Leading. The Alex Ferguson Way.

We’re all fascinated by success. It’s what we aim for in our lives. It’s one of the things we admire about those around us. And it’s also what we look for in everything we choose to surround ourselves with. Not only do we all want to be successful, but we also want to be associated with groups that are successful. It’s why as neutrals we support teams like Brazil and Germany, over Iran or Panama at the World Cup. It’s the success of these groups, whether football teams or corporates, that makes them a popular choice.

But what makes some groups more successful than the others? Better resources? Talent? A supportive environment? Perhaps. In fact, all these aspects, and many more are important to the success of any organization. But there is one more important element that every successful organization needs. The most important element in fact, without which any resources, support and even the best talent may be inconsequential. Leadership.

At the heart of any successful organization is a leader who drives his (or her) team forward. Not just a manager. But a leader. And while many of us may confuse the two terms, there are vast differences that separate the two.

A manager may simply be someone you work for, but a leader is someone you would follow. While a manager may simply focus on short term goals, a leader has a much larger vision on his mind. While managers work within their strengths (which is perfectly fine), leaders take risks, because they don’t look at them as risks, but opportunities. And while a manager may look at making the most out of his personnel, a leader looks for ways to improve his personnel. A leader is most likely a good manager, but good manager isn’t necessarily a good leader. None of these comparisons however are as good, or even as poetic as the quote you will find on the back of a book authored by Sir Alex Ferguson, with Michael Moritz: ‘Leading: Learning from Life and my years at Manchester United’.

 “My job was to make everyone understand that the impossible was possible. That’s the difference between leadership and management.”
– Sir Alex Ferguson

In the unlikely case that you haven’t heard of that name, Sir Alex Ferguson is a Scottish football manager who led Manchester United to 38 trophies during his 26 years with the club, winning every trophy possible, before retiring in 2013. And even if you are not a fan of Manchester United or Sir Alex Ferguson, it’s hard to ignore his achievements. Especially if you consider the turmoil the club was going through when he was appointed, and the difficult times the club endured in the years after his retirement.

What made his success, and that of the club so special was its longevity. At such a high level, it is quite rare to see the levels of success he achieved, even year after year, let alone generation after generation. Which is exactly what Sir Alex did. But don’t let his achievements trick you into believing that his time at the helm of Manchester United was always a cheerful ride. When you’re in charge of an organization for 26 years, you are bound to face some speedbumps. And how you, or rather your leadership can overcome these difficulties defines how successful your organization will be.

‘Leading’ is a book where one of football’s greatest and most successful managers shares the knowledge he gained while leading his team. And although his experiences are heavily inclined towards football, there are lessons here for every leader or potential leader to learn. Built around major experiences of his tenure, Sir Alex, with the help of Michael Moritz, gives his views on some key rules of leadership. Rules that go way beyond the confines of football. And rules that can help people run large organizations, lead small businesses or even help people in their daily lives.

Whether it is dealing with failures or maintaining success. Whether you are looking to get the best out of your current team or strengthen your team. Or whether you are looking to resolve conflicts within your team or maintain your leadership against opponents that are consistently growing stronger, ‘Leading’ has something in it for everyone. And here are 12 lessons I took away from this insightful book.

Discipline above everything else
Before Sir Alex joined Manchester United, it was quite common for many of the players to hit a local pub for drinks after a match or even training sessions. This was supposed to be ‘cool’. Sir Alex put an end to that. Discipline was always one of the most important aspects of Ferguson’s management, on the field and off it. Warning Cristiano Ronaldo against diving on the pitch or dragging a young Ryan Giggs out of a party, were all part of a discipline he maintained within the organisation. Even simple things like arriving on time, meeting deadlines and discouraging poor behaviour help organizations go a long way.

“I always felt that our triumphs were an expression of the consistent application of discipline.”
– Sir Alex Ferguson

Consistently pushing limits
It is a difficult job to reach the top. What’s even more difficult is to stay at the top. Winning 38 trophies over 26 years is a remarkable feat by any standards. A feat that Sir Alex could achieve because of his ability to repeatedly get the best out of every one of his teams.

“Much of leadership is about extracting that extra 5 percent of performance that individuals did not know they possessed.”
– Sir Alex Ferguson

This also explains how his teams were time and again able to pull off so many late winners. So much so that the dying minutes of a United game are still referred to by many as ‘Fergie Time’.
Achieving this level of consistency was not about just rebuilding teams. It was about pushing your teams to go beyond the expected levels of performance. And ensuring your teams always have the hunger and drive that took them to the top in the first place. This is especially true when you have tasted success.

Make difficult choices
Effective leadership to a large extent depends on the choices you make. And quite often, it’s about making difficult choices. A leader can take the right decision, no matter how difficult, as opposed to the easier decision.

“As a leader, you have to make decisions that aren’t popular. But are decisions that you know are right.”
– Sir Alex Ferguson

This was a trait Ferguson repeatedly displayed. Most notably in 2003, when he decided it was time for David Beckham to leave. Manchester United’s fan favourite, David Beckham, was soon transferred to Real Madrid. Only to be replaced by a young, virtually unknown talent, Cristiano Ronaldo.

Facing Failure
We all know that failure is inevitable. In schools, jobs, businesses and even sports, failure is something that we all face at some point or another. What’s important however, is what we learn from this failure and how we react to it. And more importantly, what do we do, knowing that there is a good chance that we might fail again?

