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Leading by Alex Ferguson (part one)

10th December 2015

It’s a funny old game and a mighty queer thing a football club. Having seen the inner workings of a few football clubs, followed Aberdeen FC and work with leaders to be the best they can be, it was a cert that I would be digging into “Leading” the book by Alex Ferguson.

Here is my first of two posts about it. This one – on the psychology of Alex Ferguson and the second on the nuggets of leadership.

“Leading”  was written with Michael Moritz and the premise of the book came from the visiting professor status Alex Ferguson has at Harvard. It is laid out in chapters which would lead one to believe that there is an overarching philosophy at work. By Fergie’s own admission there isn’t one and it is clear that the writing of this book was done by structured conversations rather than the author sitting down at the pc and hammering out his thinking.

The people in business who will take most from this book are owner managers of private companies not corporate executives. I hope to illustrate this.

Perhaps even they will be left feeling that not a great deal is truly transferable.  One is left more in awe at this force of nature called Fergie than having being educated in the techniques of leading.

One thing that is not much explored is Alex Ferguson’s football genius. His decision making was such that even the contentious malcontent  Roy Keane said  “whenever the boss called the shots at half time, no matter whether you liked it or not, he always called it right”. Whatever else can be ascribed to Fergie, football genius has to be the main moniker.

Like owner managers he was the Boss  It was his imprint that went on everything at Man Utd from the late 80’s (i.e. after he had weathered the original drought). Man Utd was then a big small business and now it is a reasonably sized medium one – don’t be swayed by the media attention or the world wide audiences.

In my work with entrepreneurs and those who build businesses I have regularly come across a  psychological phenomenon where the male entrepreneur as he grew up was encouraged, supported and given self belief by a strong adoring mother and the relationship with the father was distant, difficult or worse. I know a number of leading Scottish business builders in Scotland with this in their background. For a more academic insight into this see the work of Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries of INSEAD in Paris. Some of this is deeply Freudian!

So turning to Fergie’s book we find “my father was a man of few words. After I had scored three goals in one game and got home, he just handed out stick” and “by contrast, my mother and my granny used to be full of praise and their joy in my successes was evident”. “I wonder if my parents inadvertently supplied me with two engines  one that made me want to try harder and one that made me feel I was capable of anything”.

There is probably a PhD thesis to be written on the cultural effects on the psychology of the greatest sports coaches. The chapters on Fergie would consist of the influence of schooling in 19th and 20th century Scotland, Presbyterianism and personal responsibility, Freud and Paternalism,  Red Clydeside and working class solidarity. The latter is written about throughout the book and most notably about the players Ferguson most liked to sign and work with (all from very ordinary or deprived working class roots).

He writes about insecurity very candidly. “It was my own inner determination to avoid failure that always provided me with an extra special incentive to succeed.” and “I always had that fear of getting humiliated, and failure was always that wee thing at  the back of my mind. I kept silently saying to myself …….failure, don’t fail”

And in his leading of players it came out “if you hope to motivate people you need to know when to prey on their insecurities and when to bolster their self confidence” and more graphically……”I’m not sure there is anything that can prepare someone for a dose of Glaswegian bluntness, doled out by a shipyard worker’s son particularly when  that man is in ultimate control of your destiny”

In numerous anecdotes we also pick up on how he read people and indeed did bolster their confidence in quiet one to one conversations. The number of his ex players who are now managers or first team coaches is perhaps the most observable testimony to his impact and influence. We all tend to want to emulate the behaviours and actions of those we admire and follow in their footsteps.

“Relentless pursuit of excellence” could have been the subtitle to this book and his leadership approach was based on setting standards – with a twist. “my job was to set very high standards it was to help everyone else to believe that they could of things they didn’t think they were capable of. It was to chart a course that had not been pursued before”. Standards of excellence without measure rather than standards of compliance.

He personally avoided complacency to an extent that is almost a disorder. “Even after a champions league victory I was the next day thinking ahead. How do we top this? How do we get another triumph? I never wanted to be torpedoed by complacency.”

To my mind the character of Alex Ferguson was wed to these powerful forces:

Never take anything for granted. Fear of failure. Strive for perfection. Need to achieve

However the overall impression is of relentlessness coupled to superhuman levels of energy with an addiction…… winning.%22Leading%22 AF copy



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