Sir Alex Ferguson on how to win

Consistent adherence to beliefs is the key to the former Manchester United manager's unparalleled leadership, says Richard Hytner


As performances go, Sir Alex Ferguson’s counts among the few to justify the descriptor he gave to just four of the players who served him: “not just great but world class”. Under his now-legendary, 26-year-long leadership, Manchester United Football Club won 38 major trophies. His career tally reached 49. All that in a sport famous for high-profile managerial false starts, failures and heroes who become zeros (ask Chelsea’s ‘Special One’, José Mourinho). 

Manchester United became the world’s most valuable soccer team. One Forbes commentator estimated Ferguson was responsible for $385m, or 11 per cent, of the publicly traded English soccer team’s enterprise value of $3.5bn at the time of his retirement. No wonder there’s a fascination with Ferguson and an eager audience for his book, Leading, written with Sequoia Capital Chairman, Sir Michael Moritz, especially given Sir Michael’s own record of success with Apple, Google, Paypal and WhatsApp.

I have been a diligent student of Sir Alex’s leadership, listening to almost every carefully curated word he spoke before and after the 1,500 matches he was in charge of at United, devouring most of the column inches ever devoted to him and dissecting his biographies, both authorised and unauthorised. More recently, I have examined Professor Anita Elberse’s Harvard case study, on which she and Sir Alex expanded in a packed classroom at London Business School, featured in a BBC1 documentary, Sir Alex Ferguson: Secrets of Success. Harvard’s Ferguson Formula has eight lessons for leaders, including foundation-building, standard-setting, team renewal, readiness to win, control retention, media management, observation and continuous adaptation. 

The most telling conclusion in the BBC documentary was, in my view, Professor Elberse’s unease about too direct an application of her Ferguson Formula to business, specifically the extraordinary degree of control Ferguson demanded and retained until he retired. Long-term corporate health requires checks and balances to the leader, and signs of Ferguson-like insistence on total control should be concerning to shareholders. 

A close examination of Leading and an interview with Sir Alex – suggest that, beyond the sheer force of his personality, the overriding lesson – and killer application for business – of the Sir Alex success story is one of belief

Do you have the conviction to define a set of beliefs as robust as his and the courage to lead by them? Are those beliefs authentic, audacious and non-negotiable; daily reminders that guide behaviour and inspire consistently winning action? 

Sacrifice is absolute

Your life is devoted to being the best you can be, and also an example to everyone.So sacrifice is absolute. It’s paramount, absolute.

Ferguson played football the day he got married, and he played the day his first son, Mark, was born. He instigated the move of Darren – another son – from United to Wolverhampton Wanderers, for which his wife Cathy has never forgiven him, telling him, “You sold your own son”. I ask Sir Alex whether you have to make these kinds of sacrifices to be a world-class chief executive. “There’s no other way,” he says. “Your life is devoted to being the best you can be, and also an example to everyone. So sacrifice is absolute. It’s paramount, absolute.” 

Relentless pursuit of purpose is more important than short-term results

To inspire a diverse group of talented individuals, you need more than a willingness to make sacrifices. You need to develop, lead with and live by a purpose. What you do, why you do it and how you prefer to do it need to be understood and embraced by all. Results mattered to Ferguson, of course. Winning was important. As important as thewhat – winning football matches – was the how – playing attractive, attacking football. As for the why, Sir Alex Ferguson felt it was his job to sell a higher order idea. “My job was to send fans home happy at the end of a match, it was to have that dressing room in delirium,” he says. 

Ferguson’s job description? “To deliver delirium”. So, whilst Ferguson, like all modern-day managers, had plenty that might distract him, his obsessive focus was on his players, staff and results that kept United’s fans happy. CEOs who think their reason for being is to generate ‘superior shareholder returns’, to make their company ‘best for customer’ and ‘best place to work’, or who scoop up every scrap of credit for each goal scored, ascribing it to their tactical genius, should attempt an urgent redefinition of their why – their own as well as their organisations’. 

Equipped with a more compelling purpose, they must also adhere to principle. Those answering to football club owners ignorant about the game and insensitive to their club’s legacy, or those attempting to sate the unreasonable demands of the capital markets, will need double doses of courage and conviction. Ferguson took decisions that were costly in the short term, but were of incalculable value in setting standards and imposing discipline over time. 

