mighty treble-winning team of 1999.

  • Board support and stability. Incoming Manager David Moyes has just signed a six year contract, Alex went seven years without a league win. There are many trustees who could learn from this, that you don’t sack a fund manager after one poor year if you’ve followed a rigorous selection process.

  • Relax and switch off. Manchester United games are watched by 500 million people. It is one of the world’s leading brands, in every corner of the planet. Everyone wants a piece of Sir Alex. Yet half an hour after the game, he was having a friendly beer with his lifelong mates as if he did not have a care in the world.

  • Delegate. No doubt after any game, there are hundreds of things to do. For example, United players often play midweek, including for their countries, and attention to injuries and the recovery process is now highly scientific. But Alex has a team that looks after all that, and he does not need to micromanage everything.

  • Resilience and discipline. Even at the age of 71 and after 26 years in charge, Sir Alex was one of the first at the Old Trafford ground at 7.00 each morning. He was very strict with his players. In his autobiography, he says, “A footballer who does not distance himself from the drinking and the late hours is asking for trouble.” 

  • Decisiveness. Sir Alex once said he believes he gets seven out of ten decisions correct, and this is enough to win most games. It allows him to trust his instincts and be decisive without worrying about making mistakes, which is why he always looks in control as circumstances change throughout a game and season.

Somewhere out there is a 26-year-old Manchester United fan who has never known another Manager of his team. Let’s hope he is not about to learn the ‘pain and disruption’ of following a team in the post Alex Ferguson years. There’s no doubt the fans of every other Premier League club just heaved a sigh of relief.

 

 

5 Comments
Mark Hall
May 21, 2013

Thank you, Graham for your insightful article - I had tears in my eyes reading it.
The culture at Manchester United is amazing - support is everywhere - even seamingly 'small things'. It is a true community.
We live in Adelaide. Our 17 year son Lachie was a passionate Man U. supporter. He died from bowel cancer in 2009. Lachie received a get well letter from Sir Alex, and we received a letter of condolance from Sir Alex after our son died. The club welcomed us when we attended to scatter some of Lachie's ashes on the touchline at Old Trafford. Need I say more

Graham Hand
May 19, 2013

Thanks for the feedback Mark. That's a more emotional and heartfelt comment than my article. A very powerful memory. All the best.

Adam Coughlan
May 18, 2013

Graham, read your article on leadership and Sir Alex Ferguson. A great piece and clearly one off the bucket list for you.

I thought you might be interested in the following article. I came across it from the website thebrowser.com. I'm not sure if you have heard of it but it is a collection of the best essays/articles on the web (subjective of course).

http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/9276347/the-contradictions-alex-ferguson

Paul Umbrazunas
May 17, 2013

As a non ManU fan, can't say I'll miss him however, his management skills were/are clearly superb and all due credit. Complex stakeholder management (players, staff, fans, owners, FA/regulator, refs, media).

He also called Twitter "nonsense" ...excellent.

Great article Graham.

Jezebel
May 17, 2013

Great Man U fan story and management lessons to boot.

 

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