Should we be taking leadership advice from Sir Alex Furguson

Should we be taking leadership advice from Sir Alex Ferguson?

Sir Alex Ferguson’s book ‘Leading’ has been described by the Financial Times as ‘A case study in leadership’. There is no denying the monumental success Ferguson has created – an astounding 49 trophies were won in his 26 years as Manchester United’s manager. His approach to management and leadership has allowed Manchester United to grow into one of the most prestigious football clubs in the world.

Ferguson has been widely hailed as an inspiration and model for leadership. His managerial techniques were clearly hugely appropriate for his role as a football manager, but are they realistic for our own lifestyles?

Let’s kick it off (couldn’t resist!) by taking a look at the techniques and approaches that we do feel should be adopted by those with a leadership role or managerial responsibility, drawn from Ferguson’s book ‘Leading’.

1.       Sir Alex Ferguson, affectionally known as ‘Fergie’, preaches the importance of prioritising observing and listening, and refraining from constantly instructing. One of the ways he did this was to step back from coaching from the midst of the training sessions and instead watching from the side-lines to “absorb” the bigger picture.

2.       Much like a business, the members of Alex Ferguson’s team were crucial. He recruited like-minded individuals, using Andy Cole as an example of somebody who was eager to develop and learn, and noting that his footwork improved extraordinarily after three months of dedicated training.

In the business world, having the right employees who are in line with the company values and aims, and who want to succeed along with the directors, is crucial.

3.       Ferguson details the things he looks out for as an interviewer, including enthusiasm, positive attitude, eye contact, personal courage and confidence. But interviews can only tell you so much, he comments. The only way to truly understand somebody’s character and abilities is by observing them in practice for a prolonged period of time, and in particular when the individual is faced with challenges and setbacks. This knowledge can help both interviewer and interviewees.

4.       Alex Ferguson emphasises the unglamorous nature of the work behind the scenes. He assigned his players ‘homework’ and was not surprised to see that those who put in extra effort earnt extra success on the pitch. Ferguson says the crowd saw David Beckham’s goal from the halfway line against Wimbledon in 1996 as a miracle, but is keen to tell us that Beckham will have practiced the exact kick hundreds of times.

5.       Attention to detail – for example, Ferguson requested that the architects design a large dining room for all players and staff to eat together in at the Carrington training ground in the late 1990s, rather than separating players to a separate room. This allowed everyone to feel as though they belonged, which in turn boosted loyalty to the club.

Now, this list could go on forever – there are copious blogs and articles out there detailing the great managerial traits of Alex Ferguson. But let’s now turn our attention to the flip side.

In an age where mental health concerns and stress in the workplace is being recognised and combatted, Ferguson’s approach is a little unsettling.

Manchester United was omnipresent in his mind, and football would “occupy his every waking moment and also enter his dreams and nightmares”. He writes that if he woke up in the middle of the night, instead of ‘wasting time’ trying to get back to sleep, he would watch a football game. He never took full holiday allowance – just 2-3 out of his allotted 5 weeks. Even then he would have meetings with foreign players in his hotel restaurants. Ferguson even names himself as an “absent father and husband”, working 14+ hour days.

For the average person this would be totally overwhelming! Stress in the workplace is proven to be caused by long hours and pressure to succeed, both of which Ferguson would have experienced in abundance! Elevated levels of stress can lead to depression, anxiety, aches, insomnia… to name a few! Of course, a certain amount of stress and pressure can boost motivation and productivity – which was surely the case with Ferguson. But Ferguson’s unusual and intense situation makes it hard for us to agree wholly that his approach should be recreated for a business environment.

Whether appropriate for ourselves or not, Sir Alex Ferguson certainly took the right approach for himself. Perhaps all of his methods won’t work for everybody, but he is certainly worth taking leadership advice from. His managerial skills earnt him a knighthood, and his extraordinary success will be admired and studied for centuries to come.

Sources : Ferguson and Moritz (Hodder & Stoughton: 2015)