Why the famed "hairdryer treatment" dished out by Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United should not be used as a leadership template

Richard Gillis
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Sir Alex Ferguson Manchester United manager hairdryer treatment
Don't cross me: Sir Alex Ferguson was associated with a tough and uncompromising style of leadership (Source: Getty)

Sir Alex Ferguson was unusually coy this week.

When giving a talk to the World Business Forum in Milan the former Manchester United boss claimed his infamous "hairdryer treatment" was more myth than reality, a story that grew during his 27-year tenure at Old Trafford.

"It happened about half a dozen times in 27 years and the players will tell you that," said Fergie, to his audience of business leaders.

As every football fan knows, the hairdryer is the defining motif of Ferguson’s management style, an old school b****cking that fitted his public persona as the hard as nails Scot brought up in Govan, the shipbuilding area of Glasgow.

Read more: Key lessons from Sir Alex Ferguson’s epic football reign

Its impact has been described many times down the years by the unfortunates on the receiving end. Gordon Strachan, the current Scotland manager, followed Fergie from Aberdeen to Manchester in the 1980s and remembers it well:

"I regularly got the hairdryer treatment,” said Strachan. “You had to see it to believe it but I wouldn't have missed it for the world. He used to wear black shoes, always shiny, and these shoes would come in and shuffle about, looking for someone. Then these shoes stopped and pointed at me: 'Oh no, here goes’. It was horrendous. He comes up to you that close your noses touch."

The legend of the hairdryer has proved very resilient and become synonymous with Ferguson’s management style: the no nonsense autocrat who led through fear.

It is an image that fits with what we know of Ferguson’s biography as the firebrand scot from the mean streets of Govan. Ferguson’s success and fame have helped frame the topic of management and leadership in the minds of a generation of fans and journalists. Put simply, to many people Ferguson is what a leader looks and sounds like.

Powered by football’s media muscle, the hairdryer has moved beyond the dugout and helped shape expectations of leaders in other fields, including business and politics.

When he was first elected as Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn was interviewed on Sky News by Eamonn Holmes who mocked Corbyn for lacking leadership by comparing his public persona to that of Fergie. Collaboration? Devolved decision-making? That all smacked of weakness to Holmes.

‘Politics is not like football’ said Corbyn, an idea that was dismissed as absurd by the interviewer, an avid Manchester United fan.

This short exchange was just one more example of how far the notion of the "strong leader" has pervaded our expectations. We are in thrall to the cult of the strong leader and sport has played its part.

Read more: Sir Alex Ferguson - Five lessons in business and leadership from former Manchester United manager

From European football to the US major leagues, rugby coaches and Ryder Cup captains, superstar managers and head coaches are often more famous than their players.

Ferguson is one of several high profile coaches and managers to be embraced by the leadership industry, a $50bn (£39.8bn) business of intense interest to the government, military and corporate sectors.

Yet for all its financial investment in the subject, the Leadership Industry has largely failed to deliver much evidence that directly links leaders to the performance of their organisations.

In 1985 James R Meindl wrote a research paper called "The Romance of Leadership", which found that actions of the company chief accounted for just 15 per cent of the variation in the company’s performance. Meindl’s theory applies to sport, where the cult of the celebrity coach thrives despite plenty of research evidence to suggest his or her input is limited.

Far from being a simple, linear cause and effect relationship, the link between a leader and the performance of his or her followers is far more fluid and harder to grasp. The role of the leader is one variable among several.

Instead it is easier to think of team performance as being a direct consequence of the manager’s actions. But as Meindl pointed out, if leadership was that easy we’d all be doing it.

In the absence of verifiable fact, we’re left guesswork and stories. And despite his attempts this week, the myth of Fergie’s hairdryer will not be easy to kill off.

Richard Gillis is author of The Captain Myth: The Ryder Cup and Sport’s Great Leadership Delusion. Published by Bloomsbury in the UK and US.

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