How to lead like Sir Alex Ferguson

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Sir Alex Ferguson Wayne Rooney

Venture capitalist, philanthropist and author Sir Michael Moritz has co-written Leading with Sir Alex Ferguson. He reveals the lessons that can be learnt from the managerial legend, and those that can’t

Ask the average armchair football buff about Sir Alex Ferguson and, amid lavish praise – it takes a peculiar fan not to be dazzled by Ferguson’s 38-trophy haul in 27 seasons helming Manchester United – you’ll likely also hear adjectives such as “stubborn” and “fiery”.

Such is the reputation of a man who reacts to criticism like a slug to salt, and famously kicked a football boot into the abundantly moisturised features of David Beckham when a 2003 FA Cup tie didn’t go his way.

Ferguson’s new book, Leading, however, which outlines the principles behind his remarkably successful management career, portrays not only a more generous character, but also a more self-aware one than we’re led to believe: a man who whetted his leadership tools over the years with vigorously self-critical auto-didacticism.

“He’s a thoughtful, cogitative man,” explains Welsh investment guru Sir Michael Moritz, who co-wrote Leading and, in the process, became a close friend and confidante.

“He’s the first to admit that when he entered management at a tender age – he was in his early thirties – he had received no formal training. He managed by instinct, and he pursued the approach he thought best.”

What Ferguson deemed “best”, says Moritz, changed profoundly over decades. “It’s a mark of any great leader when they’re not content to rest on their laurels, and are willing to examine all possibilities; to experiment with new ways of doing things – whether it’s recruiting, communicating, inspiring, motivating or delegating. That all comes with time.”

Sir Michael Moritz on Sir Alex Feguson

Sir Michael Moritz

The main shift in Ferguson’s approach over the decades is neatly encapsulated in a short chapter entitled, simply, ‘Control’, in which he says: ”There’s a big difference between control and power.”

This distinction came to underpin his entire management philosophy – not least when he was man-managing people who were, in many cases, fearful of him.

“He was very aware of the fact that, in his later years, he was old enough to be the grandfather of some of these players and his reputation preceded him,” explains Moritz. “He knew that to them he could easily be a remote, intimidating figure.” His response to this realisation, as outlined in the book, was to avoid directly addressing younger players during team talks and instead “concentrate on the ones who could look me in the eye”.

The aim was to preserve the younger men’s confidence: had he made them “afraid of their own shadows”, as he puts it, his power would have remained undiminished – but his control over the team dynamic would have slipped away.

When recruiting, Ferguson learnt over the years to plot and execute his ethos ruthlessly. He insisted on knowing everything, including upbringing and background, about a player he was scouting. Moritz approves.

“I’m an enormous believer in the fact that an individual is shaped by the first 12 to 14 years of their life,” he says. “This phase is where ambition, drive, hunger, tenacity come from.”

Of course, it’s not always practical to do this in the business world – “It’s very easy to look at someone’s LinkedIn profile and figure out where they’ve worked and what they’ve done over the last few years, but it’s very difficult to tell what they’re like as individuals,” as Moritz puts it – but it demonstrates the value of getting to know potential employees on a personal level as well as a professional one.

Paradoxically, in order to harness complete control of the organisation over which he presided, Ferguson needed to understand how to delegate: once again, says Moritz, it was something he learnt on the job.

“In his early years he was a one-man band, and it wasn’t until he got to Aberdeen, where an assistant coach, Archie Knox, whacked him very severely across the knuckles asking why [Ferguson had] bothered to hire him, that he began to learn the art of delegation.

“He then saw that he could be a much more effective leader by working through and with people rather than trying to, as he put it, ‘write the programme notes, sell the tickets and make sure there are enough pork pies for everyone’.

“Ferguson has said that the lesson he got from Knox, about the importance of leading from the touchline rather than the centre of the field, was worth half the price of a Harvard MBA.”

Not everything Ferguson says is applicable to business leaders. At one point admitting that his tendency to ‘crack the whip’ may have cost Manchester United titles, he implies that discipline is more important than success – something a modern business leader might take issue with.

But it’s impossible to come away from Leading without suspecting that Ferguson’s arsenal of skills – and particularly his belief in being puppet master but not despot – would’ve carved him out a vastly successful leadership career in any walk of life. Moritz summarises his key traits as follows:

“The confidence to believe in your own conviction; the sense that your role as a leader is to persuade people to do things they never thought they’d be able to achieve and to set aspirations at an appropriately high level; the ability to be utterly dispassionate and clinical about the need to perform at the highest level; the refusal to tolerate slackers, while having a fair and equitable way of treating people.”

It’s all enough to make one wonder whether the phrase ‘control freak’ really deserves its negative connotations.

Leading by Alex Ferguson with Michael Moritz is out on 22 September (Hodder and Stoughton, £25). Go to hodder.co.uk

Sir Michael Moritz CV

1954 Born to a Jewish family in Cardiff.

1978 Receives a Master of Business Administration degree from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, having already gained a BA in history from Christ Church, Oxford.

1984 While working at Time, his book The Little Kingdom: The private story of Apple computer comes out. An updated version is issued in 2010.

1999 Invests $12.5m in fledgling start-up Google on behalf of Sequoia Capital. Other early investments included Yahoo!, PayPal and YouTube.

2013 Appointed KBE for services to British economic interests and philanthropy. Moritz is a Giving Pledge signatory, which commits him to donating at least half his wealth to charity.

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About author

Nick Scott

Nick Scott

A former editor-in-chief of The Rake and deputy editor of the Australian edition of GQ, Nick has had features published in titles including Esquire, The Guardian, Observer Sport Monthly and Rolling Stone Australia and is a contributing editor to Director magazine. He has interviewed celebrities including Hugh Jackman, Daniel Craig and Elle Macpherson, as well as business people including Sir Richard Branson, Charles Middleton and Nick Giles and Michael Hayman MBE.

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