How a dinner lady, a gaggle of geese & a bunch of steel workers may change your mind about Sir Alex

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Just the other day I finally got round to watching a programme that had been sitting on my Sky + planner for quite a while, as truth be known I only recorded it on a whim –  it was the documentary all about Sir Alex Ferguson & his success.


Now as a life-long Chelsea fan you can imagine I didn’t care much for Mr Ferguson when he was in charge at Man Utd and I had read all the stories about him being a bully etc., so was expecting to have all these beliefs confirmed.  I was wrong – listening to him talk I totally understood why he had been so successful.


As a result I came up with the ‘Ferguson 10 Steps to Successful Leadership’, which in my view could be applied in any business, organisation or industry by any leader at any time:-


Step 1: Everyone’s Equal

Ryan Giggs talked about how Sir Alex made the effort to know everyone’s name at the club, not just the 70 or so players he interacted with, but all the office staff and the catering staff.  He firmly believed everyone had a part to play in making the club successful – the dinner lady was just as important as Ronaldo!


Step 2: Discipline

He talked a lot about being in control, and this is probably where he got his ‘bully’ image from, but actually what he said made total sense.  He told his players to represent Manchester Utd at all times – how they look, how they behave, they were the face of the club and he would not allow them to tarnish its reputation.  He set out some really clear expectations and made sure everyone had clarity about how to uphold them.


Step 3: The ‘Hairdryer’

Probably what he is most well-known for, but in reality all he was doing was holding his players to account for their behaviour and their performance.  If they dropped below the standards he had clearly explained he told them it was unacceptable.


Step 4:  Tough Decisions 

It’s fair to say he made some pretty high profile and surprising decisions about when to let some big name players go, but actually listening to him it’s clear why he did it – no one person is more important than the team.  As soon as players egos got too big or they stepped outside of the standards expected and began to tarnish the reputation of the club, it was time for them to leave.


Step 5: I’m Not Always Right

There is one high profile player he did sell that even to this day he regrets – Japp Stam.  He thought his playing days were over, due to a bad injury, so he let him go.  He now admits he got it wrong.  Japp Stam went on to play for a further 6 seasons at the highest level.  Humility, the ability to admit you’re wrong- one of the most important qualities in any leader.


Step 6: Develop Your People

There’s the famous quote from Alan Hanson- ‘you’ll never win anything with kids’ – about what became known as the class of 92 (Giggs, Scholes, Butt & the Neville brothers) that came back to bite him when they won pretty much everything.  Sir Alex did not believe he was just managing one team; his whole mentality was one of building a legacy, a pipeline of talent that would sustain the club for the long term.  He nurtured young inexperienced novices and developed them into great players.


Step 7: Be Human

There’s a clip in the programme where Ronaldo talks about the fact his Dad was really ill, but it was during a critical part of the season.  He went to Sir Alex told him he was worried and upset, but did not want to let him or the team down.  Ferguson without a second thought told him to fly home immediately and stay as long as he needed.  Because of the way he cared for his people as human beings, not just players there to win a match, they were happy to go the extra mile for him.  Ronaldo to this day still calls him ‘My football father’.


Step 8: We’re in this Together

The players talked about the famous picture he had on his office wall of the workers building the Rockefeller Centre in New York all sitting on the steel frame high above the Manhattan skyline with no support wires etc (see below).  Ferguson would often refer his players to this picture and say ‘look what these guys achieved and all they had as support was each other – they protected one another, encouraged one another and achieved together’.  He also loved the Geese analogy for teamwork, which is well documented these days, about how they share the work load and reward success etc.. There’s a brilliant story in the programme ‘one day we were on the training pitch pre-season and these Geese flew over and I said to the players, see them birds up there they have flown approx. 4000 miles together, all I need is for you to perform in 38 games all things considered I don’t think that’s too much to ask’.


Step 9:  Focus on What Matters

He used a great example about the Liverpool team who turned up to the FA Cup final wearing white suits, red ties and sunglasses and when he saw them he knew straight away Man Utd would win the match (they did!).  When asked why, he said it was obvious they had got caught up in the razzmatazz of the final and the whole spectacle of the event and had forgotten all about the match they had to play.  They had allowed themselves to become distracted and taken their eye off the actual goal they needed to achieve.


Step 10: It’s All About Respect!

The question was posed to a group of London business school students did they think players tried hard because a) they were afraid of him or b) because they loved him.  Turns out neither was right it was purely and simply because they totally respected him, even if at times they were afraid and didn’t like him, they all completely trusted him and knew unequivocally  that he had the club’s, the team’s and ultimately their best interests at heart.


So there you have it – The Sir Alex Ferguson’s approach to leadership.  Whether you love him or hate him the results he achieved stand for themselves, he is quite simply the most successful football manager in the modern era, but what this programme helped me to see & I never thought I would say this, he achieved those results by being a great leader!


Thanks for reading



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