Alex Ferguson's Lessons on Leading

New Book: Sir Alex Ferguson, who is an Executive Fellow in Harvard Business School's Executive Education program, may be the most successful professional sports coach of all time. He discusses his management style at Manchester United, and why building a team is less important than building a foundation. PLUS: Book excerpt from Leading.
  • Author Interview

The Difference Between Managing and Leading

Interview by Sean Silverthorne

From 1986 until his retirement in 2013,  Sir Alex Ferguson, the manager of the Manchester United football team in the United Kingdom, was the most famous (and arguably the most successful) coach in the world. Under Ferguson, United captured 13 titles in the English Premier League and two victories in the UEFA Champions League, the second biggest competition outside the World Cup. Overall, he is the most successful manager in the history of British football, winning 49 trophies in 39 years. 

Sir Alex FergusonIn his new book, Leading: Learning from Life and My Years at Manchester United, co-written with Sir Michael Moritz, Ferguson discusses his formulas for success on and off the field. He recently joined the Harvard Business School Executive Education program as an Executive Fellow. Ferguson, 73, has been the subject of a case study by Professor Anita Elberse, and in 2012 she hosted him in class when she taught the case to HBS MBA students. “With Harvard being such a great brand, and people from all over the world and different nationalities there, I look forward to being with them and the faculty,” Ferguson says.

We talked to Sir Alex recently as he began his book tour in the United States.

(Interview edited for length and clarity.)

Sean Silverthorne: One thing students are taught at HBS is to have a bias for action. Take a stand and make a decision. Was that your belief as well?

Sir Alex Ferguson: Absolutely. I never spent much time looking back at a win or in defeat. It never did me any good looking back. It’s always on to the next day and the next challenge. Things would affect my players and you have got to bring them back to earth. "We have a big game next week, let’s start working for that one."

For company leaders this [approach] develops a character and a belief in your people that you are winning. I found that was my biggest task as a manager, to get in position to prove to them from the start what’s possible.

Q: Your organizational philosophy was built around identifying and grooming young talent so that you always had a pipeline of next-generation stars ready to take over. If you were building a team today—a sports team or a business team—what qualities would you look for?

A: I’m looking for someone with enthusiasm, and who has determination to do well. People who have a desire to do well, will do well; they won’t lie down. When I interviewed people to be a staff member or one of my coaches, I would arrive and see how they were sitting. Were they sitting up … eager to start?

Also, you look for someone who can be a team member. They can adapt to playing on a team, recognizing the weaknesses and strengths of their team that day. Sometimes a team member is not (playing well) and you have to carry them.

Q: Work ethic is particularly important in the organizations you led, both on behalf of the players and yourself.

A: I’ve always felt the most important thing to success was work ethic. The most talented people can be disappointing if they don’t have a work ethic about them. I was very fortunate; most of my very talented players also had a work ethic—and that made them really great players. You don’t have as many players coming from working class backgrounds now. Most come from an upper class—maybe the father or grandfathers were middle class or working class. That was a big challenge for me. To make sure they understood why work ethic is so important.

Q: Someone with a strong work ethic rubs off on colleagues, especially in sports. We talk about players who make everyone around them better.

A: Players like (Ryan) Giggs and (Cristiano) Ronaldo were working so hard that the other fellows had to take themselves and say, "Now wait a minute, if he can do it, I’ve got to do it." And more so that these other players on the team had great character with great desire to win the match. Maybe they didn’t have the talent of Ronaldo or Giggs or (Paul) Scholes or (Eric) Cantona, but the desire to be the best made them really important players. So I think examples are set by wanting to be a winner.

Q: Can athletes be taught to be great players or is that something they are born with?

A: The really talented players I think are born great. When I first saw Giggs, I said, well, if he can’t make it, I don’t know anyone who can make it. He was such a talented boy, he glided over the pitch like a cocker spaniel chasing a piece of silver paper. The same thing when Ronaldo joined us. You knew he was going to be the best player in the world. The talent was there. These ones are born with it. But, in general, I think most are self-made by their own intensity, by their own work ethic.

Q: What about leaders? Can they be made, or are leaders born?

A: Some leaders are born to be that. Think about Nelson Mandela, who I met a few times. Maybe because he spent quite a number of years in jail thinking about what he was going to do and how he was going to change the country. But you have to think, back when he was opposing authority as a young person, he was destined to be great. There were those leadership qualities lying dormant in the prison.

