“This is not an attempt at false modesty, but sometimes I think that, with the teams and players I had at my disposal, we should have done more.” Sir Alex Ferguson, arguably the most successful football manager of his generation, wonders aloud if he truly deserves the adulation of the Old Trafford faithful. Leading is a surprisingly humble, anecdote-filled guide on how he coaxed the best out of a young group of men with the world at their feet.
Ferguson has already shone a light on his glittering 38-year career in management in his autobiography. Leading is about the skills and insights that turned him from a manager who thought he knew it all, into an extraordinary leader.
Being open to lifelong learning is key, says Ferguson who draws parallels between teachers and football managers. “Perhaps the most important element … is to inspire a group of people to perform at their very best.” The former Red Devils manager says listening and watching was part of his armory.
For someone as opinionated as Ferguson this comes as unexpected. But many football fans who attended training sessions will recall how he cut a silent, solemn figure on the training ground, his beady eyes following the ball and the players. Ferguson credits his assistant Archie Knox with his most valuable lesson.
“Until Archie gave me a finger wagging, I had not really understood that, as a manager, I was in danger of losing myself to the details.”
Those listening and watching skills were used to good effect on occasions, such as when he joined the players for a post-match ice bath after a fraught game against Leeds United in 1992. The players were raving about the abilities of one opponent, Eric Cantona. By the end of the year, Ferguson had signed him for the club.
But it wasn’t the big stars who were lavished with Ferguson’s special attention he claims, but the newer, younger members of the squad. In a lesson here for any manager, Ferguson says: “If I were running a company, I would always want to listen to the thoughts of its most talented youngsters, because they are the people most in touch with the realities of today and the prospects for tomorrow.”
Ferguson says for a company to maintain a high level of performance over an extended period, they must develop youngsters, invest in technology and good working conditions and provide the pathways to succeed.
Knowing when to step back and when to take control is also crucial. He recalls a high-stakes game at Liverpool FC in 1972 when he met the great Bill Shankly. Talking before the game, Ferguson asked the Liverpool manager if he shouldn’t be with his team, instead. Shankly responded, “Son, if I’ve got to be with my players for the deciding game of the season, there’s something wrong with them.”
Perhaps Ferguson’s greatest accolade is that he didn’t just manage one great set of players, but several; and each time, he got them working as a team. “We needed to change with the times, so we did, and this occurred on a regular four-year cycle,” he says. “Every member of a team has got to understand that they are part of a jigsaw puzzle. If you remove one piece, the picture doesn’t look right… no one at the club ever wins a thing without the others.”