Sir Alex Ferguson is one of those wildly successful leaders who are impossible to imitate. He’s too forceful and volatile for anyone with a more average temperament to copy. In this respect he’s like Steve Jobs or Jamie Dimon. Yes, you can point to their willfulness and determination and focus, all of which are invaluable to leaders in any field.
But they also possess a manic intensity which you either have or you don’t. A readiness to yell at people. To curse at them. To subjugate them to your will. To propel them in pursuit of a dubious mission: to win football championships; to sell electronics; to sell bank services. And pretend that these missions are really proxies for greater, more meaningful pursuits of excellence, and meaning in life.
Ferguson is motivated by forces which no one can artificially replicate. He grew up around the tough shipyard workers of Govan, in Glasgow. When his players complained about how hard he pushed them, he would tell them it was nothing compared to working in a shipyard with rags tied round your arms for warmth.
He has this great clarity of expression. Not beautiful, but with a sheer, unmediated force as if there is nothing between his thought and our ears, no screen of reserve or politeness. “Football. Bloody hell,” he exclaimed after United came back to win the European Champions League with two goals in 107 seconds at the end of the 1999 final. He had a near poetic reaction to first seeing Ryan Giggs: “He was 13 and he floated across the ground like a cocker spaniel chasing a piece of silver paper in the wind.” Or this, my favorite, on the tricks played by Italian teams and their managers: “When an Italian tells me it’s pasta on the plate I check under the sauce to make sure. They are the inventors of the smokescreen.”
He once told an audience of entrepreneurs in Manchester that the secret of his success came down to four factors: “high ambition, ability to take difficult decisions, instilling and maintaining team discipline and foresight”.
Barney Ronay in the Guardian tried to boil down Ferguson’s managerial genius: “Ferguson has repeatedly demonstrated his own greatest strength, the ability to continue to learn and evolve even in moments of triumph. He created a thrillingly muscular champion team, at a time when English football was still a thrillingly muscular business. He oversaw the refinement of a glorious coincidence of youthful talents. He mastered the more mannered rhythms of the Champions League… Alongside this, Ferguson has bolted on with great adaptive intelligence the full range of modern skills: control of the junior millionaire; a facility with agents, media and corporate overlords; and of course mastery of the wretched mind-games, the relentless unsettling, as required, of his opposite number…Like a kind of managerial Elvis, Ferguson was there in the front rank when the world was changing, shaping its face, defining its terms, hogging the best seat.”
Simon Kuper in the FT has suggested that Ferguson succeeded by making himself indistinguishable from Manchester United. No one symbolized the club and its values more than him. This made him un-sackable.
I’d suggest that what made him un-sackable was winning.
But Kuper also notes that Ferguson was a formidable network builder, both inside and outside his club. He talked to everyone, from the tea ladies up to his superstars, keeping his door open, and always delivering bad news himself. He would never bad-mouth one of his players in public, keeping everything behind closed doors.
He was also absolutely terrifying. Like Steve Jobs, an effective tyrant. Anyone who played for him has stories of his blazing temper. But fortunately, he didn’t dwell. If someone crossed him they were either soon forgiven or exiled from the club. Neither disputes nor victories were permitted to linger. Everything under Ferguson moved forward quickly. He made decisions and moved on. As he said: “Why should I go to my bed with a doubt?”
Among the other Ferguson traits worth noting:
- Act before you deteriorate – he was ruthless about selling players at or just past their peak in order to reinvest in youth.
- Never criticize performance during training – only lack of effort. Training is for positives and encouragement. Ferguson says: “Well done are the two best words ever invented in sports.”
- Don’t just practice. Practice situations. Ferguson insisted his teams practice specific game situations. What if you’re two goals down with 10 minutes left? How do you play then?
- Swear. A lot. It scares people.
- Don’t just win. Win the right way. Ferguson believed that there was a way Manchester United had to win. Aggressively. With attacking style. This is why fans around the world love the club.
- Set the example. He was always first to arrive at the training ground and the last to leave.
- Make your players better. No matter how good a player was when he arrived at Manchester United, chances are he would get better under Ferguson. Their nature would be vigorously nurtured. “Hard work is a talent too,” Ferguson once said. “I am only interested in players who really want to play for United, and who, like me, are ‘bad losers’.”
- Trust in youth. Trusting in young talent can be terrifying for any manager. Ferguson did it consistently, often enduring tough seasons while the talent developed before flourishing. But it worked and gave his club its long-term comparative advantage over others. Not sure Ferguson has ever bothered with Arthur Rimbaud’s poetry – unless Eric Cantona slipped him a copy – but he embodied Rimbaud’s advice: “Il faut être absolument moderne.” Even at 71, Ferguson remains absolutely modern.
- Don’t be frightened of talent. Ferguson visibly adored great talent. Whether Cristiano Ronaldo, Eric Cantona or Ryan Giggs, he treasured what talent could do for his teams. He never worried about its destabilizing effect. How many managers fear that true talent is really the serpent in the garden of their careers?