“The most consistently successful leader I’ve ever seen”.
Nick Robinson, ex BBC Political Editor, on Sir Alex Ferguson.
Yes, I was brought up in a family where football was unequivocally a more serious matter than life or death. But it wasn’t football that piqued my interest in Robinson’s quote, a preface to his documentary on Sir Alex Ferguson. It was the fact that Robinson, my hero, believes that Sir Alex is one of our greatest leaders, and certainly the most consistently successful one.
Robinson has mountains of credentials to spot greatness when he sees it. During his 10-year tenure as BBC Political Editor, he’s questioned, studied, lunched and travelled with the full rolling cast of political heavyweights. And he’s a Ferguson fan boy (and Manchester United fan).
For those who don’t know, (who are you?) Sir Alex is the most successful British Football Manager of all time. Manchester United won 49 trophies under his stewardship, which lasted for over a quarter of a century. If it weren’t true, it would be almost inconceivable.
I wanted to know what could be learnt from the most consistently successful leader. It’s testament to the esteem in which he’s held that he is Fellow to the Executive Education Programme at Harvard Business School. That’s right, Harvard run classes with him, led by Professor Anita Elberse, who commented:
“I think he’s one of the world’s all time great leaders… I think there’s something to be learned from him for virtually every leader in whatever industry it might be – whether it’s politics, or whether it’s business or whether we’re talking about another domain.”
So why was Sir Alex successful for so long? He pretty much summed it up in a word: consistency. He never changed his attitude, convictions or his philosophy. His players were consistent as was the club, forging an unassailable position as the greatest in the world – consistently.
When Sir Alex took over, Manchester United was languishing. When asked how he changed the culture of a struggling organisation, he said the key was building a club. For ‘club’ read everyone who contributes to its success, an all- embracing family including cleaners, groundsmen, canteen staff. He knew them all by name and their particular characters.
Whereas many other managers are results driven, placing a particular burden of responsibility on the first team players, Sir Alex recognised that it was a collective club effort. Align everyone behind the goal of success, and the rest would follow. This strategy relied heavily on his people skills – flawless and effortless – imbuing pride and motivation in all those around him.
The Harvard students attending the Ferguson leadership masterclass, were asked how much strong leadership is based on love and how much on fear. They answered both, because together they combine to create trust. And beyond anything else it was clear that the players trusted him, loved him and feared him. He was able to manage global superstar talent by knowing which buttons to push to motivate them, including the famous ‘hairdryer’. This was a technique Sir Alex employed, shouting at a player so close to his face that the hapless individual felt the noise and red heat of his anger.
Now I’m not suggesting for one moment that this particular practice is transferrable to our workplace nor indeed others. It’s bullying, after all. The important point is that he understood that motivation is a multi-faceted skill, delicately balanced between fear and love to earn respect. And the love he gave was most poignantly illustrated in an anecdote from Cristiano Ronaldo.
Sir Alex deployed a consistent approach with every new generation of players. As one trophy winning team hung up their boots, he took the raw talent of players as young as 17 and built the next. And the next. This was succession management as an art form.
Disclaimer: I am not a Manchester United fan. Honestly. If you haven’t seen the documentary but are interested in how someone can remain so successful, for so long, you may want to take a look, whatever your football allegiance. Even if you have none at all.