“We are all haunted by failure, and we should only give up when we are dead.”
– Sir Alex Ferguson

On the last day of the 2011-12 season, Manchester United lost the league to local rivals Manchester City, in possibly the most dramatic finish to a season. What followed was a bombardment of celebrations from Sunderland fans (who Manchester United were playing) intended to mock United. Instead of ignoring the mockery and embarrassment of this failure, Ferguson used it to fuel his team for the next season. “Don’t ever forget what happened here today.” And none of the players did. With small changes to the squad, Sir Alex was able to use this embarrassment of failure to guide United to the title the next year.
It’s quite alright to be afraid of failing. With the anxiety and possible embarrassment that comes with failure, it’s no surprise. But this fear is what pushes you to work harder than you thought possible to succeed.

Communicate with your team
One thing every good leader needs to be, is a good communicator. And there’s more to it than just giving out speeches or sending out well-crafted letters. Rather, a good leader needs to keep his message to the point. Sometimes even a few words can do what a speech cannot. But that depends on the choice of those words.
Another aspect of effective communications is listening, which also plays an important role for a leader. Listening to your team and the questions they ask gives you an idea of who they are as individuals. It gives you an idea about how you can get through to them to get the best out of them.
A classic example is from a Tottenham Hotspurs vs Manchester United match from 2001. 3-0 down at half time, the United players waited in the dressing room expecting another one of ‘Fergie’s hairdryer treatment’. And as Sir Alex walks in, all he has to say to the team is, “Lads, it’s only Spurs.” Four words that sparked a trademark United comeback from 3-0 down to win 5-3.
This was of course possible because Ferguson knew his team as players and as individuals. Which means he knew how to get through to them without really tearing into them. That is exactly what the right words from a leader can inspire.

Do not wash your dirty linen in public
Sir Alex was always a believer of this saying, Which is why he made sure that his team’s problems were never known to the public. Even his criticism of a below par performance from a team, or certain individuals was always kept inside the dressing room.
Public criticism may drive certain individuals to work harder, but often, it backfires resulting in a lack of confidence, something you don’t want your team to suffer, and a loss of respect in the leader, something no leader can afford if he wishes to build a successful team.

Play your game. Not your opponent’s
According to Michael Moritz, a good leader does not fear his opposition, on the football field, or a corporate outfit. By worrying about what your rivals are doing, you just spend time and energy on something you cannot control. Rather, a leader should focus on how he can improve his own team. How he can make the most his resources to take on any opponent at any given point. And you stand a much better chance of winning than you would if you simply worried about an opponent. Even if your opponents suddenly have a bank of unlimited resources from an Arab prince or a Russian billionaire.

Control the situation. Control the outcome
Effective leadership is more than influencing your team to get the best out of them on the pitch. It’s also about control. No individual can ever be bigger than the organisation. Not even your star performers. Once that happens, it’s not long before others start believing themselves to be bigger than the organization. And that can only lead to a disaster.

“I was the only one who could run United. I couldn’t lose control of players if I wanted to remain at United. The manager is the most important person at Manchester United.”
– Sir Alex Ferguson

This can undoubtedly lead to conflicts, between the leader and individuals. As it did with Ferguson and players like David Beckham, Roy Keane and even Wayne Rooney. And although it’s uncomfortable for a leader to have a fallout with one of his best performers, it is sometimes unavoidable. In fact, it is sometimes necessary, to protect the rest of the team and maintain the stability within the organization.

Embrace your team – The ENTIRE team
When you’re leading a team, it’s important to know the individuals who work for you, every day. Moreover, your team needs to know that they are not just employees, but an important part of the organization’s success.

“You must recognize that people are working for you. Knowing their names, saying good morning in the morning is critical. And every time you win a cup or a trophy, you should bring every member of your staff into that canteen – the laundry girls, the canteen staff, the groundsmen – and pour the champagne for everyone because it’s their trophy as much as the players’.”
– Sir Alex Ferguson

Think ahead. Think long term
Building an organization designed for sustained growth and success requires a solid foundation, support and above all, time. And that’s a luxury that very few managers, whether in football or in a corporate outfit can claim to have received. Every organization is under pressure, and the temptation to produce quick results can push long term planning to the backseat. Sir Alex however was given the chance in his early years to build the solid foundation he and the club needed. This eventually allowed him to build a team that was able to deliver results year after year for two decades.

“This freedom from the tyranny of immediate results enabled Sir Alex to constantly work on the composition of the club several years into the future, without worrying whether he would still be there if United had a bad losing streak,”
Michael Moritz.

Talent vs Hard work
When it comes to choosing between talent and hard work, Ferguson believes it is wise to go with the latter. You want individuals with an admirable work ethic who really want to work with you. Talent may offer a lot of potential. But without hard work and dedication, all the talent in the world can be for naught.

“Hard work will always overcome natural talent when natural talent does not work hard enough. When I work with the biggest talents, I tell them that hard work is a talent, too. They need to work harder than anyone else. And if they can no longer bring the discipline that we ask for here at United, they are out.”
– Sir Alex Ferguson

A footballer like Ravel Morrison offers the perfect example of this point. A player who in his youth was hailed by some to be the next big star for Manchester United. But Ravel Morrison had his career collapse from promising heights. All because of his antics off the field that constantly overshadowed his talents.

Published in 2015, Sir Alex Ferguson explores the leadership decisions that shaped his long, illustrious career. And despite its references coming from football, it remains a book that has lessons for every one of us. A must read for anyone looking to study leadership, without going to business schools or studying management courses.

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