Leadership Lessons from Sir Alex Ferguson

Eight interesting lessons on leadership from Sir Alex Ferguson have been published in the HBR here, and a summary on Linked In, here. Harvard Prof Anita Elberse worked closely with Sir Alex to examine his management approach. Sir Alex spent an incredible 26 seasons managing Manchester United football club. Screen Shot 2013-09-10 at 14.30.58

I posted my own take on Sir Alex last year, so I was interested to see where his views coincided with my observations. Here are my highlights from the article.

1. Relentless renovation

I highlighted a quality Sir Alex shares with many other great leaders: constantly renovating your brand to keep it fresh and competitive. In the case of Manchester United, renovation is about the team, as one report explains:

"Ferguson has the uncanny knack of rebuilding teams when he feels that the stars are past their best. He had the vision to bring about fresh faces who had even more desire than the previous generation."

This is backed up by Sir Alex, with three of his eight lessons referring to this:

Lesson 2. Dare to Rebuild Your Team: "The hardest thing is to let go of a player who has been a great guy. If you see the change, the deterioration, you have to ask yourself what things are going to be like two years ahead."

Lesson 4. Never, Ever Cede Control: "There are occasions when you have to ask yourself whether certain players are affecting the dressing-room atmosphere, the performance of the team. If they are, you have to cut the cord."

Lesson 8. Never Stop Adapting: "Most people with my kind of track record don't look to change. But I always felt I couldn't afford not to change."

2. Lead by example

 I've posted many times on the idea that great leaders lead by example. They don't talk about the brand. Rather, they are the living personification of the brand. And this comes through in one of Sir Alex's lessons in the article:

Lesson 3. Set High Standards — and Hold Everyone To Them: "I constantly told my squad that working hard all your life is a talent. But I expected even more from the star players. I expected them to work even harder."

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3. Home-grown talent

It was interesting to reads Ferguson's approach to investing in home-grown talent. This reminded me of the approach at P&G, who invest in hiring and training people at ground level, and then promoting only from within. 

Lesson 1. Build from the Foundation: "From the moment I got to Manchester United, I thought of only one thing: building a football club. I wanted to build right from the bottom. That was in order to create fluency and a continuity of supply to the first team. With this approach, the players all grow up together, producing a bond that, in turn, creates a spirit."

In conclusion, Sir Alex's long term commitment, vision and action plan in an inspiring example, in a world of quick fixes where the focus is all too often on the short term.