Sir Alex Ferguson and Paul McGinley: lessons from two great leaders

Legends from the world of football and golf share their insights into combating complacency, building trust and managing diverse teams.


It’s the night before the final day of the 2014 Ryder Cup when Team Europe’s captain Paul McGinley gets a text from ex-Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson. The Irish golfer smiles knowingly at the message, which simply says: ‘complacency’. 

McGinley understands that overconfidence or a loss of concentration could spell disaster for his players, who have a four-point lead over Team USA. That night, he asks the most senior player, Lee Westwood, to talk to the team about complacency and why staying focused is crucial. The following day, Team Europe wins enough matches to claim the Ryder Cup. 

The text from Ferguson – one of the world’s greatest football managers, having won 49 trophies in his illustrious career – was just the latest exchange between the sporting legends, according to McGinley. He recounts the story at ‘Sir Alex Ferguson and Paul McGinley talk leadership’, a London Business School Leadership Institute event hosted by Randall S Peterson, Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Academic Director of the Institute.  

Ferguson and McGinley had discussed the art of leadership over several lunches before the Ryder Cup. They also talked about the greatest challenge for any organisation, be it a successful football club or multinational: complacency. 

Complacency kills success

“As captain, I was worried about complacency, because we’d won seven out of the last nine Ryder Cups going into the 2014 tournament,” McGinley says. “We were a little too happy with ourselves and I wanted us to be on edge, to have that freshness, anticipation and nervousness.”

Bernard Langer, Team Europe’s captain for the 2004 Ryder Cup, had a different way to combat complacency. The players – a squad of 12 including McGinley – were laughing and joking in the team boardroom one evening after taking a four-point lead on the second day of the three-day tournament. Then Langer entered the room. 

“We were ready for Bernard to say, ‘Well done’ and, ‘What a terrific performance away from home’,” McGinley says. “As he sat down, it went silent. He lifted up his fist and slammed it down as hard as he could on the desk, which shook everyone up. He said, ‘Tomorrow, I want the record for the biggest win’. In that moment, the whole vibe in the room changed and it was clear we still had work to do.” Team Europe won convincingly on the final day. 

The anecdote draws a laugh from Ferguson, who believes there is no greater threat to sporting and business organisations. He says complacency is the enemy of success – a point he emphasised in every single pre-match and half-time team talk while managing Manchester United for 27 years. “I was always worried about complacency. We always talked about that, work ethic and concentration, which are the vital components of success.”

Managing talent and building for the future

Creating a talent pipeline was also high on Ferguson’s agenda. When restructuring Manchester United during the early years of his tenure, he focused on developing youth players to complement the senior pros in the first team. He strengthened the squad each season, adding fresh talent and releasing older players who, because of their age, could no longer perform consistently at the highest level. It was a dynamic approach that saw Ferguson constantly assessing and fine-tuning his squad to achieve long-term strategic success.  

“I could look three to four years ahead and see what the team was going to be by assessing the young players coming through or ones who could join the club and replace the older squad members,” he says. “We had three defenders getting ‘old’ at the same time – Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister and Denis Irwin. They wanted to play until they were 90-years-old, but age catches up with everyone. People say I was ruthless [when dropping older players]; I wasn’t, I just did my job.

“All the teams throughout my time at the club had an average age of 26–27. I always made sure my ages were correct in terms of the young players, those in their mid-twenties and people aged just over 30. It always worked, because I’d built a structure that I was confident in.”

Ferguson says understanding the power of emotional intelligence was one of his greatest lessons as a leader. He used it to assess each squad members’ mental and emotional wellbeing, and to build trust when talking to them in private. “Whatever industry you’re in, you have to create trust so people can come to you about anything,” he says. “Players came to me with personal problems because they knew they could trust me and whatever was said stayed in my office.” 

The sentiment is echoed by McGinley. “In sport, you can talk about strategy and tactics but the most important thing is being able to manage people – and that’s the same in business. The best leaders know how to manage and empathise with people.”

Leading diverse teams

Business leaders in charge of culturally and geographically diverse teams can learn much from McGinley and Ferguson. As Team Europe’s captain, McGinley oversaw 12 players from nine countries. The number of foreign players at Manchester United during Ferguson’s reign runs far higher. Both men understood the complexities of managing people with different values, backgrounds and ideas. 

For McGinley, one of the biggest challenges was how to get golfers playing in an individual sport working together as a team. “It’s complex, because you’re working with 12 people who have been trained from the age of 12 or 13 to play a selfish sport like golf. I felt the best way to get the most out of them [Ryder Cup players] was to let them be individuals. 

“We had a big quote as you walked into the team room, which said, ‘The best teamwork comes from those individuals working independently towards one goal in unison’. I know that’s contrary to what you hear about teams, but for me it was very applicable because golf is an individual sport.” 

Governing bodies need to do more

Multinationals and governing bodies are under ever-increasing scrutiny as some major organisations find themselves embroiled in scandals. In November 2015, Russian track and field athletes were banned from international competition after accusations of state-sponsored doping. The following month Sepp Blatter left his role as president of Fifa, football’s governing body, amid claims of financial corruption and bribery. 

The scandals highlight the need for greater governance in business and sports, according to McGinley. “There are a lot of well-intentioned people in charge, but there are also others with different agendas,” he says. McGinley also believes governing bodies should do more for their members. “Governance at the elite level in sport is lacking. I was at the 2016 Olympics in Rio and saw how many of the athletes from some countries don’t have the support they need, which saddens me.” 

Ferguson adds: “In football, the leadership [at Fifa] has been poor as everyone knows. You hope that with football being such a universally liked game, we’ll get the right people at the top.” 

Both men clearly have their own views on what needs to be done – something to chew over when they next meet for lunch or swap texts. Whatever they discuss in future, both men have already shared enough insight at the Leadership Institute event to inspire today’s business leaders.  

“They have given plenty of excellent advice for leaders of all types,” Professor Peterson says. “For me, three things really stick out: the first is the relationship with the people you lead – treat people with loyalty and respect and they will almost always return the feelings. 

“Second, remember that when talking to anyone outside the organisation such as the press, assume you’re talking to people inside the organisation at the same time. And third, complacency is a danger to successful teams and organisations. Winning at half-time is no guarantee that you’ll win the game.”


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