I do think I was born with something, but a lot of things were learned as I went along. Recognition, communication, organization, I think these were things I picked up.

Q: Many sports managers in America talk about having a “shelf-life” with players, after which players just tune out the coach. I’m sure some organizational managers feel the same way. How did you keep players listening to you year after year?

A: In my discussions with the team and coaches, I used my imagination a lot. Because they don’t want to hear the same message all the time. They don’t want to keep hearing the same voice all the time. For instance, I remember going to watch (opera singer) Andrea Bocelli, and I was absolutely captured by the orchestra. The next day I went in and spoke to the players about the rhythm, the tempo, the control that the conductor had over the orchestra. I told them this reflects exactly what team-work is about.

Q: Managers often have to look ahead as well as manage day-to-day. How did you balance in-game management with the longer-term needs of the club?

A: My approach going to Manchester United was this: I believe in building the foundation. I believe in the football club. The team is not the most important thing, it’s the foundation that comes first. The pipeline with the stream of talent coming through in a continuous way. That was what I was attempting to do. Short-term [strategy,] I don’t need one. I think people with a long-term view who invest in youth, invest in the future, have far more success. I never deviated from who I was; I was the same person then as I was 26 years later. Because I had longevity, I was always able to think for years ahead.

Q: What is the difference between leading and managing?

A: I think leading is about inspiration and getting everyone to trust in their sports ability, that they can achieve what they never thought they could achieve. That’s the great difference, and I think that’s where leadership comes in. Use your personality and conviction to transmit to everyone that we are on the right path. That is the difference between leading and managing. But it’s very hard to motivate people unless you understand them.

Q: It’s also about setting high standards, isn’t it?

A: Oh, absolutely. We were successful because every player was geared toward what happened on Saturday. Building training intensity, concentration, and consistency normally led to consistent results. I’m always the first into work. I was in there at a quarter to seven every morning. I was able to discuss who was injured, when was the training table coming by, long before anyone else was in the building. When I started continually coming in at that time, then all of a sudden other people started to come in at the same time as me.

There is an interesting story about Jean-Claude Biver, who runs Hublot watches. As a young man he went for an interview at Omega, and the interview was set for five o’clock in the morning. After it was over, Biver asked, "Why an interview at five in the morning? [The interviewer] said, ‘Because I’m three hours ahead of everyone, I’m working while you sleep." That’s an example of the way I did the job.

  • Book Excerpt


from: Leading: Learning from Life and My Years at Manchester United
by Alex Ferguson with Michael Moritz

You don’t get the best out of people by hitting them with an iron rod. You do so by gaining their respect, getting them accustomed to triumphs and convincing them that they are capable of improving their performance. I cannot think of any manager who succeeded for any length of time by presiding over a reign of terror. It turns out that the two most powerful words in the English language are, ‘Well done’. Much of leadership is about extracting that extra 5 percent of performance that individuals did not know they possessed.

It was always important that the players erased the memory of the previous season, whether we had won or lost. If we had done well in the previous year, it did not guarantee that we would automatically do so again. And, if we had lost, I had no interest in prolonging any hangover of defeatism. The coaching staff, in particular the sports science crew, would come to me with new ideas before or during the pre-season, but I would never conduct any big post-mortem with the players. I used to gather them around me in a semi-circle at the training ground and re-emphasise my desire to win and use it as an opportunity to set expectations. I used to ask the mature players, who had begun to acquire a taste for United’s victory habits, how many medals they had won. I told them that they could not consider themselves to be a United player until they had won ten medals. I remember saying to Rio Ferdinand that he could never think of himself as a United player until he attained the level of Ryan Giggs. Of course, that was mission impossible.

It is much easier to do difficult things if others like you. Though I have never tried to court popularity, I always tried to pay particular attention to people at United—or at the other clubs I was involved with—who worked behind the scenes and were our unsung heroes. It wasn’t a false front; it just seemed like the right thing to do. These people weren’t getting the multimillion-pound salaries or public acclaim, and didn’t wear Patek Philippe watches or drive Bentleys.

Some of them--the laundry team, the groundsmen, the hospitality waitresses—took the bus to work. They were the mainstays of the club. At United, some of them have been there even longer than Ryan Giggs. In a way, they are the club’s equivalent of the Civil Service—they outlast the governments and, at United, they provided continuity and a connection with our heritage. It was very easy for me to feel affinity towards them, since most had backgrounds much like my own.

