“For a player – and for any human being – there is nothing better than hearing ‘Well done’.” – Sir Alex Ferguson
For 27 years, Sir Alex Ferguson managed Manchester United. In that time, he changed the culture of a club that hadn’t won a league title in 26 years into one that was a perennial threat to take home silverware from a range of competitions. In true Fergie style, he retired at the top, having led the Reds to the top of the Premiership once more.
In advance of his newly released autobiography, creatively titled My Autobiography, articles are popping up that attempt to distill Fergie’s life into a short list of lessons. I read one such article, Sir Alex Ferguson’s Seven Leadership Secrets, over at LinkedIn, and quite enjoyed the points it made. Below, I’ll both reproduce them and provide my own take, as well as add a thing or two that I think were overlooked.
#1. Face tough reality and sort problems out head-on
When he took charge of Manchester United, Fergie inherited a team that was approaching three decades without a league title. The only way to change this was to assess the situation, face the realities, and address them.
Too many leaders are loathe to accept reality and make the tough decisions that will change it. In my opinion, this is a fundamental failure as a leader. It might not be easy, but it’s necessary. An organization needs a strong leader who will objectively assess reality, make hard choices, and take necessary action – but it isn’t only “hierarchical” leaders who should be doing so. In a truly effective organization, people at all levels should be encouraged or even expected to address challenges. It could be as small (but still difficult) as having that tough conversation about a conflict, or as big as making your boss see a hard reality that fundamentally alters your business; in either case, it is irresponsible to just sit and wait for someone else to take care of the issue.
From a manager’s standpoint, sometimes this manifests in needing to give some tough feedback to a team member (although, again, I’d say the positions could easily be reversed and team members should feel comfortable to approach managers with feedback). As Fergie puts it, “No one likes to get criticized. But in the dressing room, it’s necessary that you point out your players’ mistakes. I do it right after the game. I don’t wait until Monday, I do it, and it’s finished. I’m on to the next match.”
It can be really tough to be critical, but it’s the responsible thing to do and you can take comfort when it comes from a place of genuinely wanting to help the recipient grow.
#2. Only accept winning
I’m of two minds here. Yes, winning is critically important in sports and business, but winning at all costs can lead to catastrophe. That being said, I get what the author is saying, and I especially agree when he says, “The temptation…is to get stuck in the mindset of incremental improvements, where 5% sales growth will get them through. However, as they come up against the big dreamers…they would do well to adopt the mindset of the binary world of sport, where there are only winners and losers.”
This is a similar point to one I reiterate to my team at work: working harder at the same things and finding incremental improvements will lead to incremental growth, but massive growth comes from true disruption and finding entirely new ways of doing things and new things to do.
#3. No one is bigger than the team
Even a strong team can be poisoned by an out-of-control ego. This is another tough reality for leaders: the ego must be brought under control, or eliminated from the team. I really don’t think there’s any way around it. You might experience short-term gain by keeping a high-performer around despite their poisonous influence, but you will pay the price later. Better to preserve team unity, as that will protect productivity in the long run.
#4. Command loyalty as a true father figure
Through your words, but more importantly through your actions, a strong leader can forge a bond with the team that will allow the whole group to weather any storm. There are entire books about this subject alone, but a few simple tactics can take you a long way:
- Praise in public. Fergie says, “For a player – and for any human being – there is nothing better than hearing ‘Well done’.”
- Criticize in private, and then move on. Fergie says, “There is no point in criticizing a player forever. And I never discuss an individual player in public. The players know that. It stays indoors.”
- Accept failure as a consequence of effort and development
- Seek and consider input, then decide and commit to action
- …and so on
Right? This isn’t complicated…just set your ego aside and do what’s best for the organization.
#5. Work hard and stay fresh
The first part, “work hard”, should be a no brainer. There are few things that will rile me up as much as people who just kinda coast through things. I work hard in everything I do…it’s one of the characteristics with which I most identify. When I was an Arena Manager, I did the best damn job resurfacing the ice rink that I could. That same role required many custodial tasks, and I mopped that floor with energy and dedication. If you apply this approach to everything in life, it would take a cruel environmental circumstance to prevent you from succeeding.
