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Lessons in Leadership from Sir Alex Ferguson



As a local Manchester lad growing up down the road from Old Trafford it was only natural that I became a fan of Manchester United.


Many people say you don’t really choose your football team, you inherit it. In that respect I guess I was lucky because I grew up supporting a football team that had a truly great manager, some say the best manager football has ever seen.


As I got older and more interested in the success of sports teams and the life lessons that run parallel with the game, I grew in admiration for Sir Alex and his ability to sustain success at the very highest level in one of the toughest industries to succeed in.


He didn’t just build a football team, he built a football club. There are so many lessons that can be learnt from his success and fortunately for us he has shared these lessons through interviews, books and lectures.


You can imagine how I felt when the work I was doing in sport - inspiring the younger generation, was recognised by him several years ago – a dream come true for me and a very proud moment.


I have also had the privilege of working with players who have come through the Manchester United system. In my work in the business world, I often refer back to the world of sport quite regularly, the lessons I have learnt from working with world class athletes and of course the lessons I have learnt from studying Sir Alex.


Recently I have been re-reading his latest book Leading. It is full of wisdom and I thought I would share some of his wisdom in this article.


Lesson One


We were given two ears, two eyes and one mouth for a reason. Sir Alex’s words not mine!

In the opening chapter of Leading, he talks about the power of observation and how it was a cornerstone of his success. Not just in understanding and maximising the potential of his players, but also in discovering opportunities and learning.


The first of these methods was the power of listening. Quite a rare skill indeed. Just think about all the people you know and how many of them are actually really skilled listeners?

Years ago when I was on a coaching course, my eyes were really opened to the power of listening and how I had never really given it much thought.


No surprise when you realise how little emphasis is placed on the skill of listening in our schooling, yet how much time do we spend learning how to read, write and speak a first language?


On the course were taught the difference between hearing somebody, thinking about what you are going to say next and actually listening to what a person has to say. I really struggled with it at first and even though I have greatly improved, it still takes concentration and practice many years later.


But it is worth it because as Sir Alex said in his book ‘it always pays to listen to others, it’s like enrolling in a continuous, lifelong free education’. And you can always discard what is not useful afterwards.


One great example he gives is when he lost a game away at Norwich and out of respect he went in to the opposing managers office after the game to say hello even though all the staff were in there celebrating their victory. He said it certainly wasn’t easy to do that but he went in and he just listened mainly to what the coaching staff were saying about their own players and who was being singled out for praise – he made a mental note of this and then placed all of those players on United’s watch list for the future.


When you think about that, it is incredible. This was only in 2012 and Ferguson at this point was already viewed by many as the greatest football manager of all time, yet here he was in the away managers office following a defeat, listening to the thoughts of their staff wondering if he could learn something.


How many other managers would do the same in his position?


Lesson Two


The second form of observation he talks about is watching others and he breaks it down into two parts;


Watching the detail and watching the big picture. He explains why both are very important and shares a great lesson he learnt early in his management career.


During his time at Aberdeen he had hired Archie Knox as his assistant manager but he had continued to take all of the training sessions himself. After a while, Knox insisted that Ferguson took a step back and Ferguson said he was very reluctant to do so at first but agreed to give it a trial.


In Ferguson’s own words;


‘Somewhat reluctantly I bowed to his wishes and, though it took me a bit of time to understand you can see a lot more when you are not in the thick of things, it was the most important decision I ever made about the way I managed and led’.


The most important management decision he ever made.


He said that when he stepped back from the sidelines, his field of view widened and he became aware of a lot more things going on – he could pick up on the moods, energy and habits of his players.


By stepping back, relinquishing a bit of control, delegating and trusting his staff – he allowed himself the opportunity to be able to zoom into the detail and zoom out to see the whole picture, which helped him to have a much greater insight into what decisions needed to be made.


In another great example, very early in his career in 1969 West Germany were over in Scotland training and he asked for permission to go and watch them practice. He watched the training for an hour and a half and was intrigued by how much of the time they were focused purely on practising possession rather than doing physical work like a lot of other teams at the time.


That one encounter stayed with him his whole career and became part of the fabric of the training sessions at Manchester United during his whole reign there.


Lesson Three


The final lesson is one that definitely resonates and is the driver for me sharing this article with you; reading.


Sir Alex has a great appetite for reading books, not just from other successful sports coaches – namely John Wooden and Vince Lombardi (both worth looking up) but he also liked to read books on military history and political history.


Looking to other industries, where great leadership is needed and indeed delivered, Ferguson deepened his own knowledge and perspective on leadership.


I know he used to love telling stories to his players to keep them engaged at certain key moments in a season and I’m sure much of his knowledge came from reading , meaning he brought his stories to life and engaged his players by speaking about topics beyond football.


All of these elements play an important part in his ability to inspire people to go above and beyond for him as a leader.


The great thing about reading is it doesn’t cost much but you can learn from some of the greatest minds there have ever been.


I hope you have enjoyed these insights and they inspire you equally as they did me.


Until next time,


Martin

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