Is Alex Ferguson the greatest leader of all time? Well this is the opinion of a Harvard Business School Professor and former Prime Minister Tony Blair. In a fascinating documentary, Nick Robinson, BBC correspondent, reported on Sir Alex’s leadership as he presented to students at London Business School (LBS) with Professor Anita Elberse. Nick Robinson commented that he had studied and reported on leaders all his life, but had never seen one as successful as Alex Fergusson.
Alex Fergusson was the manager of Manchester United football club for more than 25 years, and the most successful manager of all time, winning 149 trophies, 13 premier league titles and 2 Champions league trophies.
In the documentary, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, Lord Alan Sugar, Sir Michael Moritz, venture capitalist and former Google board member, as well as celebratory footballers, described Alex Fergusson’s leadership style. Sir Alex was described as a strong leader, reflective, self-analytical, and a motivational speaker and inspirational figure. He did this through a relentless need for success and the desire to do better, never standing still.
Sir Michael Moritz said that Alex Fergusson’s leadership skills were universal, not just confined to the world of sport.
Sir Alex said that players and staff where the most important and that led to happy fans. (There is an analogy here with stakeholders, staff and customers within an organisational world). Sir Alex would always say hello to everyone at the club including the groundsmen, the laundry and the canteen staff – all of whom he knew not just by name but also as characters. He took a real interest in everyone at the club, not just the star football players.
Sir Alex stated that no one was bigger or better than the club, and this was not more evident when in 2005 Alex sacked the team captain Roy Keane for publicly criticising the club and his teammates.
A key challenge that Sir Alex faced was the inevitability of players getting older, and so the need to constantly rebuild the team every 4 years or so. Even after winning the treble in 1999 (the English League, the F.A. Cup and the European Cup) Ferguson went on to dismantle his team and build another. Prof Anita Elberse said that Sir Alex’s greatest legacy was that he had success over quarter of a century and that he was able to build and rebuild 4 or 5 truly great teams. This has clear connections with succession and talent management in organisations. Changing the team only works as long as the next generation of players are even better. Sir Alex took the time to get to know and nurture young talent, he took risks and made decisions for the medium or long term benefit of the team.
Sir Alex had a reputation as a disciplinarian. When he joined Manchester United in 1986, he took over a losing team and tackled a drinking culture. He stated he wanted change and challenged the existing culture (a clear link to organisational change). He had a clear strategic plan and was driven by a strong work ethic born out of his working class background. He always turned up for work on time, worked hard, and stated that the details and the little things mattered.
Ryan Giggs, one of the star players at Manchester talked about Sir Alex’s incredible man management. He was a father, a friend, brother, and an enemy for a few seconds, then the brother again. But he would never hold a grudge. Jose Mourinho, manager of Chelsea FC said that human qualities are crucial for a great leader.
Professor Anita Elberse said that there is an element of Sir Alex’s leadership that is most controversial and not transferable to many businesses, that is the issue of power and control. Sir Alex always maintained power and control in every area including transfer policy, player decisions, and training. Sir Alex said that to lead a football team effectively you have to be the biggest personality; there can’t be players who are bigger personalities.
How many of Sir Alex’s characteristics do you see in the leaders around you?
You can watch a trailer for the documentary on the BBC iPlayer [full documentary currently not available]