Ferguson suspended Eric Cantona for four months, knowing his disproportionate importance to the team, after the talismanic striker’s kung-fu kick of a spectator dispensing vile abuse in the Frenchman’s direction. The manager also dropped three players for going out on the town on Boxing Day before a fixture with Blackburn Rovers. Three valuable points were lost that day in a season when all that separated United from League winners Manchester City was goal difference. How many business leaders adhere toprinciple over expediency, how many overlook, excuses or even encourage the bad behaviour of their star earners? World-class leaders do not sacrifice principle for short-term results. 

Big personalities need permission to express themselves

The true greats produce teams that embrace, develop and promote world-class talent, however big their personalities or complex their characters. Sir Alex courted and housed big personalities, supported their hunger to win and gave them permission to express themselves. 

Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the manager’s world-class four (the others being Cantona, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes), calls Ferguson his “father of football”. Giggs, the most decorated player in football history, still recalls Ferguson’s words to him as a nervous debutant: “Just go out and enjoy yourself.” 

These were not personalities devoid of dedication to their teammates – “You cannot build a team with blithe free spirits,” says Ferguson. They were individuals, “whose genetic code was formed from victory”, each with a strong sense of self, yet committed to the collective endeavour. 

A little emotion beats a lot of data

Big Data has become the staple in every leader’s diet. Ferguson concedes that his sports scientists had “forgotten more about their specialties than I was ever going to know”, and that he was invariably sceptical when approached by people peddling the latest tech fad. Not one of its pioneers, Ferguson still saw the value of video analysis and embraced sports and medical science. Even so, in the leadership world according to Ferguson, emotion will always have the edge: “At the end of the day, players are human beings,” he says. “They’re vulnerable to a lot of things. From time to time, they’d come and see me, and I had to put myself in the position where I could help them. I looked upon that as an important role, that they could trust me. They may have an agent, they may have a banker, they may have an accountant, they may have a lawyer, but I think the manager is the best person to go to because players know the manager wants them to win. No one would ever know about the times I spent helping players with their various problems.” 

Understanding each player’s unique character dominated Ferguson’s thinking. Leaders blessed with world-class talent need world-class emotional agility. They cannot fake compassion or concern for their people. A letter that Ferguson wrote to Eric Cantona several months after the player had left Manchester United, published in Leading, dispenses wisdom and counsel, reminds Cantona how good a player he was for the club, expresses sincere gratitude and extends an invitation to the former player “to drop in any time for tea and a chat”. World-class leaders become their star turns’ most trusted advisers not just during their time together, but after it too. 

Delegation fuels observation

Ferguson’s EQ extended to his powers of observation and perception. He made it his business to see into the minds of his players. The leadership imperative of observation was introduced to him by Archie Knox, an assistant with whom he first worked at Aberdeen. Frustrated by Ferguson’s micromanagement, Knox – an honest, hard-working guy, but like a bull in a china shop – decided to confront his boss. Ferguson tells the story: “He said to me, ‘I don’t know why you brought me here’. I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘I don’t do anything; you do everything.’ I said, ‘Well, you can coach the boys in the afternoon.’ He said, ‘That’s not what you brought me here for. You brought me here to be your assistant. You should not be in the middle of a training session, and I should not be standing on the sidelines. It should be the other way about.’” 

Ferguson was immoveable, but Knox was backed up by Aberdeen’s general factotum Terry Scott: “He said, ‘He’s right, boss. You should be supervising, watching from the sidelines.’ So I said, ‘I’ll sleep on it.’ He said, ‘Don’t sleep on it. Do it.’ I knew he was right, by the way. I just didn’t want to give in. Anyway, we did it. It was the best thing I ever did.” 

How many leaders find it as difficult as Ferguson to delegate activity as strategically significant as daily training? How many miss what is really going on, preferring to focus on where the management ball happens to be in that moment, fixated by the managers chasing it? 

“It’s amazing what observation can do and I think, for leaders in business, they should think about that, have a look around,” says Sir Alex. “Don’t have your head down all of the time. Lift your head and see what’s going on.” 

An open hand was Ferguson’s way of maintaining the tightest grip. He let go to keep control. 

Leaders need supporting leaders not sycophants

Archie Knox was one of seven assistant managers Ferguson had during his time at United. Whilst a big admirer of Abraham Lincoln’s leadership, specifically his invitation to rivals such as William Seward, Salmon Chase, Edward Bates and Edwin Stanton to join his inner circle, Ferguson looked for unswerving loyalty from his assistants, coaches and advisers, people steeped in his own work ethic and more obvious reflections of his persona. Knox’s “last name could have been Ferguson”, so similar were their beliefs. Ferguson gave another assistant, Carlos Queiroz, the number-two role simply because how he showed up for interview revealed his belief in detail. 

