Sir Alex FergusonRead this article by Anita Elberse in Harvard Business Review based on her interview with Sir Alex when he retired last year. Elberse pulls out eight themes and then Fergie comments on them. It’s delicious!

The eight topics are: the long-term, team-building, standards, power, communication, preparation, observing and change. All are essential for great leadership and getting results.

Here are my highlights:

On taking the long-term view…

Alex Ferguson’s first thought on taking the job of Manager of the struggling football club, Manchester United, in 1986 was “to build a club”. Anyone else in this results-driven industry would be thinking “how can I win the next game? Who do I need to bring in?” Not him. Against popular opinion, he turned his attention to building up two centres of excellence for young players – establishing a pipeline of talent for the long-term. “Winning a game is only a short-term gain” he said “building a club brings stability and consistency”. Beckham, Giggs, Scholes and Neville are all testament to his investment in developing young talent for the future. And he gets a real buzz from it – “If you give a young person attention and the opportunity to succeed, it’s amazing how much they will surprise you”. He believes that “the job of a manager…is to inspire people to be better…and they can go anywhere in life”.

What are the time-spans for the focus of attention in your organisation?
What’s the attitude to young talent?

On team-building
Ryan Giggs told Elberse “He’s never really looking at this moment, he’s always looking into the future” The long-term again. Ferguson reckons that “the cycle of a successful team is about 4 years and then some change is needed”. He also looks at the life cycle of his players – what value are they adding? How will they be performing in 2-3 years time?” He accepted that sometimes he would have to let good guys go. Ferguson let them go in their prime – while they still commanded a good transfer fee and could move into another great club to further their own career. Elberse describes Ferguson as “a portfolio manager of talent: strategic rational and systematic…he dared to rebuild his team… continuously”.

Dare you rebuild your team?

On standards
No surprises here: “set high standards and hold everyone to them”. What is surprising is how he did it. He didn’t specify the standards. He taught values and responsibility. He believes that instilling values into players is even more important than technical skills. He ruefully admits that he chose “bad losers” and he saw his job as making them WINNERS. He emphasised hard work and perseverance and role modelled both every single day. “Work hard… Strive to do better. ..Never give up. ..Meet high standards and require them of others… Never let you team-mates down by not giving it your all”. He believed in his players and lifted their expectations of themselves and one another.
And for the stars? He urged them to “work harder – and show you’re the top players”

Are your company values actively instrumental in achieving high standards or are they outcomes – like excellence or quality? What about your personal values? How are they translated into everyday behaviours?

On power
The message here is to protect your power and your position. If anyone challenges your control and authority – take them on. If players step out of line in a way that could undermine the team’s performance – let them go. Respond quickly. Respond forcefully. Don’t allow anybody to be stronger than you. “Your personality has to be bigger than theirs. That’s vital.”

I can see this working for an Alpha Male managing other aspirant Alpha Males – but for a woman? Maybe in a man’s world? And do we need/want Alpha male behaviour in a diverse work force? Please blog on this one! Then Ferguson puts it into the long-term context – again. “The long-term view of the club is more important than any individual, and the manager has to be the most important one in the club…without control, you will not last” Well, this is true of school-teachers too. Self-belief gets a look-in here too. “[Don’t ] go to bed with doubts … have confidence in yourself to make a decision and to move on”.

For me, Ferguson’s use of power and control is the most controversial of the eight topics. I’m nearer the “wimp” end of his implied scale and it’s got me thinking.

What’s your relationship with power? What’s driving it? How comfortable are you with being in total control and how comfortable are you with other people’s use of power in your organisation?

On communicating – giving feedback
Tailor your communication to the situation. Even tough guys need sensitive handling sometimes. Ferguson explains that if he’s not going to play them when they expect: “I do it privately. It’s not easy. I say, ‘Look, I might be making a mistake here’- I always say that – ‘but I think this is the best team for today.’ I try to give them a bit of confidence, telling them that it is only tactical and that bigger games are coming up.”
He stresses that positive feedback is more important than negative feedback. “Well Done! … are the best two words ever invented” And when he reprimands – he does it as quickly as possible and then moves on.

On communicating – to inspire performance
“In my pre-match talks my expectations are that we’ll win and I stress the importance of the work ethic, the players’ belief in themselves and trusting one another”. Values trump technical tactics yet again. “At half-time (there’s only 8 minutes) if we’re winning – I remind them to concentrate and not to become complacent; if we’re losing I focus on our team (not the opposition) and on our strengths. I ask them to recall the tactics from training.” Aha – tactics are still important!

Fear? It has its place, but not in the game – it diminishes performance.

Is giving feedback part of your everyday communication at work?
And what of encouraging winning performance?

On preparation
If winning is what Ferguson’s players do on Match Day then practising winning is what they do every other day. They practice for when the going gets tough – to be successful in adversity. By repeatedly practising skills and tactics they become automatic under pressure. [This is classic resiliency training – its done in the armed forces and its the reason why so many escaped from the 9/11 attack on the WTC].

Ferguson’s preparation includes tactics for winning with 10 minutes to go; 5 minutes to go; 2 minutes to go and so on, no doubt into penalty time. Goal scoring in the last minutes of a game may be the difference between winning or not – and it’s certainly thrilling for the spectators – who are another important stakeholder! Training sessions are taken very seriously. They are opportunities for learning and continuous improvement. The concentration is intense, so is the speed. A high level of performance is always expected and it’s never quite enough. Ferguson is never quite satisfied – with anything – and that includes all the backroom activities too. “The message is simple. We cannot sit still at this club”.

