Sir Alex Ferguson’s record of achievements speak for themselves. Following the announcement of his retirement from direct management of Manchester United, copious articles were written by the press and the corporate world under the heading of ‘leadership’ to signify the special nature of what he has done. David Moyes, former Everton manager, has the unenviable challenge of taking the reigns at Old Trafford.
Leadership is a highly contested topic, particularly with the increasing number of derailments. What makes for the best leader? What are the measures of success? How do you identify leadership potential? Significantly, how long does it take to become a leader? All to often, leadership potential is identified as residing within those who consistently demonstrate success throughout their careers on a consistent basis. But is there something wrong with this picture? If you refer to Sir Alex Ferguson or his ‘leadership’ abilities, we are inexorably led to the conclusion that he does not fit the caricature of being one who has always been successful in football.
During Sir Alex’s time as manager of St Mirren (1974-1978) he was successful in what he did with the club, transforming them from a lower-half second division team to first division champions during his tenure. However, there were a number of negative undertones including breach of contract allegations, a claim of wrongful dismissal and some fairly negative feedback. The tribunal intimated that Ferguson was “particularly petty” and ‘immature” (The Guardian, 2006). Apparently, the St Mirren Chairman at the time, Mr Todd, also suggested that Alex had “no managerial ability”. Perhaps in the traditional sense of organisations this would have signalled the end of Ferguson’s managerial career. On the contrary, the evidence of success was clear, even more so when we consider that the ‘average’ age of the team was 19. Additionally, Ferguson and his team at St Mirren unearthed a raft a talent including Frank McGarvey and Billy Stark, among others, who went on to have highly successful playing careers with Celtic and Aberdeen respectively. Clearly Ferguson had a mixed bag of fortunes off-the-field, even a plausible expression of sour grapes, but his team on-the-field was exceptionally successful. In May 2008, an interview with Todd in The Guardian signalled that Ferguson was sacked by St Mirren for breach of contract in relation to joining Aberdeen. Blame for the fiasco was apportioned to Aberdeen for not approaching St Mirren to discuss the issue of compensation.
On joining Aberdeen Alex Ferguson inherited a team that was playing well, finishing second in the league the previous season with a strong unbeaten run. The team had reached a number of finals and eventually came to win the Scottish League and other domestic honours. However, Aberdeen’s crowning glory under Ferguson came in the 1984 where the Dons progressed in the European Cup Winners’ Cup, beating Real Madrid 2-1 in the final. As a member of the Scotland national side coaching team, Ferguson took over as manager for qualification following the death of Jock Stein. The Scottish team qualified for the 1986 World Cup Finals, but Ferguson stepped down following the national side’s early exit from the competition.
In the Autumn of 1986 Alex Ferguson began his 26-and-a-half year term as manager of Manchester United. Performance in the league was poor due to a lack of player discipline, but there were noticeable signs of improvement as the team moved from bottom to mid-table during the season. Ferguson also appointed Archie Knox as his assistant manager, mirroring that which had preceded at Aberdeen. In his second season as manager he brought Manchester United to second place in the league. The 1988-89 season dipped as the team finished eleventh in the table, and in the following season 1989-90 results remained extremely poor with the Manchester club narrowly avoiding relegation. A banner at that time read: “Three years of excuses and it’s still crap…ta-ra Fergie.” At this juncture there were calls among supporters and journalists alike for Ferguson to be sacked. Needless to say, Ferguson would have been disappointed with his lack of success at the club, but he was indeed fortunate if not surprised to have the backing of the club’s board who recognised the impact that injuries had on the availability of playing staff at the manager’s disposal. In the same season, United were offered a glimmer of hope as they went on to win the FA cup. On balance, though it was taking longer than expected, Ferguson’s winning pedigree began to reveal itself.
In season 1990-91 the team finished 6th, one could suggest a demonstration that performance was beginning to improve, although the transformation to league champions had not occurred yet. There was however, another glimpse of things to come when the team reach the final and subsequently beat Barcelona 2-1 in the European Cup Winners’ Cup, a feat previously achieved as manager of Aberdeen. Season 1991-92 saw the team life more silverware , winning both the League Cup and the Super Cup for the first time. In the league they came second to Leeds United. Irrespective of how performance in 1991-92 is dressed, it was by any measure a successful year. Many managers can span an entire career in the absence of a league of cup win. Yet it seems that there was a weight of expectation from United’s support to seal their deal with Ferguson through a league win.
Alex Ferguson delivered on his potential by steering the team to a league championship win in 1992-93, the season in which they signed the iconic Eric Cantona from Leeds United. In an interesting juxtaposition with Ferguson’s tenure as Manchester United manager, it had been 26 years since the club had won the league championship. United also went on to Clinch the FA cup, repeating his earlier league and cup double at Aberdeen.
Under Alex Ferguson, Manchester United continued to win both domestically and in Europe. One unforgettable moment was the spirit of the team in the 1999 UEFA Champions League final where United came from a goal behind to equalise late in the match, winning in extra time against Bayern Munich.
They say that football is a funny old game, it certainly is if the achievements of Sir Alex Ferguson and his players are anything to go by. Not only did he bring out the best in his players, he also carved out highly successful careers for those players who were brought through the club’s youth system, a feat that he achieved early on at St Mirren.
One cannot easily summarise the career of Sir Alex Ferguson, other than to use words such as legendary, iconic, prolific and awe-inspiring. However, one cannot help but think that the support of the board and his own resilience and perseverance were critical components in his recipe for success. Notwithstanding that which has been outlined previously, he also knew how to manage, read his players and motivate them. Perhaps most importantly he had a real appreciation of the beautiful game, a strategist without equal in football. In reality, how many organisations would have stuck by Alex in the hope that he could turn the situation around? In essence, Sir Alex Ferguson was much more than a professional manager, he is an Elite performer. The goal of our own programme of interventions at Elite Professional Performance seeks to move performance, health and well-being from the exemplary to the exceptional. Contact us for a discussion on what we can offer you and your organisation. Lets get the ball rolling…
- The Times: Sir Alex Ferguson is a decisive leader who rules with compassion.
- The Independent: Sir Alex Ferguson’s leadership skills may be studied at Harvard, but is he right? We ask a panel of experts to dissect the Manchester United manager’s lessons for life.
- Harvard Gazette: Sir Alex Leads the Way.
- London Business School’s Blog: Leadership lessons from Sir Alex Ferguson.
- Michael Mortiz via LinkedIn: The Winning Ways of a Great Leader.
- BBC News: Nick Robinson: Why Sir Alex is greatest leader we have.
- 3 Minute Mile: Sir Alex Ferguson and Leadership.