“I’d never met him before,” says Sir Alex. “When he came in, I thought he was getting married. He was absolutely immaculate. I could see just by the way he sat that he wanted the job. He looked at me intensely.” 

Here was an assistant who would be as prepared and focused as Ferguson, a Portuguese chip off the old Glaswegian block. But this apparent lack of diversity in personality did not translate into groupthink. “He [Queiroz] could give me an opinion, he had no problem with that,” says Ferguson. 

World-class leaders look for a strong point of view, a constant stream of fresh ideas and a readiness to disagree. For ten years of his tenure at United, one of Ferguson’s key relationships was with the Club’s Chief Executive, David Gill, whom he describes in Leading as his commercial soulmate. When Gill himself retired from his CEO role at Manchester United, Ferguson said that there should be a statue erected in his honour. When I interviewed Gill for my own book, he assured me he could stand up to Ferguson if he felt it necessary. Ferguson concurs: “It was fantastic. David was never afraid of me. I think it’s fair to say that because of my position in the club and the length of time I was there, there was maybe a certain trepidation among some people. But David, he was straight as a die.” 

Their routine Friday meetings would focus on what was on the manager’s mind. Gill’s job was to balance the books whilst fulfilling Ferguson’s footballing wishes, something that might escalate when the manager appeared to be being unreasonable. 

“We’d argue, I’d shout, he’d say, ‘Calm down’, and I would then say, ‘Oh, you’ve got an accountant’s head on today, haven’t you?’” says Sir Alex. “He’d walk out and get a cup of tea and come back in, and I would say, ‘So you’re back!’ But there was a respect. David, off the football pitch, was the one person I really respected and I knew that when he would say something to me like, ‘You can’t say that about the referees’, or whatever, he was doing it for my good.” 

The foundations of this mutual respect were the pair’s shared beliefs. Gill, of course, knew that winning would do wonders for the bottom line but, in Ferguson, he was blessed with a manager every bit as cost-conscious as he was. Having too much money, asserts Ferguson, doesn’t create an organisation of breadth or depth, it doesn’t provide lineage and it doesn’t gift you a history. Manchester City supporters may not agree. 

Leading is testament to Ferguson’s belief that leaders must create and nurture a diverse circle of consiglieri, from on-field captains to specialist coaches and confidantes; from managerial assistants to personal assistants; from spouses to friends. People who can variously liberate their leader, enlighten them, anchor them and make things happen in the manner they would like, give leaders a tilt at greatness. 

Youth’s importance is in the now, not the future

Ferguson’s strong conviction in youth was made famous by his ‘class of ‘92.’ David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt and Gary and Philip Neville were among the players the manager used in a game that they lost to Aston Villa in the 1995-96 season. TV pundit Alan Hansen concluded, “You cannot win anything with the kids.” 

“I have always thought the opposite – you will never win anything without kids,” says Sir Alex. The ‘kids’ went on an unbeaten run of seven games. 

“I would say to any young coach now, ‘Rely on youth’, because they give you a future, they give you loyalty,” Sir Alex expands. “They always remember the coach who gave them their first opportunity. Don’t let him down. It’s amazing how young people can surprise you when they’re given an opportunity, and it creates a long-term consistency. All my staff knew the young players were going to be there in three years’ time so they could plan knowing that.” 

World-class leaders promote youth, protect youth, show them constancy and consistency in their talent practices. To how many young people are you giving a first, unforgettable opportunity? How many of them will still be with you in three years’ time because you gave them a future? 

Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Michael Moritz, Leading (Hodder & Stoughton, 2015); Richard Hytner, Consiglieri: Leading from the Shadows (Profile, 2014); Anita Alberse and Tom Dye, ‘Sir Alex Ferguson: Managing Manchester United’ Harvard Business School (September 2012) Richard Hytner has been a season ticket holder at Manchester United since 1964. 

Look out for his interview with Sequoia Capital’s Chairman Sir Michael Moritz in an upcoming edition of London Business School Review 

Image: Getty Images

Comments (1)

Cyrus123 7 years, 7 months and 17 days ago

He is a real leader.I watched the BBC report from the class was held in London bs .it was so informative for me.