Key lessons from Sir Alex Ferguson’s epic football reign

Rupert Younger
AFTER 27 years in charge of Manchester United and unprecedented silverware to show for it, Sir Alex Ferguson has cemented his reputation as the most successful football manager of all time. But does his extraordinary track record have anything to teach leaders in the wider business arena?

“Be lucky” might be the first lesson. Fergie was given the kind of time to build his success that no top rank football manager could dream about now. But he was methodical in using it to build up a foundation for longer-term success. Other aspects of the way he ran his “business” also have wider applications:

First, spend time on the shop floor. Fergie was a constant presence at Old Trafford, in touch with all areas of the operation. He would arrive at his desk by 7am, and his presence kept everyone on their game.

Second, build your own network of intelligence. Notorious for the strength of his alliances within and outside the game, Fergie did not rely on a small clique of acolytes to filter information or to make him believe that he was omnipotent.

Third, be prepared to be a leader. In the cauldron of premiership football, perhaps one of his most outstanding qualities was the courage to take difficult decisions, understanding the effect they would have on the bigger picture, even if the immediate consequences might be unpleasant. Dispensing with the services of his most iconic henchman, captain Roy Keane, exemplifies this point.

Fourth, speak your mind. Perhaps not in the infamous “hairdryer” mode favoured by Sir Alex at half-time when players were not pulling their weight. But unchallenged consensus can signal corporate stagnation. Innovation is the loser.

And fifth, know when to leave. Timing your exit is often the most difficult decision to take, and is normally beset by conflict. Fergie timed his exit to perfection, leaving on a high as manager and remaining an ambassador and board member of the club he has served so well.

As a successful “gaffer” casts light on management, so management research can reveal the contribution made by charistmatic leaders. They have been proven to make a positive contribution, as research into stock performance proves. And that difference can be marked – a recent US study of the Dow Jones index showed that companies led by charismatic leaders outperformed the median. And when business is going badly, the buffering effect of an impressive leader can be even more marked.

Conversely, research into highly charismatic leaders shows that there can be considerable downsides – when a chief executive oversteps the fine line that separates charismatic leadership from egocentric dictatorship, the result tends to be more volatile, attention grabbing and ultimately underperforming strategies.

For all his aggression, Fergie always remembered that he was there for the greater glory of Manchester United, not himself, and he was quick to remind others of that too – often the hard way. That is just one lesson that his successor, and any chief executive, would do well to remember.

Rupert Younger is director of the Oxford University Centre for Corporate Reputation.