Some managers try to be popular with the players and become one of the boys. It never works. As a leader, you don’t need to be loved, though it is useful, on occasion, to be feared. But, most of all, you need to be respected. There are just some natural boundaries, and when those get crossed it makes life harder. When I was playing at Rangers, they hired a new manager, David White. He was young and a good man but just out of his depth. He was overawed by the club, while at the same time he was living in the shadow of Jock Stein over at Celtic. The players didn’t have much respect for him, and part of the reason was because he was too close to them. The same thing happened at United when Wilf McGuinness succeeded Sir Matt Busby in 1969. Wilf had several things going against him. He was succeeding a legend; he was only 31 years old and had no management experience. But, worst of all, he was managing a group of men with whom he had played. It was an impossible position for him. My immediate predecessor at United, Ron Atkinson, had a similar issue. He had enjoyed much more success as a manager than Wilf, but he too chose to fraternise with the players. It just doesn’t work. A leader is not one of the boys.

It is vital to keep some sort of distance. This could be expressed in small but significant ways. For example, I generally rode at the front of the team bus. The players understood the distance, and at the end of the season when they had their parties, I was never invited. They’d invite all the management staff, but they wouldn’t invite me. I wasn’t off ended by this. It was the right thing for them to do. With one exception in Aberdeen, I never attended any of the players’ weddings. There was a line that they were not prepared to cross and they respected my position. It also makes things easier because, as a manager, you can’t be sentimental about them. Jock Stein told me once, ‘Don’t fall in love with the players because they’ll two-time you.’ That may be a bit harsh, but Jock was right that you cannot get too attached to people who work for you. The one time you must have that attachment is when they are in trouble—when they need your advice. I couldn’t count the number of times where I helped players with personal matters, and I’m proud of the fact they trusted me and that they knew that discussion would stay private. In these situations I acted as a priest, father or lawyer—whatever it took to make the problem go away. Even to this day, many former players still come to me for advice; this is a reflection of the trust that underpinned our relationship.

When players got too old I couldn’t afford to be kind to them at the expense of the club. All the evidence is on the football field. It just doesn’t lie. I had to make a lot of horrible decisions and I had to be ruthless. I never expected the players to love me, but neither did I want them to hate me, because that would have made it impossible to extract the most from them. All I wanted was for them to respect me and follow my instructions.

Unless you understand people, it’s very hard to motivate them. I learned this years ago in Scotland when I was handed a lesson by a young lad. While I managed Aberdeen, we used to travel down to Glasgow every Thursday night to coach young kids on an AstroTurf field so that we could identify the best young talent. I was down there one night, dressed in my tracksuit emblazoned with its ‘AF’ initials, when I saw this kid, who was about eight, smoking a cigarette. I said, ‘Put that cigarette out, son. What would your dad think if he saw you smoking?’ The boy looked at me and he said, ‘F*** off!’ and walked away. My assistant manager, Archie Knox, who was with me, burst out laughing at the way this kid had chopped my legs off. But when I started thinking about the incident, I realised that I knew nothing about that boy. I had no idea where he came from, what his parents were like, whether he was taunted by his pals and why he harboured such anger. Unless you know those sorts of things and have an understanding of someone’s personality, it is impossible to get the best out of them. Before we signed players, especially youngsters, I always tried to understand the circumstances in which they had been raised. The first ten or 12 years of anyone’s life have such a profound influence on the way they act as adults.

Another crucial ingredient of motivation is consistency. As a leader you can’t run from one side of the ship to the other. People need to feel that you have unshakeable confidence in a particular approach. If you can’t show this, you’ll lose the team very quickly. There is a phrase in football about players ‘not playing for the manager’, which I have seen happen a thousand times. Once that happens, the manager is as good as dead, because he has failed in his major undertaking—which is to motivate the players to follow him. The time to be inconsistent is when changes need to be made because the world is changing around you. There was always the temptation when things weren’t going well to change or to leap to a new lily pad. That doesn’t work. Sometimes, if we lost some games, we’d hear that the players thought that our training should be more lighthearted; that our results would improve if, instead of concentrating our training sessions around technical skills, we played mock games. I always refused to bow to those suggestions. Any field on a Sunday is full of people playing park games, work games or pub games, but that doesn’t make these people better footballers. I just believe that continual devotion to improving technical skills, and the enhancement of tactics, lead to better results, and I wasn’t about to change just to temporarily please others.

Hachette Books Hardcover. Copyright © 2015 Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Michael Moritz. Used with Permission.

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