“Winning is in my nature…I had to win…I expected to win…I was confident that the players were prepared and ready to play because everything had been done before they walked out onto the pitch.” Ferguson admits to being a gambler – a risk-taker and he’d take more risks towards the end of the match – but he doesn’t take any risks with preparation. Preparation – training and practice – are part of his strategy to win.

Whilst high profile sports events or theatrical performances lend themselves to focussed preparation, we also have plenty of important pitches and presentations to make to win business against stiff competition and critical audiences, we have deadlines and high standards to meet, and we have colleagues and customers who can be let down.

Do you prepare with care? Do you ever rehearse? Or do you “wing it” most of the time?

On observing
Ferguson has come “to rely on the power of observation”. It wasn’t always so. As his career progressed from player to coach to manager he had to do what many of us have struggled with – letting go of what we love doing. His final break with the past had to be prompted by his Deputy who was frustrated by not having a job to do! Ferguson slept on the feedback and then gave it a go … “it was the best thing I ever did … and my performance jumped”.
“Once I stepped out of the bubble, I became more aware .. and it allowed me to go further with [players]…I don’t think that many people fully understand the value of observing. 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 the things you don’t expect to see.”

Do you find time to observe your colleagues and clients and notice what they may not be disclosing or even have become aware of themselves?

On change
Everything about the game changed whilst Ferguson was in post. He responded by living out his interpretation of his job as “to give us the best possible chance of winning” and that meant constantly exploring every means of improving and implementing change. Many successful leaders hang on to the past too long. “Why change a winning formula?” is their mantra. Not Ferguson’s. “I always felt I couldn’t afford not to change…the most important thing is not to stagnate.”

What were some of the innovative practices that Ferguson pioneered? Many have since been adopted by other clubs. He appointed sports psychologists, yoga instructors even an optometrist; he installed Vitamin D booths to compensate for dull days in Manchester; players wore GPS devices to track their movement in training; youthful teams played in the League cup; and recently a state-of-the-art medical facility has been built at the training ground.

Does your organisation respond to changes when it has no other choice or does it anticipate and initiate change to make you more competitive and to be ready for what the future will probably throw at you?

Knowing nothing much about football, I always had this image of Alex Ferguson as a rabid little Scottie dog hurling himself around the dressing room, flying through the air sometimes, biting people! How wrong could I be!! The man coming out of the HBR pages is deeply committed, courageous, honest and surprisingly reflective. Over his career he has developed and deployed a powerful range of leadership skills. We can all learn from him – whether or not we love “the beautiful game”.

But is he a “cool leader?”
Many of his values and behaviours qualify and he certainly consistently delivered results – sometimes extraordinary results – but anyone who responds to opposition to his point of view with dismissal – who treats team-members as pawns in his game – is, in my book, a little flawed. Could he have done otherwise and still won 32 trophies during his tenure? Maybe not. Are we prepared to accept pretty autocratic leadership if it gets results – clearly we are. And there is an impressive bronze statue outside the club grounds applauding his achievements and an appointment at Harvard as Professor of Leadership approving his approach, to prove it. Maybe its simply an example of situational leadership and “tough love”?

And what of his legacy? Manchester United finished seventh this season: their lowest league position for more than 20 years. Also, for the first time they haven’t qualified for the lucrative Champions League.  And, to add insult to injury, they had the indignity of losing to eventual champions, Manchester City, and huge rivals, Liverpool. Baffled by this disastrous turn of fortune, the psychologist in me began to weave dark spells of over-identification (when I go, the club goes with me; we are one and the same) and hubris (only I have the magic touch). But it didn’t add up and I decided to ask someone who might know (always a good strategy!) so I contacted sports commentator, Tim Payton:

“I think the main issue is that Ferguson misjudged how much both he and the role had changed in 25 years. He appointed in the mould of himself 25 years earlier – hard working, youngish and Scottish – rather than who he became – one of the world’s super managers with great authority.

The succession was seamless. It was all decided and done long before the season ended. And it was strategic – in that it was thought through and David Moyes was given a seven year contract. Also, football has become much more demanding. People forget that Ferguson didn’t win a trophy for his first five years. Nowadays a big club can’t go one year without getting twitchy.

 There is also the issue that these days, the multi-million-pound dressing room players expect to be managed by someone they respect. Moyes had never won a trophy and he didn’t inspire the big names. He didn’t have time, like Ferguson did, to win the respect. [And the price he paid, despite the contract, was to be fired a few weeks ago.]

So in terms of the HBR article, there is some irony in his ‘never stop adapting’ rule to change for he didn’t adapt his view of his replacement needing to fill the shoes of the man he became, rather than who he was when he first took on the job.”

How do you think about your own successor? People often talk this way when discussing their successor – they look back to who they were when they started in the role – often many years ago – and nostalgically believe that history will repeat itself. Yet everything has changed including the needs and expectations of the role. You, like Ferguson, are a different person from the one who first started out. A look-alike just might not fit the bill.

Who’s in your pipeline – and why?

Reference  ELBERSE, A. & FERGUSON, S. A. 2013. Ferguson’s formula. Harvard Business Review, 91, 116–125. [Reprint Ref: R1310G]


Jacquie Drake

Jacquie Drake

Dr Jacquie Drake is Founder of cool-leadership.com and Editor of the cool-leadership newsletter.


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