For many people, the second part (“stay fresh”) does not come naturally. Some of us have a propensity to just work, work, work, and it feels wrong, somehow, to not be working. Well, the fact is (I’m not going to search out and cite studies, but trust me on this) that without sufficient frequency and duration of breaks, our performance decreases significantly. This is true over the long term (take some vacation days!) and short term (take some breathers throughout the day).
I’ve personally struggled with this: despite understanding the research, I often feel compelled to work. However, in recent years I’ve been reasonably diligent about scheduling breaks. As perhaps contradictory as it sounds, I attack staying fresh, and so so with energy and commitment!
Fergie puts it this say, “Mental and physical fitness are two sides of the same coin. You have to build rest into any program. That’s another thing that applies in all worlds, not just sport. I don’t think you can do high-pressure jobs now without being physically fit… there were times I could see [the leader] was getting tired, and I was thinking he’s probably doing too much himself, not delegating, not spreading the load.”
Relating back to the first point, he adds that, “Being able to analyze a situation and then decide what to do – that is such an important part of these top jobs. Reaching the right decisions under pressure.”
#6. Build an enduring institution of which people want to be a part
It’s much easier to recruit when people are knocking on your door, and that is a byproduct of creating something that is attractive. When I was building out Fusion FC, I was thinking beyond the short-term, and beyond the single league in which we first competed. I envisioned a true soccer club, comprised of many individuals who each played on one or more of our club’s teams, with those teams playing in many leagues in the region. Our policy was to only invite and accept players who fit our expectation of character, commitment, and skill, and in doing so we knew that success would follow. By building a solid reputation, both in terms of results and in terms of character, we then attracted more players who fit our mold.
As Fergie puts it, “The first thought for 99% of new managers is to make sure they win – to survive. They bring experienced players in, often from their previous clubs. But I think it is important to build a structure for a football club, not just a football team. You need a foundation. And there is nothing better than seeing a young player make it to the first team. The idea is that the younger players are developing and meeting the standards that the older ones have set before.”
#7. Leave on a high
We can’t always do this, but it sure sounds like the way to go out!
Personally, I would generalize this a bit to say, “Leave at the right time.” This is perhaps the hardest decision a leader has to make, and one with which I’ve personally struggled. When to leave might be the toughest reality a leader faces, and leaving itself the toughest action to take.
Bonus: Change the playing field
While not explicitly addressed in the article, I was always by how capable Sir Alex was of manipulating his environment. The article touches on this a bit, when it says, “One of the most revealing passages in Sir Alex’s new autobiography is when he deals with the matter of “Fergie Time”. He admits that theatrically tapping on his watch as matches reached their conclusion was a psychological ploy.”
Fergie was a master at seeking and finding any advantage, be it by creating demand in the transfer window (e.g., to force rivals to pay more or to drive up the price he would receive for his own players), having a go at the referee, airing complaints loudly in the pre- and post-match press conferences, and getting into the heads of the opposition.
While I’m not going to sit here (I’m sitting as I type this) and condone underhanded tactics, there is a lesson to be had about stepping into your circle of influence to create the best situation for success.
Bonus: Embrace change
The best leaders stay on top of new developments, and know which ones are worth adopting. They have a keen ability to spot and avoid flavour-of-the-week trends in favour of devoting attention to truly disruptive advances. Fergie was one such leader. From the article, “This would-be dinosaur has actually moved with the times, embracing new technology and medical advances to build a state-of-the-art training facility at Carrington. Ferguson has kept on developing his style and systems – and, professing that the modern player is somewhat more fragile – even claims to have mellowed a bit over the years.”
Change can be tough. Change can be scary. Change means…well, that things will be different. As a leader, you can define your own change or have change thrust upon you, because things are going to change, whether you want them to or not. Accepting that reality and embracing it to bring it under your control is another tough, but necessary act of leadership.