What can we learn from Sir Alex Ferguson?

So much has been written already this week about the legendary tenure of Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United; so why do we need another piece on the subject? Well, this isn’t about football. This is about the impact that one leader can have on an organisation and the need to plan for their succession, whether that’s a football club, a not for profit or a commercial organisation. So what was it about Sir Alex that made him so different to the rest?

For all Fergie might be famed for his ‘hairdryer’ treatment of his players, his influence over match officials and his ruthless approach to the media, underneath all of this is something much more significant. In an environment characterised by the pursuit of short-term results, Sir Alex built a giant of a club on the strongest of foundations. He valued and developed youth. He set the highest standards for his players and his staff. And he held everyone that had influence over his operation to account. He was steadfast in his resolve. He was constantly looking for an edge, in training, in nutrition, in his support for his players. Like other great leaders, Sir Clive Woodward in rugby, Sir Dave Brailsford in cycling, he was constantly on the lookout for marginal gains. He has been described by many as a ‘father figure’. When addressed by a 16 year old player in the youth team as ‘Alex’ he retorted ‘Did we go to school together? No! Then it’s ‘Mr Ferguson’ or ‘Boss’!’

So what can we learn from the incredible results that Sir Alex and Manchester United have achieved over the past quarter of a century? For me, it comes down to the culture of the club. The Manchester United bus waits for no man. Sir Alex hired some great players, but also fired some great players. Where other clubs appear to pander to every whim of the players, at Manchester United it appears that every time a player walks on to the Old Trafford pitch it’s a privilege that they are representing the great club. That sense of pride, that recognition of the club’s history, the collective sense of expectation and the unshakeable belief in every member of the team have contributed to some fantastic performances and some Houdini-like escapes in injury time. How do you copy that? It takes so much more than simply buying great players, or in the corporate world, hiring talent.

So as Sir Alex prepares to bow out on his 1,500th game in charge of the Red Devils, we must stand back and applaud a man with the vision to achieve things most people could not believe possible, the determination to overcome barriers and the passion to enjoy every game like he did his first. And possibly the truest test of his legacy will be in his succession. As important as an entrepreneur handing over the running of the family business to the next generation, Sir Alex’s succession has clearly been well prepared. The 5% dip in share price on the announcement of his retirement was for the most part recovered when Sir Alex announced his successor and outlined his involvement in the process. In a world obsessed by short-term results, we can all observe the dividend to be had in investing in a tremendous vision and outstanding leadership over the long term. Enjoy the next chapter Sir Alex Ferguson.

Greg Ellison
(A rugby fan).