8 HALLMARKS OF SIR ALEX FERGUSON'S LEADERSHIP PHILOSOPHY
Indomitable, indestructible and irascible are three words that spring to mind when I think about Sir Alex Ferguson. I think of him pacing the sidelines of Manchester United, driving his team on to ever greater success - or brandishing a newspaper, rolling-pin-style, threatening to swipe a journalist who's annoyed him over the head.
Lying stricken in an intensive‑care unit following emergency surgery for a brain haemorrhage is not how I imagine Sir Alex Ferguson. I expect Fergie to have different powers to an ordinary man - to be superhuman. This is a man who, on his second attempt at retirement, has been making the most of his adjusted priorities, visiting new places, keeping busy, energetic and driven with an unstoppable enthusiasm for life.
One of those priorities has been a teaching position in Executive Education at Harvard Business School which involves delivering lectures to senior executives from around the world as part of the new “The Business of Entertainment, Media and Sports” programme. Ferguson's association with Harvard Business School started in 2012 when he participated in a case study for Harvard Business School professor, Anita Elberse.
When a team of researchers at Harvard Business School decided to study top-level leadership within a major organisation, you might have expected them to focus on a high-flying CEO such as Richard Branson of Virgin or Bill Gates of Microsoft. But instead, the academics approached a socialist football manager, Sir Alex Ferguson. Because love him or hate him, Sir Alex Ferguson is undoubtedly one of the greatest sports coaches of all time.
Where to start with his achievements? Before he retired in May 2013, Sir Alex Ferguson spent 26 seasons as the manager of Manchester United, during which time the club won 49 trophies, including the Champions League twice. To put his formidable achievements in context, he won 33 more trophies than the next most successful English club manager, Liverpool’s Bob Paisley, as well as winning Manager of the Year the most times in British football history. But Ferguson was far more than a coach. He played a central role in United’s organisation, managing not only the first team but the entire club. “Steve Jobs was Apple; Sir Alex Ferguson is Manchester United,” said the club’s former Chief Executive David Gill.
As a manager, Sir Alex was a mass of contradiction. Extraordinarily kind and generous, he could also be dictatorial and hostile. I imagine that he could be a bit of a bastard at times. But he was the best in the business. Here are 8 hallmarks of Sir Alex Ferguson's leadership philosophy.
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1. START WITH THE FOUNDATION
From the moment I got to Manchester United, I thought of only one thing: building a football club. I wanted to build right from the bottom. That was in order to create fluency and a continuity of supply to the first team. With this approach, the players all grow up together, producing a bond that, in turn, creates a spirit."
From the outset, Ferguson modernised United’s youth programme, establishing two “centres of excellence” for promising players as young as nine and recruiting a number of scouts, who were told to bring him the best young talent. David Beckham, was the best-known of his early signings whilst the most important was Ryan Giggs, who went on to become the most decorated British footballer of all time. Along with other alumni from United’s youth programme, Giggs and Beckham formed the core of the great United teams of the late 1990s and early 2000s, which Ferguson credits with shaping the club’s modern identity.
2. DARE TO REBUILD YOUR TEAM
The hardest thing is to let go of a player who has been a great guy - but all the evidence is on the field. If you see the change, the deterioration, you have to ask yourself what things are going to be like two years ahead."
Ferguson believed that the cycle for a successful team was around four years before change is needed, so he tried to visualise the team three or four years ahead and make decisions accordingly about which players to keep and which to move on. Because he was at United for such a long time, and nobody expected him to be sacked, Ferguson was able to plan ahead. He moved older players out depending on his prediction of their form 2-3 years ahead and gave younger players the opportunity to develop, mature and learn the club culture.
3. HOLD EVERYBODY ACCOUNTABLE TO HIGH STANDARDS
I constantly told my squad that working hard all your life is a talent. But I expected even more from the star players. I expected them to work even harder."
One of his core values is to never give in, and so Sir Alex Ferguson recruited what he called “bad losers” and demanded that they work extremely hard. This attitude became contagious as players wouldn’t accept their teammates not giving their all. The biggest stars were expected to lead by example, and if they started to become a disruptive influence in the dressing room, they were transferred out.
4. NEVER, EVER CEDE CONTROL
There are occasions when you have to ask yourself whether certain players are affecting the dressing-room atmosphere, the performance of the team, and your control of the players and the staff. If they are, you have to cut the cord."
Ferguson was determined that he would always have a stronger personality than his players, and so he usually acted decisively and swiftly to deal with players wanting to challenge his authority and control. If players got into trouble, they were fined and if they stepped out of line in such a way that they could undermine the team’s performance, Ferguson let them go. In 2005, when long time captain Roy Keane publicly criticised his teammates, his contract was terminated.
5. MATCH THE MESSAGE TO THE MOMENT
For a player - for any human being - there is nothing better than hearing 'Well done.' Those are the two best words ever invented."
Contrary to popular opinion, Ferguson worked hard to tailor his words to the particular situation, believing that players responded better to encouragement than they did to criticism. If he had to deliver an unpopular decision e.g. omission from the starting line-up, he did so in private and by acknowledging that he may be making a tactical error. Poor performance was dealt with immediately after the match.
6. PREPARE TO WIN
I am a gambler—a risk taker—and you can see that in how we played in the late stages of matches. ... If we were still down—say, 1–2—with 15 minutes to go, I was ready to take more risks. I was perfectly happy to lose 1–3 if it meant we’d given ourselves a good chance to draw or to win. So in those last 15 minutes, we’d go for it."
Winning is in Sir Alex Ferguson’s DNA. Perseverance was a key trait of his teams, along with being positive and taking risks. United had a well-deserved reputation for pulling out victories in the final stages of games. Inspirational half-time talks and the right tactical changes during the game were important factors but so too was Ferguson’s highly systematic approach to training sessions when the squad practiced how to score a goal in the last few minutes of the match.
7. OBSERVATION IS A KEY TOOL
I came to see observation as a critical part of my management skills. The ability to see things is key - or, more specifically, the ability to see things you don't expect to see."
Observation was a key tool in Ferguson’s management armoury. When he first became a manager, he insisted on leading all squad training sessions himself - until his Assistant Manager at Aberdeen questioned what was the purpose of his being at these sessions when Ferguson did everything himself. After a few days’ reflection, Ferguson realised that his time would be much better spent observing squad training sessions as he picked up information and noticed important details which he missed when he led the sessions.
8. KEEP CHANGING AND INNOVATING
Most people with my kind of track record don't look to change. But I always felt I couldn't afford not to change."
Ferguson believes that you control change by accepting it and using it as an opportunity to innovate. From expanding his back-room staff to include sports scientists to installing Vitamin D booths in the players’ dressing room (to compensate for the lack of sunlight in Manchester) to championing the use of vests fitted with GPS sensors (that allow an analysis of performance just 20 minutes after a training session) through to hiring a yoga instructor to work with players twice a week, Ferguson was able to provide training facilities conducive to winning and thus stay ahead of the competition.
If you'd like to learn more about what made Sir Alex Ferguson such an exceptional leader, I highly recommend you read his book, Leading, which sets out clearly and in practical terms what made 'The Boss' so successful.
Question: What's your perspective on Sir Alex Ferguson as a leader? I love reading your feedback so please do take a moment to share let me know in the comments box below.
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